Museum Artifact: Florsheim Ladies Shoes, c. 1940s
Made By: Florsheim Shoe Company, 3963 W. Belmont Ave. [Avondale] and 130 S. Canal Street [Downtown / The Loop], Chicago, IL
“I have always attributed our success to three essentials: a good shoe, an efficient organization, and advertising—always keeping in mind that our shoe measured up to everything that we said in our advertising.” —Milton S. Florsheim, 1928
The Florsheim Shoe Company was Chicago’s greatest contribution to the footwear industry—or at least, a close second to the city’s preeminent unlicensed podiatrist, Dr. Scholl.
A major innovator in both the design and marketing of formal, affordable dress shoes, Florsheim would eventually employ over 3,000 Chicagoans by the 1950s; with five factories churning out the latest men’s loafers, Oxfords, and brogues—along with the occasional ladies’ lace-up pump.
The brand built a hard-earned reputation as the “aspirational shoe for the average guy,” but like a lot of successful family businesses, it was the unexpected exceeding of their own aspirations that wound up producing as many pitfalls as perks. In the end, two generations of Florsheims would have to walk away from their own birthright just to be able to buy it back again on their own terms.
In terms of museum artifacts, our high-heeled, peep-toed women’s shoes are not exactly emblematic of the iconic Florsheim brand. For its first 40 years or so, the company specialized solely in men’s styles, and it remained their primary focus long after. It’s probably no coincidence, in fact, that the company’s first ladies department wasn’t established until the fall of 1929, when the threat of a total financial meltdown had a lot of businesses thinking outside the box.
Credit where credit is due, though, the Florsheims were very often the ones leading the progression of their industry rather than reacting to it.
[1935 newspaper ad for Florsheim’s $10 “Chicora” Women’s Shoe. The company didn’t enter the women’s market until the ’30s, and they mostly abandoned it by the 1970s]
History of Florsheim Shoes, Part I. Siegmund Sells Shoes Down By the Lakeshore
The Florsheim family’s entry into the Chicago shoe business starts way back in the 1850s, when Siegmund Florsehim, a Jewish immigrant newly arrived from Hesse (modern-day Germany), started hawking kicks from a tiny storefront in the city.
Born in 1834, Siegmund had come to America at the age of 20, landing him in Chicago at a time when it was still a budding frontier town of about 30,000 souls. By 1860, however, that population had nearly quadrupled, and as no coincidence, local salesmen were suddenly swimming in receipts.
Soon enough, Siegmund’s cobbling skills and old world charm had made him a junior partner at one of Chicago’s largest wholesale boot and shoe firms: Greensfelder, Rosenthal & Co. The security of that job (along with the added peace of mind from the Civil War’s conclusion) might have given Siegmund and his wife Henrietta the impetus to settle down, as their first son Milton was born in 1868.
A few years later, Greensfelder & Rosenthal were forced to rebuild from the Great Chicago Fire, but with reduced competition, the company actually built up a stronger business than it had before, running a booming storefront at the corner of Market Street and Monroe in the 1870s. According to one issue of the Boot and Shoe Recorder, it was really Siegmund Florsheim whose “perseverance placed the firm in the front rank of the trade,” doing a particularly strong business “in the lumber and mining districts of Wisconsin and Minnesota.”
When Rudolph Rosenthal retired in 1886, a now 52 year-old Siegmund naturally stepped in, joining with Isaac Greensfelder to organize a new partnership: Greensfelder, Florsheim & Co. By now, the firm had begun manufacturing its own boots and men’s shoes in Chicago, with a vision of severing its reliance on the old East Coast shoemakers and the expensive shipping costs that came with them. A team of 125 workers (100 men, 25 women) were in the company’s employ by 1891.
Pretty soon, old Mr. Greensfelder bowed out, as well, and the energetic Siegmund Florsheim finally had the reins all to himself, re-organizing yet another new shoe enterprise—this time with his three sons Milton, Louis and Felix joining him in the effort.
“Florsheim & Co. was launched humbly but auspiciously in 1892 to pioneer these strident western fields in the manufacture of high class men’s shoes for the standard retail price of $5,” the Tribune recounted in a 1930 feature on the business.
“Factory help then could be hired at $5 or $6 a week. The business was worth about $50,000 and was content with a daily output of from 100 to 200 pairs. Well-to-do company officials recall their elation when net earnings reached $2,500.”
Eldest son Milton Florsheim, who’d first started working for his dad as a teenager—dusting off shoes in his warehouse for $3 a week—was now a partner in the family business at age 24. Unfortunately, he was about to learn the first of many lessons related to the burden of having your name on the banner.
In 1894, just as Florsheim & Co. was finding its footing, Siegmund Florsheim died at the age of 60, leaving Milton in charge of the firm at just 26. What some would describe as a legacy or inheritance was also a substantial load to carry. But Milton, having literally grown up with the city of Chicago and its shoe trade, marched forward, one shoe after the other.
II. Check the Label
“We believe that a business must have more than momentum in order to survive; that no business can exist permanently without fresh ideas, carried along with initiative and energy; and that no considerable volume of sales can be created and maintained without continuous application of advertising.” —Milton Florsheim, 1921
Milton Florsheim had more than youthful naivety working against him when he took over full control of Florsheim & Co. in. 1894. First and foremost, the entire country was still working its way out of a major economic recession, putting all manufacturing businesses in a tight spot. Second, Chicago’s development into the country’s number one shipping hub had enticed more than a few worthy challengers into the city, dividing up the footwear marketplace. Perhaps most significantly of all, the merchants of the eastern U.S. were still thumbing their noses at the notion of having their dress shoes brought in via rail from the Great Lakes. There were plenty of long-tenured shoemakers in New York, Boston, Philadelphia, etc. What could possibly be appealing about a Chicago shoe?
And so this was Florsheim’s challenge: not only to stay profitable in the company’s established market, but to somehow push forward and build something bigger heading into the 20th century. The fact that Milton managed to pull it off speaks to how his supposed inexperience actually became something of an advantage—an ability to see a different way of doing business.
The first big innovation came in 1896. At this point, Florsheim & Co. was still headquartered at 116 Market Street, with 200 workers producing an increasing variety of quality men’s shoes. Some were sold through Florsheim’s own Chicago storefront or through local merchants happy to promote the brand, but a large chunk of the business relied on private label sales—essentially allowing dealers to slap their own brand names on unmarked Florsheim shoes. It was an absolute norm for the industry, and critical to keeping up profits. And yet . . . Milton was at his wit’s end with the whole thing.
[This Cincinnati shoe shop, seen in 1909, became an exclusive dealer of the Florsheim brand as Milton Florsheim rebelled against all private label sales]
“I started in business with my own brands,” Florsheim told System: the Magazine of Business in 1921, “but I made a few private brands, too. They soon got me into trouble. When contracts were to be renewed, some of the men who had been getting a private brand shoe for $3.50 came to me and said: ‘You ought to let us have this shoe for $3.40 this year.’ They virtually cut my prices for me, because they were in a position to make their demands pretty insistent. And by that means they forced me to produce poorer grades of shoes than I wanted to produce.”
Florsheim’s decision to completely do away with private branding nearly destroyed the business, and likely had his advisors wondering what the hell this young kid thought he was doing. Sales dropped in half, from $400,000 to $200,000. The free-fall proved temporary, however. To reverse the trend, Milton increased his advertising budget and began stamping the Florsheim brand name on each and every shoe coming out of the Chicago factory—so long as it was up to snuff with the quality reputation he wanted to build.
“We feel we make a good product,” he said. “We want the credit. And we do not want the discredit for the poor quality goods that might be attributed to us if we deviated from this rule.”
The new strategy was a huge success, and by the beginning of the new century, Milton was suddenly scrambling to keep up with the exponential growth of the business. He eventually secured a large factory at the corner of Adams and Clinton Street, and by 1905, had over 500 workers in his employ.
This is also when the second phase of Milton’s grand plan started to unfold.
Since the beginning of the company, Florsheim had operated its own retail store in downtown Chicago to sell its shoes “factory direct.” This was, logically, a highly profitable side-enterprise, and tied in nicely with Milton’s efforts to give the Florsheim name wider brand recognition and a reputation all its own. If he could set up more of these Florsheim-exclusive retail stores, it would be the ideal way to make up for lost private label money and give the company a chance of breaking through nationally. Essentially, Florhseim went into “franchising” before it was even a widely understood concept.
[1910 postcard showing a Florsheim retail store in Toledo, Ohio]
III. The Florsheim Franchise
“A good many shoes LOOK right but the shoe that IS right, is the ‘Florsheim’ shoe. There is as much difference in the anatomical shaping of every pair of ‘Florsheim’ shoes as there is in feet. There is no difference in the ‘Florsheim’ quality. If you are willing to pay $5.00 for a shoe that gives custom-satisfaction, buy the ‘Florsheim’ shoe. What you get is the best hand benchwork—selected leather—proper styles—perfect comfort. The name ‘Florsheim’ woven in the strap.” —Florsheim advertisement, 1903
While he continued to run national ad campaigns in magazines like McClure’s, Cosmopolitan, and the Saturday Evening Post, Milton Florsheim’s biggest sales pitches were directed more at regional shoe merchants and/or businessmen looking for a new opportunity. He was offering not only the chance to own a Florsheim retail franchise, but actual financial aid in establishing said business.
From New York City to Seattle, Milton personally put in the travel miles to assess potential markets and available storefronts for a Florsheim shop. Large signage was shipped in to each new location to ensure this shoe establishment couldn’t be confused with any other, and each franchise owner was treated “fairly” under the Florsheim network’s unwritten constitution.
“The manager of each store receives an interest from the sales of his store,” the Magazine of Business reported.
“Very often he is a stockholder. But he does not receive any concessions as to price in buying his merchandise. He pays the same as the largest buyer in the biggest city, or as the smallest buyer in the smallest village. ‘The one price policy,’ says Florsheim, ‘is absolute. The small man’s dollar looks just as good to me as the large man’s.’”
[Milton S. Florsheim at his desk, 1921]
Boosted by the additional manufacture of military boots during World War I, Milton’s business—now split between the original Florsheim Shoe Company and its separate retail organization (run by sales manager Samuel Goodman)—was soon America’s largest producer of “men’s shoes of the better grade,” with yearly sales of $10 million by 1920, and 48 retail stores in operation.
The company’s main factory at 541 W. Adams Street had received a seven-story expansion in 1912, but it still wasn’t sufficient enough to handle current demand. So, in 1919, a modern new four-story facility was commissioned at 3927 W. Belmont Avenue in Avondale. When that factory opened in 1921, the company was already pondering the purchase of the land adjacent to it, and by 1924, work began on an even bigger six-story monster complex—designed by famed architect Alfred Alschuler.
The grid-patterned concrete structure mixed minimalist modernism with terra cotta flourishes (including the green company sign over the main entrance), and with plenty of windows and ventilation, it was one of the new “daylight factories” making life a tad less miserable for Chicago workers in the 1920s. Today, the building has been preserved and residentially repurposed as the “Shoemaker Lofts.”
[Former Florsheim Shoe Company Building at 3963 W. Belmont Ave. Opened in 1926, the building was sold in 1987 and converted to apartments in 2005. It’s now known as the Shoemaker Lofts.]
IV. Feeture Presentation
According to the New York Times, the Florsheim Shoe Company’s late 1920s peak saw it balloon to “2,500 employees, 5 factories, 71 retail outlets, 9,000 dealers, and a network of regional wholesale distributors.” Milton (now serving as Chairman) and his wife Gertrude were understandably living large by now, claiming a suite at the Drake Hotel as a residence. Meanwhile, their sons Irving Florsheim (president) and Harold Florsheim (secretary)—whom Milton had personally educated in the ways of business since they were in diapers—were now putting their Cornell University degrees to good use.
When not out selling their soles for the shoe business, the boys managed to become world-class breeders of thoroughbred horses and pedigree terriers, respectively. They also, oddly, both married talented artists, as Irving’s first wife Lillian Florsheim and Harold’s first wife Claire Zeisler both went on to become renowned sculptors—as well as the ex-wives of shoe executives (Zeisler, incidentally, was known by the surname Florsheim until marrying her second husband, Ernest Zeisler).
The fabulous Florsheims were not operating in a vacuum, however. The 1920s bubble had benefited numerous other Chicago shoe manufacturers, too, as the city now boasted close to 30 factories dedicated to the industry. These businesses could rely on heaps of quality leather coming from the Union Stock Yards and local tanneries, and—combined with Chicago’s rail networks—there was now a regional shoe trade that rivaled that of Boston or New York. Florsheim’s factories alone were making about 12,000 pairs of shoes per day, but in recognition of mounting competition, innovation remained just as important as marketing.
In 1926, for example, the company introduced its first square-toe shoe, which became a successful calling card of the brand for decades (and later, an unhip albatross around its neck). Another patented creation, the “Feeture Arch”—as seen in the design of our museum artifact—was likely piggy-backing off the money-making orthopedics coming from the labs of Dr. Scholl. Supposedly, the Feeture Arch “braces the foot where support is needed—relieves leg and arch muscles—gives added comfort without stiffness or bulk.”
Each new Florsheim development was also now being increasingly promoted not just in the pages of newspapers and magazines, but through the new mediums of film (the company was commissioning promotional shoe films as early as 1921) and radio. One popular NBC radio show, the “Florsheim Frolics,” featured popular dance bands like Guy Lombardo & The Royal Canadians and the Coon-Sanders Nighthawks.
Like any major business working at max capacity in R&D, promotions, and factory production, Florsheim had its occasional squabbles with its employees, but from the looks of it, Milton recognized the value of a happy workforce as another aspect of building a positive corporate identity.
In 1920, the General Secretary-Treasurer of the Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union even took the bold step of specifically defending Florsheim’s labor practices during a time when there were whispers of an impending strike.
“For fear that the impression may have been created that this company is not fair to organized labor,” C. L. Baine wrote, “we desire you to know that the Florsheim Shoe Company operates a strictly union factory under the Union Stamp Arbitration Agreement of the Boot and Shoe Workers’ Union, and the product of this company is entitled to the patronage of organized labor the same as any other shoes manufactured under union conditions and bearing the union stamp.”
A year later, when Florsheim sought to lower worker wages by 25% (perhaps to help counter the costs of their new glittering factory buildings) an arbitration hearing denied the request, and the company obliged. The system, it seemed, was working.
In 1928, Florsheim listed 25% of its stock on the New York Stock Exchange, and revealed consistent net profits of over $2 million for every year dating back to 1923.
“Credit for the success of the company,” the Tribune reported, “is generally conceded to the dominant and aggressive influence of Milton S. Florsheim as president; the organization and policies reflecting his personality, ambition and merchandising acumen. . . . The company makes its own shoes and boxes, prepares its own advertising, cuts the soles for their products— does everything within its own walls pertinent to the making of shoes that is possible.”
After the market crash of 1929, of course, things took a decidedly darker turn. Rather than thinking about expansion and peaceful wage negotiations, the focus had to shift to basic survival. And much as Milton Florsheim had once been tasked with a similar duty of pulling the family business through a financial tempest forty years earlier, it would now be largely up to his sons to navigate the brutal landscape of the Great Depression.
[Florsheim shoe factory workers, 1940s]
V. Best Foot Forward
“If there is a keynote for the lovely new Fall Florsheim Shoes for Women, it is simplicity. And from this simple charm Florsheim stylists have created a line of high-fashioned footwear designed to anticipate every daytime need. From the shoes that are marked for the more formal afternoons to those of knock-about character, all depend for their beauty on the grace of their silhouette. The good taste of the designers is further accentuated by the deftness with which details such as stitching, piping and perforations have been added.” –promotion by Smith Bros. Boot Shop, Harrisburg, PA. September 14, 1939
When Milton Florsheim died of heart disease in 1936, his company was slogging its way through the thick of the economic downturn. It never collapsed, however, thanks in large part to capable leadership from the new generation—not just Irving and Harold, but new sales manager and director Joseph B. Stancliffe, who became the face of the business at new store openings in Boston, San Francisco, and other cities during the Depression years.
“In the face of the Depression,” Stancliffe told the San Francisco Examiner in 1938, “we determined to maintain standards and increase quality. The result of that policy made 1937 the largest year in volume in the history of the company. We will not deviate from this policy.” [Stancliffe, who became an executive vice president with Florsheim, was later strangled to death by his much younger newlywed bride in 1978, likely in an attempt to collect on his fortune].
Volume aside, the company’s profits had shifted from a waterfall to a sputtering spigot during much of the ‘30s, but they were profits, nonetheless. This was due, at least in some part, to the expansion into the women’s shoe market; as Florsheim started using the plant at 3927 W. Belmont for that dedicated purpose. The women’s division always remained a small percentage of the overall business (about 20% in the early years), and Florsheim bailed on the whole market by the ’70s, but the temporary expansion of their demographics—along with the boost from a new line of golf shoes—helped provide shelter from the storm.
Stancliffe’s aggressive maneuvers with the retail stores played their own significant role, as he was given mostly free rein to separate the company’s merchandising from its manufacturing. Stores were on prime street corners, brightly lit, and often featured eye-catching window displays, sometimes including an actual cobbler plying his trade; as if the store’s stock was entirely hand-made right there by this one fella.
[Top: A cobbler working inside a Florsheim store window display. Bottom: Wartime ads for Florsheim square toe shoes, which the company continued to produce even while hamstrung by military obligations]
After Pearl Harbor, more than 1,000 of Florsheim’s workers went into military service. This included Harold Florsheim, who’d served in the Navy in WWI and now joined up with the Quartermaster Corps as a colonel, helping direct complex shipping routes in the European Theater. Back on the homefront, the shoe business had to overcome shortages in both labor and leather, but Florsheim still managed to produce its quota of military boots without having to discontinue its civilian men’s shoes entirely. Women, of course, took over many of the factory jobs during this period.
When the military contracts ended in 1945, Harold and Irving anticipated an impending flood of new customers as the civilian demand would no longer be held back by rationing. They decided to put their war earnings toward a brand new Chicago plant, to be built right across the street from their original, dilapidated structure at West Adams and Clinton Street.
Gertrude Florsheim (Milton’s widow), along with Irving and Harold and Chicago Mayor Martin Kennelly, were there for the ribbon cutting ceremony at the new company headquarters on October 31, 1949. Described as “the most modern shoe factory in the country,” the U-shaped, 300,000 sq. ft. plant stood six stories high on Canal Street and seven on Clinton Street. “The building is as noiseless as modern acoustical materials and devices can make it,” the Tribune reported. “The offices and display rooms are air conditioned and illuminated by daylight. . . . In it the Florsheim Company will turn about 40 percent of its total production.”
[Exterior and main entrance of the Florsheim building at 130 S. Canal Street, 1949. Chicago History Museum collection]
The style of the new factory would be oft-mimicked over the next decade, but the truly unusual thing about it was its location. During a time when most manufacturers were abandoning downtown for the outskirts of the city or, better yet, the cheaper suburbs, Florsheim remained firmly within the Loop. At the opening ceremony, Harold Florsheim explained the decision, noting “the company’s desire to stay near the center of things in the city and the desire not to disturb the home arrangements of its employees.”
Today, most of the building is still standing and recognizable, though a series of additions and subtractions do require a brief moment of recalibration when comparing the “then” and “now.”
[Above: During its conversion to residential and retail in 1999, the former Florsheim building at 130 S. Canal Street gained some floors but lost a lot of its architectural merits. Below: Some of Florsheim’s 3,000+ Chicago workers in 1949. from Chicago History Museum]
As the 1950s began, Florsheim’s Chicago workforce counted upwards of 3,500 men and women, operating out of the new plant as well as the two Belmont facilities, another at 2942 W. Carroll, and another in Danville, IL. Three-fourths of the shoe output was sold by independent retailers, while the other quarter went through Florsheim’s network of 100 company-owned outlets in 52 cities.
This made it maybe a little surprising when news broke in 1953 that Florsheim—a family-owned business for 60 years—had just been sold.
[More views inside the downtown Florsheim complex, including the creative team, conference room, and cafeteria]
VI. The Generational Rift
The price of $21 million was enough for Irving and Harold Florsheim to agree to give up controlling interest in the Florsheim Shoe Company to the St. Louis based International Shoe Co.—the largest shoemaker in the world at the time. The word of the day, from Harold’s viewpoint, seemed to be “security”—and the mutual benefit of combining Florsheim’s dominance of the men’s dress shoe market with International Shoe’s far greater overall manufacturing capacity (which was about 20x that of Florsheim).
The deal was praised by the business rags, noting International’s successful grab of a higher class brand and Florsheim’s success in retaining its own semi-independent management, with Irving and Harold Florsheim staying on in their leadership roles and all Chicago factories continuing to operate as before. Florsheim stocks soared after the announcement of the acquisition / merger.
Behind the scenes, though, not everyone in the family was pleased with the new course of things.
Harold’s son Thomas—who graduated from the University of Chicago with the hopes of becoming an anthropologist—had instead been coaxed into entering the footwear field like his father, grandfather, and great grandfather before him. Thomas Florsheim was a child of Harold’s first marriage, which had ended in divorce, and unlike the warm relationship between Milton and his children, this father/son dynamic was more of the icy variety.
“I didn’t grow up with him around, and so we were not very close at all,” Thomas told the New York Times many years later. “The truth is that we never really got along well. . . . I came in under the notion that they wanted me to run the company one day,” he added, but with International Shoe overseeing things from afar, this began to look less clear.
According to Thomas, an aging Harold Florsheim wasn’t interested in loosening his firm grip on the family brand. This was perhaps even more the case after the death of his older brother Irving Florsheim in 1959. But while Harold wanted to do things “by the book,” his son argued for change in order to adapt to a new world in the 1950s and ‘60s. This included opening production overseas, making more casual shoes, cutting women’s shoes to focus on their established men’s brands, and updating their marketing strategy. Specifically, Thomas suggested advertising Florsheim shoes in Playboy—a clear demographic match—but Harold outright refused, finding it far too “risque.”
“We got into terrible fights,” Thomas Florsheim told the NYT. “I realized that as long as my father was there, I would never run the business. He wanted the authority. But as long as I was there, I wanted to be my own boss.”
In Harold’s defense, his methods were hardly doing any damage during the first 10-15 years of the InterCo merger, as Florsheim continued to experience great success, even as its parent company scuffled a bit by comparison. By the early 1960s, the company had a 70-percent share of the men’s dress shoe market and “accounted for more than half of InterCo’s earnings,” according to the NYT story. They’d also continued to innovative in some ways—especially in their company-owned retail outlets, which started the practice of stocking shoes in the front room for customers to try on off the rack (rather than having to request a pair from the stockroom).
Still, Thomas saw doom on the horizon, and made an extremely bold decision quite befitting of the rebellious 1960s. Not only did he tell his dad he was quitting the business; he also announced he was joining the board of a different shoe company, the Weyenberg Shoe MFG Co.—a maker of the type of casual men’s shoes Thomas had been pushing for.
“It was like I had committed treason,” Thomas told the New York Times. “My father couldn’t understand why I was leaving. And he told me that it was a mistake and that I’d be sorry. . . When I left, those were the happiest days of my life. I couldn’t understand why I had stayed for nine years.”
VII. Low Florsheim, High Ceiling
As Thomas Florsheim had anticipated, his former company’s seemingly endless run of success did start to slow by the 1970s. The blame can go well beyond simple old-fashionedness, though. For one thing, poor management at InterCo did no favors for the folks still running the “reliable” Florsheim division in Chicago, and for another, the massive influx of imports into the American shoe business was making it hard for any of the old firms to keep pace.
Things only got worse in the 1980s, when the percentage of American-made shoes in the overall men’s dress/casual/non-athletic category dropped from 56% at the start of the decade down to 30% by 1985 [the situation was actually even worse in women’s shoes, where only 15% of the market was USA-made, and sports shoes, where it had fallen to 7%]. Obviously, this also meant that there were fewer factory jobs in the U.S. shoe industry, nearly halving from 146,000 nationwide in 1981 to 84,000 by 1988.
Florsheim was certainly part of these cuts, shutting down its Belmont Avenue operations in the mid ‘80s and moving much of its production overseas. The company’s only remaining U.S. factories were in southern Illinois, southern Missouri, and inside one floor of the main headquarters at 130 S. Canal St., where about 10,000 pairs of special-order and prototype shoes were made each year.
“We had to go offshore with our production to lower costs and to have the capability to make the kinds of shoes, primarily casual shoes, that you can’t make here in the U.S.,” new company president Ronald Mueller told the Tribune at the time. The average American shoe factory worker made $7.80 an hour in 1988. In Korea, that same worker could expect $1.71.
[News report of Florsheim selling its Belmont Avenue complex in 1987]
Even so, Florsheim’s market analysts spoke to focus groups, crunched numbers, and tried to come up with some other reason for their struggles beyond the obvious. Soon they determined that their brand had fossilized a bit—that young “Gen X” kids weren’t into the styles. So, with Harold Florsheim in retirement and no remaining heirs within the family, InterCo hoped that Ronald Mueller, as a more progressive sort of executive, could give Florsheim a spark.
“Mueller began working for the company in 1951 at age 15 as an assistant window trimmer and never went to college,” the Tribune reported. “When he saw the president’s office one day in Florsheim`s headquarters at 130 S. Canal St., Mueller said: ‘I knew I wanted to be there.’”
Mueller was a believer in the Florsheim brand and had his heart in the right place. He saw a silver lining in the globalizing of the market, hoping to expand Florsheim’s exports around the world. He embraced new tech, as well, installing ahead-of-their-time computer kiosks in stores for customers to search for their ideal shoe. The idea was for computers to eventually analyze and automatically size the perfect, custom footwear for every customer. It seemed a reasonable goal in 1987. Thirty years later, it’s still on the docket.
In any case, there was only so much Mueller could do to stem the tide inside the realities of late ‘80s America.
Just months after the death of Harold Florsheim in 1987, InterCo—the shoe giant he’d sold the family business to 34 years earlier—was caught up in the disastrous junk bond market, and soon went $1.7 billion in debt fending off a hostile takeover. The company filed for bankruptcy in 1991, and Florsheim—turned into a publicly held business—remained somewhat adrift through the ‘90s, producing a noticeably “lesser” shopping mall shoe that failed to deliver on its advertising; breaking Milton Florsheim’s cardinal rule. By 1998, the Canal Street offices were closed, largely ending Florsheim’s serious ties to its home city.
The company’s eventual rescue came from an unlikely but poetic source—Milton’s grandson Thomas, whose decision to leave the family business and join Weyenberg Shoes had proven a pretty fruitful move in the long run.
Now known as the Weyco Group, the Wisconsin-based company had picked up the popular Nunn Bush and Stacy Adams brands, along with a couple young talented executives; Thomas’s Ivy League educated sons Thomas Florsheim, Jr. (CEO) and John Florsheim (COO). For years, the displaced Weyco-Florsheims had kept tabs on the stumbles of their namesake rivals, imagining a scenario where they might bring the brand back under the family tent. In 2002, they saw their moment.
[from left: Tom Florsheim Jr., Thomas Florsheim Sr., and John Florsheim. Photo by Darren Hauck, New York Times]
Paying roughly twice what InterCo had paid in 1953, Weyco acquired the majority of the Florsheim Group, Inc. for $45 million.
“When it finally happened, all I can remember is how scared I was,” Thomas Jr. told the New York Times in 2007. “All of a sudden, we had the Florsheim name back. Now we had to make it mean something again. I was happy; I was scared.”
Thomas, Sr., meanwhile, was more caught up in the grander symbolism. “It was a very emotional moment for me,” he said. “It was something that I have always dreamed of doing.”
Selling shoes in the U.S. is still mighty difficult, and the halcyon days of Florsheim’s Chicago factory network will never return. But the business has been moving back in the right direction under the watch of its founder’s descendants.
“I’ve always wanted to have something for all the years I worked,” Thomas Florsheim Sr. said. “One of my greatest prides is that two of my boys [Siegmund Florsheim’s great-great-grandsons] have come into the business. If they leave, somebody in the family will probably come along to take over. I might not be around to see it, but that is my hope.”
[Above: Florsheim shop at North Clark Street and Foster Ave., looking north, in Chicago’s Andersonville’s neighborhood, 1934]
“Florsheim Works to Capture Heart and Sole of Younger Men” – Chicago Tribune, Aug 6, 1990
“Weyco to Acquire Florsheim Assets” – Milwaukee Business Journal, March 4, 2002
“Competitor to Purchase Florsheim” – Courier-Journal (Louisville, KY), Feb 2, 1953
“The Florsheim Shoe Story” – Jim Bowman, 2004
“Isaac Greensfelder Passes Away” – Boot and Shoe Recorder, Dec 1913
The Shoemaker Lofts: An Avondale Condominium Association – shoemakerlofts.org
The Coon-Sanders Nighthawks: The Band That Made Radio Famous, by Fred W. Edmiston, 2003
“Florsheim’s New Offices, Plant To Open” – Chicago Tribune, Oct 30, 1949
“Builders of Business: Milton S. Florsheim” – System: Magazine of Business, November 1921
“Dissolution of Greensfelder, Rosenthal & Co.” – Chicago Tribune, Jan 1, 1887
“New Factory Opened in Chicago” – Hide & Leather, Oct 1, 1921
“Greensfelder, Rosenthal & Co.” – Chicago Tribune, Feb 4, 1872
“A Fake Issue” – letter by Boot & Shoe Workers Union secretary C. L. Baine, February, 1920
“Simplicity Marks Florsheim Fall Shoes for Women” – Smith Bros. ad, Harrisburg Telegraph, Sept 14, 1939
“Florsheim Shoe Shows Years of Steady Growth” – Chicago Tribune, Oct 19, 1930
“Veteran Shoeman is Trade Power” – The Anaconda Standard (Montana), May 13, 1928
“Florsheim Sells Shoe Factory” – Chicago Tribune, March 1, 1987
“The Florsheims: Back in Their Own Shoes” – New York Times, June 24, 2007
Archived Reader Comments:
“Very interesting story! My dad owned a small family shoe store on Main St. in Welland Ontario in the mid 60’s to the mid 70’s when a mall came in and drained the life out of the area. I still remember the Florsheim sign at the front of the store. Even at a young age, I was told these were “the best of the best”. —Michael Csele, 2020
“My great grandmother worked in Chicago’s Florsheim factory after WWII” —Jules, 2018