There was a time when you couldn’t walk around Gloversville or Johnstown without knowing that the major industry there was the crafting of gloves and mittens. In fact, in the 1800s, glove manufacturing grew so rapidly that it overshadowed all other industries in Fulton County, and Johnstown became a leather tanning center.
Dozens of glove manufacturing companies as well as leather tanners and finishers fueled the county’s economy, employing thousands of workers. Many of these workers were Italian and Jewish immigrants who made gloves in their countries of origin and came to Fulton County when they heard about the available jobs.
Women sewed gloves together at home after men cut them out in the factories. When manufacturers switched to electric sewing machines, women went to work in the factories. By the turn of the 20th century, 57 percent of all gloves manufactured in the United States were produced in Fulton County. In 1912, Gloversville High School added courses to train students to work in the glove manufacturing industry, since Johnstown and Gloversville, given the sobriquet “Glove Cities,” had become the glove-making capital of the world.
Ancillary businesses sprung up around the glove-making industry, including box manufacturers, thread dealers, sewing machine repairmen, and chemical companies.
Johnstown resident Charles Knox took advantage of a by-product of the tanning industry by forming Knox Gelatine in 1890. He soon became known for his discovery of how to make a granulated form of gelatin.
World War II was a boon for the glove-making industry, as most of the black military gloves worn by servicemen were produced in Fulton County. However, after this time, the industry began to decline, as manufacturers, lured by lower wages, moved their operations overseas. Environmental regulations, as well as changes in tariffs, taxes, and fashion also contributed to the waning of the industry.
The decline was a slow one. In 1986, New York was still the leading tanning and glove-making state, and the industry employed two-thirds of Fulton County’s workforce.
The county’s history is a great benefit for today’s industry. “What that history produced was a great work ethic, and that has carried forward.”
Today, several leather companies that have distinguished themselves in niche markets remain; however, the leather industry no longer defines Fulton County. This has given the residents and businesses in the county a grand opportunity to effect a renaissance of the places where they live and work while maintaining the close-knit, connected community culture that thrives on cooperation and sets the county apart from other communities.
“We’re reinventing ourselves, because we can’t go back to being a glove-making town, just like Troy is not going to be ‘Collar City’ again,”
said Samantha Hall-Saladino, executive director of the Fulton County Historical Society.
History is a springboard for the revitalization that is now taking place in the county, driven by its citizenry. “People saw something in Fulton County when they came here, and we can harness that,” Hall-Saladino said.
That is exactly what has been taking place in the county. No longer defined by the leather and glove industry, the county is now a multi-industry cluster county with major national and international companies like Walmart, Crystal Geyser Alpine Spring Water, Fage USA, Benjamin Moore, Taylor Made, Pioneer Windows, and Townsend Leather, to name a few. “We have a multi-disciplined corporate base which has evolved from the history of the glove industry,” said Ron Peters, president and CEO of the Fulton County Center for Regional Growth.
The county’s history is a great benefit for today’s industry. “What that history produced was a great work ethic, and that has carried forward,” he said. Hall-Saladino would agree. “We’re using that history to propel us forward, bringing in new business while still recognizing that heritage we have here in Fulton County,” she said.
*Unless otherwise noted all images are from the collection of the Fulton County Historical Society, Gloversville, NY.
Photo restoration by Janene Bouck, www.silentjanesalvage.com