St. Louis has a long history of being a center for shoe manufacturing in the United States, sort of like New York being known for its garment district. “First in Shoes, Blues, and Booze” was the city’s motto back at the 1904 World’s Fair.
It was at the World’s Fair where an employee of Brown Shoe Company, one of the world’s largest shoe manufacturers, located in St. Louis, met the creator of the cartoon character Buster Brown.
At the time, Buster Brown was a mischievous cartoon character, who, together with his dog Tige and sister Mary Jane, delighted children of all ages. The shoe company employee bought the name, which later became one of the most iconic brands of shoes in the world. The company is still headquartered here in St. Louis and has grown to have sales of some $2.4 billion.
My grandfather worked for Brown Shoes Company for many years as well as several other smaller shoe companies here in St. Louis. He was also an organizer for the Boot and Shoe Workers Union. He was known as the “Singing Shoeman.” My grandfather had a large repertory of old 1920’s and early century songs that would put Leon Redbone to shame and a pretty good singing voice to boot. (No pun intended.) He would sing them and also recite poetry while he was working on the line assembling shoes. I guess he had to do something to cope with the boredom and pass the time.
Back then there weren’t any Nike or Reebok’s. I think the only “tennis shoe” that we had when I was growing up were the old-fashioned Converse All Stars. My grandfather was very particular about the shoes that I wore when I was a kid, going up to the neighborhood shoe store with me and carefully examining the shoes and how they fit before letting me wear them home. And they seemed to last forever, which sometimes went against my teenage fashion sense to get a new pair every few months. If they needed repair, my grandfather fixed them. He used to say that a good pair of shoes should last about 20 years.
Now most of our shoes come from Wal-mart or some other giant shoe warehouse and are usually manufactured overseas in China.
Over the years, St. Louis, like much of the rest of the country, has lost much of its manufacturing base. Some of our biggest employers have either gone or been swallowed up by competitors. McDonnell Douglas, General American, Anheuser Busch and now, according to the St. Louis Post Dispatch, (www.stltoday.com), Brown Shoe is about to cut jobs and close many of its stores.
The company announced Monday several measures to save $22 million annually, including work force reductions at its main offices in St. Louis and its showroom in New York. It will also close 30-35 of its Famous Brand footwear stores and eliminate some of its workers at the Fredericktown, Mo. distribution plant. It is also delaying a $576 million redevelopment of its headquarters in Clayton, Mo.
With the sagging economy it may be necessary for more people to keep their shoes for much longer like they did in my grandfather’s day. Not good for Brown Shoe, unless of course, we have to start boiling our shoes and eating them.