By Paul Holley
In the early part of the 20th century, workers on farms, mines, construction site and elsewhere needed sturdy work boots. Nathan M. Ruthstein was the guy who provided them!
Ruthstein was born in 1876 (or 1878 by some records) and arrived in the U.S. about 1893. He located in Racine shortly after the turn of the century working as a clerk. But he was also inventive and an aggressive marketer.
In 1906, Ruthstein obtained a patent for a steel sole shoe that was riveted to waterproof leather uppers. Ruthstein was awarded another patent in 1912 for threaded knobs on the steel sole that gave wearers sure footing on slippery surfaces.
Advertising material issued during that period shows that Ruthstein wasn’t bashful with claims for his “Steels.” An illustrated booklet declared: “No chafing! No wet feet! No sciatica! No neuralgia! No calluses! No chillblanes!”
Ruthstein sold his shoes via mail order with ads in farm publications like “Kimball’s Dairy Farmer,” “The Fruit Grower and Farmer,” “Farm and Fireside” and “Farm Journal.” Steel Shoe Co. ads also appeared in “Popular Mechanics” magazine and railroad employee union publications.
In 1914, Steel Shoe Co. was located at 1611 and 1615 Racine Street, a two-story brick building that also housed a machine shop. The business was operated by Ruthstein and Joseph Kabaker (listed in superintendent). By 1916, Ruthstein was the sole proprietor.
In 1917, the business was also called Ruthstein’s Scientific Shoe Co. and reported capital investment of $20,000. According to records at the Racine Industrial Plant (now the Racine Arts & Business Center, 1405 16th St.), the Steel Shoe Co. operated there from 1918 to 1922.
Although Ruthstein left behind persuasive advertising materials, relatively little is known about the inventor/businessman. The 1920 U.S. Census lists him as a single person and roomer at 414 Seventh Street, an address he’d lived for several years. He gave his occupation as “employer, shoe manufacturing.”
The 1921 Racine City Directory lists Ruthstein as president of the Scientific Shoe Co. and president/treasurer of the Steel Shoe Co. D.A. Brown is listed is secretary/treasurer of the Scientific Shoe Co.
The “Shoe and Leather Reporter,” a footwear industry directory of 1921, cited that the Ruthstein Scientific Shoe Co. was succeeded by the D.A Brown Shoe Co. The 1923 Racine City Directory has N.M. Ruthstein listed as a “promoter” and living at 930 Park Avenue. Nothing more appears about Ruthstein or his steel sole shoes.
Jim Mercier, a local historian and collector of Racine gadgets and memorabilia, has tried on a pair of steel sole boots. He says the footwear may have been durable, but it’s far from comfortable. “There’s no give in the soles. You can stand in them or walk in them OK, but it’s tough if you try to bend or do something.”
(Material for this story came from “Invention City: The Sesquicentennial History of Racine, Wisconsin” published by Racine Heritage Museum -1998; the Spirit of the Racine Entrepreneur exhibit at the Racine Arts & Business Center, Ancestry.com and Wikipedia. Special thanks to Jim Mercier.)
(Gadgets and Geeks is an ongoing series of stories that highlight inventions from Racine County. Pay close attention, because the Racine County Eye will hold an upcoming Gadgets and Geeks Trivia Night. Trivia answers will be gleaned