Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Hot summer days, horse glue and pneumatic staple guns: Assembly line work in a 1970s shoe factory

Posted By on Tue, Sep 2, 2014 at 4:48 PM

The majority of the shoes we wear in the 21st Century are made in foreign countries, under conditions most of us rebel at working under. But once upon a time, not that many decades ago, footwear was made here in America, and during two hot summers (1973/1974) I worked in one such plant, located in Peckville, Pennsylvania.

I began at $1.85 an hour, and after a while, my pay moved up to $2, bringing my take home pay to a whopping $60 a week.

I was what was laughingly referred to as an “inspector,” which meant that I stood at the end of the assembly line, with two rows of boots coming at me, and I would check the seams, to make sure that everything was smooth over the edge, where the sole would be glued on. If it wasn’t taut, I had a pneumatic staple gun - which fired staples as thick as an average nail - and stapled the material down.

Once the staple gun slipped in my hand, and one of the damn staples ended up halfway buried in my thumbnail. I tried to remove the staple myself, but every time I touched it, a wave of pain would wash through me. Finally I went to the line lead, who casually reached down and ripped it out of my hand.

The plant was too cheap to employ a nurse, so he just gave me a band-aid.

After my inspection, I would shove the boots, or shoes, or what-have-you, around the corner, so that the fellow across from me could run glue around the edge of it, preparatory to someone else placing the sole on.

The glue. Ah, the glue.

It was horse glue, which gave off a powerful smell; I still had a good sense of smell at the time, and it would waft over in my direction. It wasn’t the sort of glue that would give anyone a feeling of being high, but instead make them want to puke their guts out.

At this point of the story I should tell you about the plant manager’s ancient uncle, who had a job for life, sweeping the floors. Even on the hottest days, he would be cold, and would go around closing all the windows. And nobody stopped him because , well, this little old man was the plant manager’s uncle.

So you couple heat with the most god awful smell you can imagine, and then envision the poor guy across from me, having to stop his glue work every half hour or so so he could vomit into the waste basket.

It’s not the sort of job you think back fondly on, though I did learn a lot about the making of shoes, and when I later worked as an Assistant Manager at Payless Shoes, I often bored fellow employees - and probably more than a few customers - with tales of the shoe factory game.

I also used the plant, after giving it a different name, as the scene of the final confrontation in my science fiction novel.

The pant went out of business years ago, and though there are probably folks with fond memories of their time in the shoe trenches, I’m sure it still lives on in a few nightmares and scary bedtime stories.


Quote of the Day

"We can't plan life. All we can do is be available for it." - -Lauryn Hill




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