In the book of Genesis it is said that the Lord fashioned tunics of skin and clothed Adam and Eve. The Romans clad their soldiers with leather for protection and the countless other uses of leather are too numerous to mention. Leather has indeed enjoyed a stellar history and Peabody, Massachusetts has been a dominating footnote to its enduring legacy.
Peabody was destined to be the hub of the leather industry. It was an ideal place for the tanning business because of all the clean and abundant water in the three brooks—the Goldwaithe, the Proctor and Strongwater—that ran into the Mill pond, to the North River and eventually into the Atlantic Ocean. It was all this water that earned Peabody, which was originally part of Salem, the name Brooksby.
If you lived in Peabody, Massachusetts someone in your family probably worked in one of the many leather factories scattered out over the downtown area near the Square. If you lived near Peabody it is quite probable that you knew someone who worked in the leather factories of Peabody, and if you lived anywhere else in the world you must have heard about Peabody, because Peabody was at one time the leather capital of the world.
To prove Peabody’s importance to leather I pose the question: How many cities or towns can claim that a single industry, in that city or town, has had enough companies in the industry so that every letter in the alphabet has been used at least once as the first letter in those company’s names. Not many I imagine. Peabody, however, can claim that fun fact.
As the leather business expanded, so did the town, and so did the need for more help. The leather industry rode the immigrant waves of the 19th and 20th century and it was just perfect.
There was the A. B. Clark Company on Union Street that produced 72,000 finished sheep skins a week while in operation during 1905 and 1916. It was the largest sheep skin manufacturer in the world and Alexander B. Clark, the owner of the company, was dubbed the Sheepskin King. There was the L. B. Southwick Company, founded by Louis B. Southwick and Josiah B. Thomas and at its height of operation the Southwick Company had, on 10 acres of land, a large wooden building consisting of 150,000 square feet and brick factories with over 100,000 square feet of floor space. There was Morrill leather, Carr leather, Cox leather, and Korn leather. There was Vaughn Calfskin, National Calfskin and US Pigskin. There was Strauss tanning, Verza tanning, Kirstein tanning and the list went on. The first development of tanning machinery was established in Peabody and the Vaughn, Corwin and Turner companies were some of the largest manufacturers in that business.
By the end of the 19th century, Peabody was well established as the major player in the leather tanning industry; however, it was in 1894 that Peabody was crowned the king with the formation of the A. C. Lawrence Leather Company. Arthur C. Lawrence came to Peabody in 1894 and at that time the total valuation of manufactured products in Peabody was $6 million and 10 years later in 1905 it had increased to $20 million. In 1909, just 15 years after arriving in Peabody, the A. C. Lawrence Leather Company employed well over 2000 employees. The A. C. Lawrence Company’s patent leather division, located on Pulaski Street off the Waters River, was the largest in the world as well.
Peabody enjoyed its status in the world, but as they say, all good things must come to an end; with harsh environmental laws and the outsourcing of cheap labor to third world countries the leather industry, the once bread and butter for Peabody, started to wane. The once flourishing businesses were now all but abandoned, and some were actually fully abandoned. They were the fodder for many a conflagration. The 1960’s and 1970’s saw some of the biggest and most destructive fires with factory after factory laid to ashes.
Unfortunately I cannot create the sounds and smells of the bustling leather industry in Peabody; however, my hope is that this book, with its photographic images and narratives, will help you understand the history, the process, and the rise and fall of the leather tanning industry. It will also put faces behind the leather belts and shoes that some of you wear and the purses and wallets that you might own. So sit back in a nice smooth comfortable leather chair, if you have one, and enjoy.