The McKay Stitcher: The Machine That Revolutionized Footwear Production
On 7 February 1870, Henry H. Warden, of the Russell & Company trade firm in Shanghai, wrote to colleague John Cunningham. Cunningham served as an agent in Boston for the Walsh, Hall & Company of Nagasaki in the tea trade. In this particular letter, Warden replied to an inquiry Cunningham had made concerning a potential shoe business in China.
"Thanks for yours of Nov 30 -
As to the McKay Machine. If it
is capable of turning out 4 @ 5000
shoes a day (those are your figures)
I should say it might be run
here to advantage for a week,
the Leather coming with it, and
supply China and the regions
round about for a year, I
fancy it is only adapted to making
foreign shoes. E. C. will be able
to give you a better opinion
than I can - He will be able
also to say whether you are
likely to find anything here
worth your while. I did not
forget to speak to him about
What is the McKay machine that Henry Warden references in this letter from John Cunningham papers?
The McKay stitcher was a sewing machine created by inventor Lyman Reed Blake and improved by businessman and self-educated engineer Gordon McKay. Prior to the introduction of this stitcher, shoes were hand stitched in a time-consuming and piecemeal manner. The machine revolutionized the speed of footwear production by machine sewing the uppers to the soles.
In 1858, Lyman Reed Blake initially invented an interesting, but not entirely functional, sewing machine. Foreseeing a future in shoe machinery, Gordon McKay bought the patent from Lyman Reed Blake in 1858 for an immediate $8,000. An agreement was reached that Lyman Reed Blake would receive a $72,000 share of future profits. The entrepreneurial engineer for whom the machine is named then improved upon the design until submitting an enhanced patent in 1862. The McKay machine produced finished shoes far faster than hand stitching; it is often credited with giving the North a material edge during the Civil War while the Confederates went without proper footwear.
After the war, having found his market in shoe machinery, Gordon McKay made all moves to retain his profits. In 1866, he designed a leasing system for the McKay machinery which demanded royalties for each pair of shoes made. The low cost of leasing the machines allowed manufacturers to engage in the production of shoes. This production in turn furthered Gordon McKay's business as he secured a profit for each pair made by his machines.
In his letter, Warden refers Cunningham to the expertise of his brother, Edward Cunningham (“E. C.”), a senior partner of the Russell & Company trade firm in Hong Kong. The John Cunningham papers at the Society do not contain information about further footwear business plans in China or correspondence between the brothers about the McKay stitcher. However, it is still a true mark of global prowess that Henry H. Warden and John Cunningham discussed the introduction of the McKay machine to Asian markets less than a decade after its invention.
| Published: Friday, 7 February, 2014, 1:22 PM
A Long Winter Walk: The Banishment of Roger Williams
Over the last couple of weeks, we in Massachusetts were reminded of the unpredictability and harshness of the winter in New England. Of course, we are not alone and a significant portion of the rest of the country received an even greater shock. Still, the driving snow, sub-zero temperatures, and bitter winds force us to remember what a coastal winter can be. But if you think your commute was bad, the experience of Roger Williams might make you turn up the heat and clutch your hot chocolate a bit more tightly.
In October of 1635, after various hearings and disputes over intersecting matters of theology and secular power, Massachusetts Bay banished Roger Williams forcing him to leave the colony’s borders. But with winter coming on and Williams falling ill the court allowed him the courtesy of commuting the sentence until spring on the condition that Williams would not speak publicly in the interim. He consented to this term and agreed not to publicly proclaim his views.
This agreement did not prevent Williams from welcoming his friends and followers into his home and holding private discussions. However, the Massachusetts court viewed even this as a breach of his promise and, in January, 1636, sent armed soldiers led by Captain John Underhill to Williams’ home in Salem to arrest him and put him on a ship bound for England.
As a blizzard and accompanying gale blustered out of the northeast, the ailing Williams received a secret message from none other than Governor John Winthrop, alerting him to the approaching soldiers. By the time Underhill and his men arrived, Williams had been gone three days.
Williams escaped with his life, liberty, and little else. Leaving his wife and children behind until he could find a new home, he plunged into the winter woods by himself. "He entered the wilderness ill and alone…Winthrop described that winter as ‘a very bad season.’ The cold was intense, violent; it made all about him crisp and brittle…The cold froze even Narragansett Bay, an extraordinary event, for it is a large ocean bay riven by currents and tidal flows."i
"But the cold may also have saved his life: it made the snow a light powder . . . it lacked the killing weight of heavy moisture-laden snow. The snow also froze rivers and streams which he would otherwise have had to ford."ii A silver lining to the winter clouds is one that we benefited from during our last storm and surely made our shoveling much easier.
That Roger Williams endured his trek from Salem to Narragansett Bay is no doubt a testament to his personal relationships with the native peoples and their willingness to give him shelter. Yet, "There was no comfort in this shelter. For fourteen weeks he did 'not know what Bread or Bed did meane.'"iii
And yet Roger Williams survived this ordeal and soon thrived in his new home of Providence, itself a further attestation to the good relations that Williams shared with the indigenous tribes. While Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies both were formed by English settlers putting roots down in a spot without much thought for the original inhabitants, Williams was able to secure a piece of land with the blessing of the Narragansett sachem Canonicus and his nephew Miantonomi, two men who were otherwise ill-disposed toward the English.
"Canonicus and Miantonomi gave Williams permission to settle there after negotiating what seemed clear boundaries. Williams later declared that Canonicus 'was not I say to be stirred with money to sell his land to let in Foreigners. Tis true he recd presents and Gratuities many of me: but it was not thouhsands nor ten thouhsands of mony could have bought of him and English Entrance into this Bay.' He said the land was 'purchasd by Love.'"iv
Though we grumbled about the cold and snow that we experienced last week, chances are the memories are already fading. Williams' journey, though, had a lasting effect: "Thirty-five years later he would refer to that 'Winter snow wch I feele yet.'"
To find out more about the life of Roger Williams, try these biographies:
- - Barry, John M., Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Chuch, State, and the Birth of Liberty (New York: Viking Penguin, 2012).
- Gaustad, Edwin S., Roger Williams (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).
- Winslow, Ola Elizabeth, Master Roger Williams: a biography (New York: Macmillan, 1957).
Also, visit our online catalog, ABIGAIL, and search for Williams, Roger as an author to see what works the MHS holds written by Williams or where he appears in other manuscript collections.
iBarry, John M., Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, state, and the Birth of Liberty (New York: Viking Penguin, 2012) 213.
iiBarry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, 213.
iiiBarry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, 214.
ivBarry, Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul, 217.
| Published: Friday, 17 January, 2014, 11:43 AM
Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch, Post 29
The following excerpt is from the diary of Stephen Greenleaf Bulfinch.
Jan. 2d. 1864
In regard to public events, the year has witnessed many calamities, through the rage of civil war; but God has sustained us, and it now seems as if the end, - and a righteous and permanent end, - was nigh. May He grant its speedy attainment!
| Published: Wednesday, 15 January, 2014, 1:00 AM
Party Politics: The Adamses' Jackson Ball
The women of the Adams family may not have held public office themselves, but they were vital to their husbands' political careers. Abigail aided John both through her counsel and astute management of their property during his long absences. Louisa Catherine Adams, on the other hand, choosing to remain near her husband at his various posts, used her charm and entertaining skills to showcase John Quincy to the political world in her parlor.
Perhaps her greatest triumph in this vein came on 8 January 1824, the ninth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, an important victory for the United States at the end of the War of 1812. Louisa hosted a grand ball to honor the hero of the battle, Andrew Jackson.
The Jackson Ball that Louisa planned was a magnificent affair that took over two weeks for the family to prepare. Five hundred invitations were issued to congressmen, cabinet members, and the social elite of Washington, and newspapers estimated that potentially 1,000 people attended the ball that required the Adamses to install pillars to support the upper floors of their F Street, Washington, D.C., home. Wreaths, garland, and roses covered the walls, while delicate chalked eagles and flowers graced the floors and guests were treated to a sumptuous buffet. "Mr Adams and I took our stations near the door that we might be seen by our guests and be at the same time ready to receive the General to whom the fete was given," Louisa recalled in her diary. "He arrived at nine o’clock and I took him round the Rooms and introduced him to the Ladies and Gentlemen whom we passed. . . . my Company dispersed at about half past one all in good humour and more contented than common with their entertainment."
But this was no mere party. This was politics. The Adamses hoped to win over the support of a yet undeclared candidate and potential political rival in Jackson, and showcase their leadership as John Quincy became a leading presidential candidate. During the evening, a small mishap underscored this understood overlap between the social and political worlds. Louisa recorded, "While sitting in the dancing Room one of the lamps fell upon my head and ran all down my back and shoulders— This gave rise to a good joke and it was said that I was already anointed with the sacred oil and that it was certainly ominous— I observed that the only certain thing I knew was that my gown was spoilt—" While this lavish ball failed to win Jackson's political support, as he became Adams's chief rival in the Election of 1824, it was a smashing social success, spoken of for years to come, and clearly revealed Louisa's mastery of social politics.
If you would like to learn more about Louisa in her own words, the forthcoming A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams is available for pre-order now.
| Published: Wednesday, 8 January, 2014, 8:00 AM