Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company: Eighty-Four Years in Cambridge

By Alden S. Foss

 

T​he​ Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Company was founded in 1880. Based on a survey made by the Cambridge Chamber of Commerce, it is the oldest of the dozen largest industrial concerns continuously in business in Cambridge. It is now in its eighty-fourth year.

 

Early Years 1880-1898

 

This part might be entitled “From Sewing Machine Hose to the End of the Bicycle Craze.” These early years are recorded in a four-page article in Cambridge in 1896 published when Cambridge celebrated its fiftieth birthday as a city. We, that is, Boston Woven Hose, were then sixteen years old. The account was written by no less a person that our founder and President, Theodore A. Dodge, a retired Civil War Colonel.

 

Let us briefly summarize his four pages. Prior to 1880 hydraulic hose, meaning both fire hose and garden hose, was fabricated either from strips of leather riveted together to form a tube or from strips of canvas sewn longitudinally on a sewing machine, a machine invented by Lyman R. Blake and exploited by Gordon McKay of Cambridge. Colonel Dodge had invested in the McKay hose venture, but it was unsuccessful. The public looked askance at the sewn seams. Then one James E. Gillespie approached the Colonel with drawings of a loom to weave multiple-tubular products. The Colonel was sold on the idea and backed it. The first machine had 80,000 parts and was too complicated to function. Dodge then hired a young machinist named Robert Cowen who, after much time and effort, was successful in redesigning and simplifying the loom. By 1880, and after having spent over $150,000, they went to market with their new product. They rented two rooms in the Curtis Davis Soap Factory on Portland Street. That first year they employed seven persons and produced and sold 15,000 feet of woven cotton garden hose —no mention of a rubber tube.

 

This time public reception was good. But the Colonel’s resources were inadequate to finance a growing business. Hence in 1884 he formed the Boston Woven Hose Co., a Maine corporation, and took in an associate, Mr. J. Edwin Davis, Harvard 1883, who became Treasurer. The new company had a capital of $150,000. They took over more space in the soap factory and by 1886 they were employing sixty hands, and production could not keep pace with sales. In 1887 they purchased the Kinsley Iron property and put up a three-story brick building at the corner of Portland and Hampshire Streets, which still stands and is used today as our office building. From then on the company prospered. More land was acquired, more capital raised, more buildings built. By 1893 the annual output of Hose exceeded one million feet. The scope of the business was expanded to include many types of hose, belting made of several plies of cotton duck impregnated with rubber, and other mechanical rubber products.

 

It was in 1893 that bicycle tires were first developed and sold. The demand for them was terrific. All effort was turned to tires. At first the tires were in two parts — a casing and an inner tube. In 1895 the Vim hose-pipe tire, or single tube tire, was promoted and it was a pronounced success. Our sales technique or merchandising plans for bicycle tires in the Gay Nineties might interest you. No trading stamps in those days. Rather we sought testimonials from racing men. In 1895 our contract with one Walter Sanger provided for $45.00 per week for salary and expenses to be paid to him during the racing season, for which he agreed to ride our Vim tires on both wheels in all his races, to post us as to his wins and to use his influence toward advertising and pushing our tires.

 

Now let me read to you from a booklet circulated in 1895 advertising our Vim bicycle tires.

 

“One of the greatest if not the greatest features of the Vim tire is the pebble tread, the first non skid tread. We can produce hundreds of testimonials from riders who will use nothing else.

 

The pebble tread makes the tire a wonderful hill climber. In fact it now holds the world’s record in climbing the famous Corey Hill in Brookline Mass., the greatest number of times in an hour.

 

Last September at the Springfield tournament, Vim tires were decidedly in evidence. Walter Sanger, the great racing man, rode them on his wheels and succeeded in winning most brilliantly the three races in which he started.

 

By far the most brilliant race was the two mile professional handicap on the second day, September 12, which was described in the Boston Globe of the next day as follows:

 

‘Sanger, the big fellow, got up on scratch in the two mile professional handicap which was a magnificent event. At half, Sanger’s nearest man was Starbuck.

 

‘The field bunched heavily at the turn into the third lap, and Starbuck, jumping ahead of the big one, pulled Sanger up to the bunch at the mile and a half.

 

‘Porter was in a great position to go through in the pole. Sanger saw it and tied up to the Waltham boy. Showing his profound generalship and tremendous power, he simply tailed Porter who was bound to land at the head of the bunch.

 

‘He went steadily up and up, till he was in a good position. Then his admirers thought he had flunked. He suddenly fell back on the turn, but he knew his business, and came grandly around until he had an open hole in front of him.

 

‘Then he came through. For an awful second to the people to whom Sanger was a favorite, he seemed to be in danger of first place, but he was riding his favorite race and knew his own power. Sanger’s time was a world record for the two mile.

 

‘Sanger said repeatedly that night, that while he himself was in good condition, he owed the race to the Vim tires.’”

 

Another sales promotion was to team up with a manufacturer of bicycles who had his own stable of racing riders. We would agree to pay a lump sum and to give them “free of charge all the racing tires they may call for, in consideration of their using our Vim tires as original equipment on cycles sold and mentioning our tires in their advertisement.” A further proviso in one such agreement was that “all Class A men who are drawing a salary are to waive the gold brick scheme.” I recall that the gold bricking was where the races were fixed so that the riders occasionally could bet on a sure thing.

 

On renewing a contract with one of our racing men, after stating the weekly stipend and other conditions, we added, “and notify us that you have taken the pledge.” Apparently salesmen have changed little.

 

One of our salesmen, Pete Alexander, who was still with the company in my first year, 1928, was a bicycle fan and had been a professional racer. His enthusiasm made me wish I had been around a generation earlier.

 

Another sales promotion was a giant tricycle built for us in Concord, New Hampshire, around 1895. A group from our factory went to Concord to accept delivery of it, and fortunately had their picture taken. Our Vim trade-mark on all the tires is conspicuous, and if you look closely, you can also read Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Co. The two big wheels must be twelve feet in diameter. The chassis was sturdy enough to support seven men, at least for this picture. One man could propel it by its chain drive and could steer it. Undoubtedly he wore a cap and jersey with Vim prominently displayed on each.

 

In an account of the big parade in Cambridge in 1896 celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its becoming a city, all the entries are listed. No concern had more than Woven Hose with a total of eleven floats, presumably horse-drawn drays. Products were displayed on some; employees rode on others. One float is described as having four wheels with Vim tires twenty feet in diameter, and another carried the large rubber-tired tricycle. Apparently the parade moved too fast or too far for the rider to pedal it. What ever became of this tricycle is now a mystery.

 

The BWH property was bisected by the Broad Canal. For many years the company’s letterheads included a picture of the plant which changed as buildings were added and the canal filled in. An 1886 letterhead shows a two-masted schooner with sails filled about to dock behind Building #1, the Portland Street end of the canal. One used about 1890 shows horsecars passing along Hampshire Street and a lone rider on a high-wheel bicycle —sometimes called a penny-and-farthing bicycle. It undoubtedly had hard rubber tires which our company made by the mile for many years for children’s tricycles, velocipedes, go-carts, baby carriages, etc.

 

The Broad Canal

 

This part might be entitled “From Canals for Transportation to Canals for Process Water.” Cambridgeport in its early days depended largely on canals for transportation. Our member, John Wood, referred to this canal system in his paper on Cambridgeport in our 1954 Proceedings. We are also indebted to John J. Nolan of the Somerville Historical Society and Wendell Garrett of our own Society for further information on this subject.

 

To sum it up briefly, in 1793 a single road, now Main Street, was used to bring produce of the outlying country to the mouth of the Charles River for shipment by boat. Efficient transportation then was by water. Canals were dug at the river terminus of Main Street to provide more docks to accommodate more boats. In 1805 Congress passed an act making Cambridge a port of entry, and our Legislature authorized an extension of the Middlesex Turnpike along what is now Beacon Street in Somerville and Hampshire Street in Cambridge to provide a second thoroughfare to the dock area of Cambridgeport. Grandiose plans were made for a land development for industrial purposes tied to canals for cheap transportation. But the War of 1812 interfered. Then by mid-century the railroads were coming into their own, and the canal system lost its great appeal, and the promoters lost all their equity.

 

The Broad Canal has long been a valuable asset of the Boston Woven Hose. It is eighty feet wide, about one mile long, and runs in a westerly direction from the Charles River. The rights to it run back to an agreement recorded in the Registry of Deeds, July 8, 1806, which locates several canals, including ours, and grants to abutters “right of water communication” in perpetuity. The Broad Canal as there denned, included a twenty-five-foot wide extension across Portland Street under a bridge to that part called West Dock. West Dock, later acquired by BWH, was then a turn-around basin for ships. A footnote on page 182 of Paige’s History of Cambridge (1877), reads: “Lots were laid out around West Dock with 20′ water frontage apparently designed for stores and warehouses and were sold at high prices; but it does not appear that any such buildings were erected.”

 

At least two canals were actually dug as branches of the Broad Canal. South Canal connected with the Charles River, paralleling what is now Ames Street, and Cross Canal ran in a northerly direction from our property towards the Lechmere area. It may have serviced several iron foundries and steel rolling mills then located near our property.

 

When I started at the Hose in 1928, the coal for our power plant came up the Broad Canal in barges pushed by tugs. An old bucket crane unloaded the barges. Even then the Canal was supplying processing water —cooling water for the turbines and for rubber mills and calenders and for other manufacturing purposes.

 

Numerous proposals have been brought up for filling the Broad Canal. There are four bridges over the Canal and all were drawbridges. A tug whistled and the drawtender raised the bridge. One was operated by the M.D.C., two by the city, and one by the B&A Railroad. No longer can any of these bridges open for barges and tugs, but the “rights to water communication” still are a valuable asset of the Woven Hose.

 

The West Dock area, west of Portland Street, was filled before 1870. A story told by old-timers was that in a remote corner a cockfighting pit operated successfully for many years and was frequented by all the prize fighters in and around Boston. When Woven Hose bought the property, a good title could be had only by putting it through the Land Court. For many years this area has served us as a much-needed parking area.

 

On the subject of land titles, I was surprised to find the name of our late highly esteemed Vice-President, Lois Lilley Howe, on one of our deeds. One of our early land purchases was from one Sheldon who in turn had bought from Estes Howe, father of Miss Howe.

 

Our attorney found a flaw in the deed from Howe to Sheldon, and, Howe having died, his heirs gave us a confirmatory deed signed by Lois Lilley Howe I and II, apparently mother and daughter, and by several more Howes.

 

Many are surprised to learn that goldfish once abounded in Broad Canal. In summer they were not conspicuous, but in winter you could find open water where the “cooling water” from our power plant was returned to the Canal carrying sufficient heat to keep the surface water free from ice. There the goldfish basked in the winter sunshine. Our power plant was abandoned in 1946 and the goldfish deserted us. Also, on hot summer days, boys used the canal for swimming, diving off the bridges, until the police would chase them away for lack of proper attire.

 

Water transportation brings to mind the Page Box Company. Its land abutted ours and also Broad Canal. In 1928 we purchased the Page Box property. Its history is given at length in Cambridge of l896. It was founded in 1844. It owned timberlands in Maine. It brought its lumber in sailboats from Maine up the Charles River and up the Broad Canal to its own dock. No extra handling in transit. Our million-dollar reclaim plant was built in 1952 on the Page Box land.

 

To return to the 1896 Cambridge anniversary book, Colonel Dodge closes his long account of his company as follows: “The enterprise which forms the subject of this monograph is sound to the core, and the City of Cambridge may well reckon the Boston Woven Hose & Rubber Co. among the best samples of prosperity in this memorial year.” Just two years later, in June 1898, a letter was mailed to “The Creditors and Stockholders of the Boston Woven Hose & Rubber Co.,” announcing that the company had made an assignment for the benefit of its creditors, to Josiah Q. Bennett and Robert F. Herrick, both of Boston, and Hermann Reimers of New York City. A gloomy picture is painted. Book assets had shrunk by $1,000,000, and liabilities, recorded and contingent, exceeded the appraised values of the “expert accountants.”

 

No reason is given for this sad situation. I believe that 1898 was a depression year, both in the United States and in Europe, but many sound companies weathered the storm. The information that I got in 1928 from the few old-timers who were around in 1898 was that the company’s fiscal policies were extremely lax. Business began to slow up, and instead of cutting back production, we kept the bicycle tires rolling out. When we could not sell them, we consigned them. Not only this country but also Europe and Australia had consignments of our tires. In the 1890’s rubber products did not age well. Rubber would “bloom” from sulphur reaction, and harden and crack. The result was that many customers gave us notes that were never paid, and many tire consignments were charged off 100%. The appraisal value of Accounts and Notes Receivable was 45% of the book value, and the inventories were appraised at 70% of their book value.

 

The assignees did not liquidate the business. The old liabilities consisted largely of notes payable to small country banks — commercial and savings banks — scattered all over New England, New York State, and even farther afield —three or four pages of bank creditors, all for relatively small sums. If I was correctly informed, the assignees set out energetically to effect compromise settlements and met with considerable success, making settlements from as low as 60% on up.

 

In May 1899 a prospectus was put out by the investment firm of Poor and Greenough, bankers, of Boston and New York. The prospectus consisted of three pages and bears little resemblance to an S.E.C. approved prospectus. Seventy-five hundred shares of 6% preferred were sold for $750,000, and 4,500 shares of common were given away — one share free for each two preferred purchased.

 

The control was acquired by a group of Salem and Lynn men, which included Joseph N. Smith, Howard B. Sprague, and Benjamin F. Spinney. Smith served as President from 1900 until his death in 1912. His son, J. Newton Smith, served as President from 1928 to 1951. The reorganized company was successful from the start—very successful. We hear no more of Colonel Theodore Dodge — and no more of his treasurer, J. Edwin Davis. But the plant manager, Robert Cowen, was retained by the new management.

 

To be continued next week…

 

This article can be found in the Proceedings of the Cambridge Historical Society Volume 40, from the years 1964-1966.