Summer is on the retreat and autumn is back. The days are becoming noticeably shorter and the temperature is dropping – particularly at night – while rain showers are unpleasantly cold and wet rather than refreshing, like they were only a short time ago. Especially on the skin and inside one’s shoes, when the water gets through the seams. Waterproof footwear made out of plastic with a shaft, i.e. a tubular extension that extends beyond the ankle up to the knee, provides the best protection against wet feet: Here, we tell the story of the rubber boots.
Wellington boots, known to one and all as wellies, are not just the footwear of choice for farmers out in the fields and in the cowshed or the hunter’s loyal companion out in the woods. On the contrary: rubber boots are becoming an increasingly chic and modern accessory for one and all. They are extremely fashionable nowadays and will very soon be an established sight in city streets too.
Since time immemorial all over the world, fathers and mothers have taught their children to be careful in the choice of their outfits – shirts and trousers, belts and socks, jackets and shoes – because they know: clothes make the man (and the woman), so it is important that young people learn how to dress properly and, as a result, find favour and friends in society. The French Republic is considered to be one of the leading fashion countries, where clothes are created that – see above – “make the man (and the woman)”. More than just about anyone else, the tailors and designers based in Paris have influenced international fashion trends – producing clothes and such concepts as “haute couture” and “prêt-à-porter”.
Although these two fashion concepts differ greatly – one of them meant for the catwalk and very special occasions, while the other is supposed to be affordable streetwear – the two of them do have one thing in common: in some way or other, both of them always want to be “très chic”. It is a well-known fact that there is no accounting for taste, but the functionality of an article of clothing can be the subject of endless debate. As far as functionality is concerned, a foreigner beat the French to it in the middle of the 19th century, even though the latter are not just aesthetes; they are very practical too.
About country life and a visionary company founder
At the time, most French people worked on farms. They spent large amounts of time outdoors in all weather conditions not just because they loved Mother Nature, who fed them – and whose caprices they were exposed to practically unprotected. Whereas they were sometimes scorched by the sun, it rained for days or weeks at other times – not to mention the additional problems caused by ice and snow. When it rained hard enough, fertile soil in no time at all became a swamp, which was thoroughly unpleasant to wade through, especially at wet and cold times of the year. It was not unusual for the wooden clogs that were in widespread use as footwear at the time to get stuck in the mire or even to disappear in the boggy mud, never to be seen again. In a nutshell: although wooden clogs proved to be a viable solution for country people, they were not ideal. This is where the US engineer Hiram Hiram Hutchinson (1808-1869) came in.
Around 1839, his fellow American Charles Goodyear (1800-1860) had developed the vulcanisation process (at the same time as the Englishman Thomas Hancock, 1786-1865), with which elastic rubber could be produced from plastic rubber. (Incidentally: it goes without saying that the history of rubber goes back very much further into the past. It leads to exotic countries and a bloody and not very glorious chapter in the history of mankind. More about this you can read here: "From 'red rubber' to Buna: the world war about rubber" Part I-1, Part II-2)
We now know that the discovery Goodyear and Hancock made proved to be a milestone in plastics research. For vulcanisation purposes, a rubber compound consisting of crude rubber, sulphur or substances like disulphur dichloride (S2Cl2) that contain sulphur, catalysts to increase the reaction speed and fillers, is heated up. In the course of this process, sulphur bridges form, via which the long-chain rubber molecules crosslink. The rubber loses its plasticity during this reaction. By comparison with the original product, the material created as a result has, in turn, permanently elastic properties and always returns to its original position under mechanical stress, while it is also more tear-resistant, stretchable and, last but not least, more resistant to ageing and weathering.
Hiram Hutchinson must have found it electrifying when he got to know this impressively elastic, waterproof material called rubber. Its novelty and many different properties that no material before had offered stimulated the imagination of the visionary engineer, who was an entrepreneur too. All the different things it would be possible to make out of rubber! Hard-wearing shoes, for example. And this is exactly what Hutchinson made once he had acquired a licence to produce rubber boots from Goodyear. In doing this, he was creating a rival for the traditional wooden clogs. Anticipating growing demand for his rubber boots, Hutchinson moved to France in the middle of the 19th century and established a factory for the industrial processing of rubber in Montargis, about 100 kilometres away from Paris in 1853 (Aigle), following this seven years later with one in Mannheim, Germany, too.
The company that Hiram Hutchinson established expanded very fast in the context of the industrial upswing that occurred during this period. The family set up further companies in France as well as locations in Spain and Italy. In 1903, it became a joint-stock company and the registered office was moved to the Champs-Élysées in Paris. Hutchinson S.A. has been part of the Chemical Division of the French TOTAL Group since 1974. Hutchinson now considers itself to be one of the world’s leading manufacturers and processors of high-quality elastomer products and is market leader in many different areas. The Hutchinson-Group has about 120 production and sales locations all over the world and more than 25,000 employees. The company generates its sales (about € 2.3 billion in 2009) in the automotive, industrial and consumer goods markets.
The success story of Wellington boots in Great Britain
Hiram Hutchinson was not the only American who concluded a contract with Goodyear. Henry Lee Norris (1813-1881), a businessman from New Jersey who made his way to Scotland in 1856 to try his luck in the British Empire with rubber and rubber boots, did the same thing. In contrast to Hutchinson, Norris did not choose workmen and farmers as his target group. He found his main market among the better-off, among aristocratic gentlemen and officers. Norris benefitted from an infrastructure that was already in existence as well as from fortunate circumstances.
Great Britain made a name for itself throughout the world as a military power at the beginning of the 19th century. The royal troops went on the march not just in Europe but also in faraway India, defending important outposts of the British Empire. Imperial hegemony, prestige and resources were the driving forces here. There was a major revolution in men’s fashion back home in Great Britain at the same time: knee breeches were replaced by longer, close-fitting trousers. This change in fashion affected footwear too, which was dominated at the time by what were known as Hessian boots, which were loose-fitting, reached up to the knees and boasted various ornamental features, so that they matched the knee breeches perfectly. When they were introduced, the new trousers did not, it was thought at the time, harmonise at all with the Hessian boots.
Im 1817, Sir Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), the first Duke of Wellington and a highly decorated and successful military leader who – among other things – fought against Napoleon, asked his shoemaker to solve the problem: the solution had to be a different boot! A boot that was supposed to be comfortable and, at the same time, cut so snugly that it could be worn underneath trousers without any difficulty. The London shoemaker came up with an impressive solution: the new boot was made from supple calfskin and fitted closely around men’s legs; it was not only hard-wearing and highly suitable for military combat but was also comfortable and smart enough for high-society men to use as evening wear and for formal occasions. In recognition of this convincing design, the new boots were called Wellington boots from now on, in honour of the man who commissioned them.
Back to where we started our little excursion: in 1856, Henry Lee Norris bought buildings in Edinburgh and formed the North British Rubber Company as a limited company. In view of the lack of skilled workers and machines in Edinburgh, he had everything that was necessary brought to Scotland from overseas. An expensive procedure, but one that proved – in the final analysis – to be successful. The company produced not only rubber boots based on the Wellington models but also a wide range of other rubber articles for the English market, such as tyres, conveyor belts, combs, golf balls, hot-water bottles and rubber flooring.
The company experienced an economic boom unlike anything it had ever experienced before when the First World War started. The countries involved faced each other in a long, drawn-out period of very gruelling trench warfare in France. The soldiers on both sides suffered from the consequences of muddy trenches that were flooded by rain and groundwater. Their shoes, which were damp or wet all the time, made them ill. The troops became demoralised. The North British Rubber Company was therefore commissioned by the government to produce rubber boots that were suitable for use in such battle conditions. The machines ran day and night and produced a total of 1,185,036 pairs of boots.
When the Second World War broke out, the company experienced another economic upswing; 80 per cent of production in 1939 consisted of war materials, including life belts, bomb covers, gas masks and Wellington boots – as well as “overknee boots” that helped the British Army to keep their feet dry when crossing the flooded areas of the Netherlands. (Nowadays, boots that reach far above the knees are used primarily in amateur and professional fishing.)
In the years after the Second World War, the company’s boots became very well-known and increasingly popular, particularly in the working and hunting communities. In 1958, the North British Rubber Company scored another coup that boosted its image even more when it introduced the high-priced Hunter and Royal Hunter boots. Many different structural and name changes were made to the company after this as well and it is now known as Hunter Rubber Co. Ltd. – and is an official supplier to the English royal family.
From useful footwear to a fashion accessory
Hunters, who wear rubber boots almost the whole year round, make exacting demands on their footwear. They very rarely – perhaps on hot summer days, if at all – choose to wear anything else. The requirements that hunting boots have to satisfy are not therefore limited solely to the green colour of the material, in order to provide perfect camouflage out in the fields and forests. More than anything else, the boots need to be tough and at the same time comfortable. The boots in general and the soles in particular are not designed for long hikes, while they are not able to remove sweat or counter ground frost in the winter either – rubber is simply not suitable for this in wall thicknesses that are standard for shoes. The inner lining is primarily responsible for creating a pleasant climate inside the boot; this also has a substantial impact on the price of the boots and is an essential feature when spending time out in the country in summer too, as experts advise.
The quality and workmanship of the outer material, i.e. the plastic used, play an important role, however: rubber boots are not all the same. High-quality rubber boots that are really very good generally keep the promises their name makes: they are manufactured from processed or even natural rubber and are exclusively handmade. Like in the production of leather boots, pieces cut out of natural rubber are worked around a last. The basic boot is then reinforced in a latex immersion process and is subsequently vulcanised in an oven.
Other materials are now being used in boot production to an increasing extent too, particularly high-quality, efficient Polyurethan and Polyvinylchlorid (PVC). It is not immediately obvious to non-professionals what the differences are between the various alternatives, particularly in view of the fact that there is a practically endless range of products on the market, as a look at the website of a well-known Internet shoe supplier shoe supplier shows: there are rubber boots for women, men and children; for hobby, professional or leisure use; for riding, fishing and wading, for summer, autumn and winter – in all conceivable designs: in rainbow colours, with flower, check or striped patterns; with smooth soles and with tread; with glossy or imitation leather finishes; with buckles and other accessories at ankle or calf height; to slip on and to tie up. One thing, above all, is very evident: the range of different applications for rubber boots has changed and increased fundamentally. Whereas they were originally used mainly for functional purposes, primarily to keep the feet and calves of French or German farmers dry, rubber boots are now considered to be fashionable and chic and are accepted in society as appropriate footwear outside the work or recreational sport environments too: rubber boots are extremely trendy! Guido Deussing