Gordon McKay (1821 - 1903)

The American inventor, engineer, entrepreneur and Harvard benefactor Gordon McKay was born  in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.  He is best known for the development of machinery that revolutionized the manufacture of footwear.

The Indian Mound Cottage in Millionaires Village, Jekyll Island, Georgia was built for Gordon McKay in  1892 and bought by William Rockefeller in 1905. McKay made his fortune inventing machines that made boots for Federal troops during the Civil War. Rockefeller was the president of Standard Oil of N.Y. and the younger brother of John D. Rockefeller. (Source)
"In 1851, the first practical sewing machine was invented.  Ten years later, during the early portion of the Civil War, Gordon McKay had improved and pattened a machine for sewing the soles of shoes to the uppers.  The first inspection report of such shoes was unfavorable, but sample shoes tested in the field were so well received that procurement of machine-sewn shoes soon proceeded.  Not only McKay but other shoe manufacturers filled government orders; McKay astutely manufactured additional machines that he leased on a royalty basis to other shoe manufactures." (Source)

From Lasting Impressions: An ancient craft's surprising legacy in Harvard's museums -- and laboratories, by Edward Tenner, Harvard Magazine[September-October 2000, Vol. 103, No. 1: page 37]

"Harvard does not care about shoes. Once it did....... "

"No, Harvard is not interested in shoes. But shoes, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky's reported quip about war, have been interested in Harvard. Footwear and higher education were two New England specialties. They could not avoid each other. While Harvard was becoming a national and international university after the Civil War, the Boston shoe industry was flourishing as a technological showpiece of American industry. Independently, they rose together. Even in 1865, before widespread mechanization, Brockton alone was producing more than a million pairs of shoes annually; by 1900, Boston shipped more than 100 million pairs. Although Cambridge itself never became one of the major shoe towns, some of Harvard's administrators and faculty members inevitably came to know the executives of the footwear industry.

"One of these Harvard men, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, dean of the Lawrence School of Science, was a close friend of the industrialist Gordon McKay (1821-1903), a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, native who had become one of America's most successful technical entrepreneurs. McKay, a self-taught specialist in the maintenance of mill equipment, learned of an invention for sewing the uppers of shoes to the soles, bought it for only $8,000 in cash and a $62,000 share of future profits, and developed it with the help of the master mechanic and original inventor, Lyman Reed Blake. He received his own patent for the improved version in 1862. During the Civil War he set up a company to produce his machines, helping meet the great demand of Union footwear contracts.

"McKay's most original idea was to lease the machinery rather than sell it outright, collecting a small royalty on each pair of shoes made with his equipment. Leases encouraged would-be manufacturers and reassured customers afraid of obsolescence, making it in McKay's interest to maximize customers' output. His company made constant improvements, and Blake sold the machinery and taught workers how to use it. McKay was earning $500,000 a year by 1876, and had collected royalties on more than 177 million pairs of shoes. By 1895, 120 million pairs of shoes a year were produced on McKay machines, more than half of U.S. production. Meanwhile a forceful businessman named Sidney Winslow had bought the rights to the lasting machine developed by the Suriname-born, African-American inventor (and former McKay machine operator) Jan Matzeliger, which brilliantly complemented the McKay process, and refined McKay's leasing and training strategy. It was Winslow who combined McKay's interests with those of Charles Goodyear Jr. (son of the inventor of vulcanized rubber), whose company produced equipment for sewing higher-grade welted shoes, and with dozens of large and small vendors of equipment and supplies and their patent portfolios. The resulting United Shoe Machinery Company, incorporated in 1899, had a virtual monopoly of the technology for the leading types of American shoe production. Winslow ran the company, and the retired McKay's interest in it was one of America's great fortunes.

"Reformers soon assailed the Shoe Trust. A shoe manufacturer might still, with some difficulty, get every necessary machine from some other supplier, but few independent domestic makers were left. United's leases forbade the use of most competitors' equipment and mandated the use of high-priced United supplies like wire and eyelets. The monopoly's only serious rival, a self- made French-Canadian shoe manufacturer named Tom Plant, introduced a competing line of machines, only to sell out to United in the end. To its supporters, including most New England shoe manufacturers, United earned its high profits with excellent equipment and service. To its foes, especially the Western shoe industry that was growing as producers sought lower costs outside New England, United suppressed innovation as well as competition, discontinuing superior machines after absorbing their makers and sitting on patents that could have lowered costs. The muckraking journalist Judson Welliver even attacked Winslow and United for virtually forcing the use of inferior materials that endangered the health of working-class shoe consumers. When McKay died in 1903 and the decades-long transfer of his bequest to Harvard began with a million dollars in 1909, Harvard thus almost certainly became a part owner of one of the most controversial companies in America, and definitely was a beneficiary. (Life trusts delayed the full transfer of the principal of the estate to Harvard until 1949. By then the total amounted to $16 million, the largest single gift received by the University until then and still one of the most generous so far when adjusted for inflation.)

"McKay and Shaler wanted to revive Harvard's flagging Lawrence School of Science. McKay, who lived a block from Harvard Yard, had given most of his fortune to Harvard rather than to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because he hoped not only to improve engineering education, but to increase its appeal to the New England elite. MIT officials did not give up; they persuaded Harvard to accept a form of merger in which a new science and engineering campus would rise across the Charles River, where the business school is today. The plan, opposed vociferously by MIT alumni, was rejected by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1905, leading Harvard to establish a Graduate School of Applied Science--forerunner of today's Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences--in 1906.

"While the Corporation and faculty were studying uses for McKay's bounty, a number of Harvard alumni were busy engineering the hegemony of United, also called The Shoe. Through directorships they helped connect it with the First National Bank of Boston and with Lee, Higginson and Co., two of New England's greatest financial powers, and at least indirectly with J.P. Morgan, A.B. 1889, LL.D. '23. Some of the University's cleverest sons helped rivet its redoubtable boilerplate. Before Louis D. Brandeis, LL.B. 1877, brought an antitrust lawsuit on behalf of a group of Western shoe manufacturers against United, he had helped draft its leases. Among its directors were both shoe men and leading Harvard-educated attorneys like Robert Treat Paine, A.B. 1882, and James J. Storrow, A.B. 1885, LL.B. '88. Robert F. Herrick, A.B. 1890, was chief legal adviser. United's treasurer from 1909 to 1924, the former journalist and political publicist Louis Coolidge, A.B. 1883, helped to make the vast United plant such a model of enlightened safety, health, and recreation programs that Horace D. Arnold, A.B. 1885, M.D. '89, dean of Harvard Medical School, proclaimed that it provided the best industrial working conditions he had ever seen. Sidney Winslow Jr. '05 succeeded his father as head of United. Under his presidency, in 1930, the company built the 24-story art deco downtown headquarters, its lobby adorned with sumptuous tableaux of shoemaking, that for decades was Boston's tallest building.

"United affected Harvard's building, too. As a young architect, Walter Gropius was impressed with a postcard of Ernest L. Ransome's extensively glazed United factory in Beverly, Massachusetts, possibly the world's most advanced industrial plant on its completion in 1906. The building influenced the design Gropius completed for the Fagus shoe-last company in Alfeld, Germany, in 1913, a progressive firm coincidentally backed by United. This celebrated commission helped him become director of the state architecture and design school reorganized as the Bauhaus, and, after emigration, chairman of the architecture department at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. The lineage of Gropius's Graduate Center (1948-50) thus goes back to the quest for more efficient shoe-machinery plants....."

"...Harvard Business School may no longer produce guides to retail shoe-stocking systems, but the industry has still left its footprint on the University. In the 1999-2000 academic year, 45 of 63 faculty members of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, including the computer science department, held positions named for Gordon McKay. (So did the barefooting Thomas McMahon, a delightful polymath who even conjured up a new, improved Gordon McKay in his 1979 novel, McKay's Bees.) The McKay bequest--a model of legal prose, rigorous yet literate--stipulated that the salaries he endowed "be kept liberal, generation after generation, according to the standards of each successive generation." What more can a professor ask from a benefactor?"

From The Enterprising Americans: A Business History of the United States, by John Chamberlain
"...Meanwhile, as early as the  1850’s, the sewing machine had been used to do the stitching on shoe uppers. But in the Massachusetts shoe towns — Lynn, Haverhill, Marblehead—and  in Hartford and Philadelphia, the business of matching soles and uppers was still being farmed out to household workers.   A successful shoe-pegging machine had been invented in 1833, but hand sewers and peggers threatened boycott and mayhem. Even after the prejudice against  machine pegging had evaporated, as shoe manufacturers the various mechanical pegging devices there wasn’t much money in them. By the time a manufacturer had paid for the eternal litigation his pegging profits had vanished. Consequently, when Lyman R. Blake in South Abingdon, Massachusetts, managed to do the heavy work of sewing soles to uppers mechanically, the industry was ready for his invention.  Ironically, the Blake invention, patented in 1858, became known as  the  “McKay  Sewing  Machine’’ -- so  called because  Gordon McKay, an engineer, bought Blake out for cash and a royalty that was to total $70,000.  (Eventually, through patent renewal, Blake got far more money. )  McKay had the financial resources to fight patent suits — and he also had the will and the skill to adapt Blake’s machinery to large-scale operations. He helped devise special ma- chines to melt the wax on thread as it passed through heavy leather, and he substituted steam-driven factories for the old piece- work system that had been in force ever since Ebenezer Breed, the Quaker, had started the wholesale shoe business in Lynn in the eighteenth century. McKay refused to sell his machines outright, preferring to lease them and to collect royalties on every pair of shoes made.  As a bonus, the client who leased a McKay machine got a small part of the McKay company capital stock.  As patents ran out, McKay kept picking up other inventions:   he was, at one time, a partner of Charles Goodyear Jr., the son of the inventor of vulcanized rubber.  In time the so-called “Goodyear welt” was to become synonymous with quality shoemaking, and when S. V. A. Hunter,  secretary-treasurer of the company, suggested that the welt be advertised as “better than” hand sewing, an important mercantile slogan was born. Out of the McKay industrial leasing and various mergers United Shoe Machinery was eventually created—and so low did this company keep its royalties that it encountered little organized opposition for a long period..."


"Lyman Reed Blake was an American inventor who invented a sewing machine for sewing the soles of shoes to the uppers. Blake worked for the Isaac M. Singer's sewing machine company, setting up sewing machines in shoe factories.  In 1856, Blake bought a partnership in a shoemaking company, after that he became dedicated to inventing machines that mechanized shoemaking. In 1858, he received a patent for his special sewing machine. He sold his patent to Gordon McKay in 1859 and worked for McKay from 1861 until his retirement in 1874, selling and installing his machines in factories throughout New England."(Source)

This page was prepared and is maintained by R. Victor Jones
Comments to: jones@deas.harvard.edu.

Last updated November 21, 2001