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History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925
Edward Lane White

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[This information is from Vol. III, pp. 790-793 of History of the Mohawk Valley: Gateway to the West 1614-1925, edited by Nelson Greene (Chicago: The S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, 1925). It is in the Reference collection of the Schenectady County Public Library at R 974.7 G81h. This online edition includes lists of portraits, maps and illustrations. As noted by Paul Keesler in his article, "The Much Maligned Mr. Greene," some information in this book has been superseded by later research or was provided incorrectly by local sources.]

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The biography of the late Edward Lane White of Little Falls is to a large extent the story of the development of the leather tanning industry in this country since the 1870's, so intimately was he connected with the various experiments and steps by which the present highly scientific processes of tanning leather were evolved in the past half century. Born in Winchester, Massachusetts, June 25, 1857, Mr. White came from a family whose name will always be prominent in the annals of the New England leather business. An extended account of the White family, which dates back in this country to the Mayflower and early Plymouth colony days, will be found elsewhere in this volume in connection with the account of Mr. White's son, Richmond L. White of Little Falls. At the time Edward Lane White was born his father was operating a small tannery in Winchester, but two or three years later he went to Montreal to build and operate a tannery for Ricker & Mosely, where they manufactured old-fashioned side leather and patent leather. When Edward Lane was quite a boy his father returned to the states and started the manufacture of gloves in Lowell, Massachusetts, in partnership with his brother, Samuel B. White, and J. N. Kilburn.

During his early school days Edward Lane White displayed little fondness for his textbooks, so when he graduated from grammar school at the age of fifteen, his father decided that his time would be better employed in learning the tannery business than in pursuing a higher education. Accordingly, a place was found for the boy in a tannery located on the banks of the Merrimac river, about two miles from his home in Lowell. As the youngest apprentice in the tannery, it was his job to get down to the building in time to have it warm for the workmen when they reported for duty at seven o'clock, and his hours lasted until six in the evening, with an hour for lunch at noon. Those were days when the eight-hour day and child labor laws were unheard pieces of legislation. The tasks at which the lad was set during this long day give one an insight into the methods in vogue in the tannery business at that time. His forenoons were devoted to hauling skins out of the limes. This was done by plunging into the pit a six-foot pole provided with a hook at one end, hooking it on to a skin and then pulling the skin out. The skins, which weighed from five to twenty pounds, were then deposited on the top of an adjoining pit. After all the skins were removed the bottom of the pit was cleaned by scooping the lime out with a scoop of wire netting at the end of a long pole. Fresh lime was then slacked in a barrel, poured into the pit and plunged up, after which the skins were thrown back one at a time and sunk down with a pole. After his lunch period the boy went to work on the beams, taking the hair off the hides with an old-fashioned beam knife. The unhaired skins were then thrown in a tub of fermented bran and warm water, called a bran drench, to go through the process of drenching and deliming. Late in the afternoon the drench was supposed to "come up". This meant that the bran had fermented enough to form a gas and the skins would come to the surface. They were then punched down and left for the night. After this hard day's work the boy had a two-mile walk back home, leaving the tannery at six or after every evening.

This apprenticeship continued for more than a year, but at last it came to an end and Edward White joined his father, who was then manufacturing sheep and deer skins for glove leather. He was also milling buckskins in oil and making chamois. In his father's establishment Mr. White put the skins into the mill, poured the cod oil on them and then worked the oil into the skins by what was known as a fulling mill. After the skins were thoroughly milled they were hung up in a hot room until the cod oil had become oxidized, following which they were taken down and put into a good sized box equipped with a paddle, known as a cleanser. There they were subjected to a bath of warm water, soda ash and potash, and the oil, known as fat liquor, extracted. Gradually the firm extended its operations to include the manufacture of music leather, and a leather known as "action leather", made from buckskin, to cover the hammers in a piano. Capping leather, a soft and spongy leather, bellows leather for organ work and gas meters, alum dressed and sumac tanned leathers all were added to their line of manufactured products. The art of alum dressing was learned by Edward Lane White from an old English leather dresser, who came to work in the White tannery. It was no less laborious than the processes already described and required much disagreeable handling of the wet sheepskins.

After Edward L. White had been in his father's tannery for several years the firm was reorganized. It had been known for some time as White Brothers & Kilburn, but the latter resigned and Edward L. White and his cousin, F. M. White, son of Samuel B. White, one of the original members of the firm, were admitted to the partnership, which became White Brothers & Sons. In this new arrangement Mr. White spent part of his time in the Lowell tannery and part in the store in Boston. This store was once operated by S. B. White and Mr. Kilburn as a grocery store, in connection with which they did a lively business in naval stores, beeswax and furs shipped to them by Mr. Kilburn's brother in New Bern, North Carolina. Later the grocery end of the business was dropped and the manufacture of gloves taken on. Edward White's work in this store was to beat the bugs out of the furs that were shipped in, do up bundles, run errands, sort out music leather and make himself generally useful — tasks that were not particularly to his taste. But out of this experience there came to him most unexpectedly an opportunity to exercise his individuality in the line of work with which he was most familiar. Among his acquaintances in Boston were young men and boys employed in other leather stores, and one day while talking with one of these men he was shown a piece of alum tanned lambskin, colored red, known as cherry pink. This was used as the top facing of boots. Mr. White's father happened to have in his possession a can of genuine fuchsine red aniline crystals that he allowed his son to use in experimenting in making cherry pink. He produced a fairly satisfactory piece of the leather, which he showed to one of his young Boston friends, who in turn showed it to the man he was working for. The upshot of the incident was that the man in question asked young White if he could make a dozen such skins. The youth consulted his father and was told to go ahead with the order. The elder Mr. White took a considerable pride in his son's initiative and efforts to develop new lines in the business, but his brother and partner thought the whole proceedings a waste of good materials and money, and his disapproval of his nephew's business in cherry pink, which grew to considerable proportions, led to much friction in the firm.

Shortly after this episode the firm was reorganized. Samuel B. White and his son withdrew, taking with them the music goods end of the business, for which our subject and his father agreed to furnish the leather. Two of Edward's brothers had completed their education at this time and were ready to join the business under the firm name of White Brothers & Company. Cherry pink was their specialty that first season and they sold several hundred dozen of the skins. Other types of light leathers were added to White Brothers' line about this time; alligator leather for pocketbooks and lizard skins for bags and pocketbooks were fashionable and successful lines of merchandise. It was not long after this that Mr. White began experimenting with alum and gambier in tanning, branching out into the manufacture of shoe leathers of the better qualities. A. A. Audway of the firm of Audway & Clark, shoe manufacturers of Haverhill, asked him one day if he could produce a line of leather called Dongola. He replied in the affirmative, so Mr. Audway sent him some springbok skins imported from Africa, which he experimented with and succeeded in turning out a fairly good result. Continued experimenting resulted in a leather that fully satisfied Mr. Audway, and for several years the White firm manufactured this leather exclusively for Audway & Clark, using skins the shoe manufacturers imported especially for the purpose. Their interest thus aroused in the shoe leather business, the Whites brought out the well known "kangaroo calf" and for some time were the largest manufacturers of this leather. From this time on the business grew rapidly and the name of White Brothers & Company became a synonym for good leather in the tanning industry.

The next venture of the Whites was in ooze leather. This leather is so-called because the dye is oozed through the skin, the leather being finished on the flesh side. Mr. White's first sample of ooze was in brown. While this did not at once arouse the enthusiasm of the boot and shoe trade, Bennett & Barnard of Lynn made up samples of slippers, which took well with the holiday trade in New York, and soon Mr. White was receiving a flattering number of orders for the new leather. This triumph marked a new milestone in the leather manufacturer's career. Wax calf was then in vogue and delicate shades much in demand. Mrs. White suggested that if ooze leather could be made in the fashionable pinks, blues and lavenders it would find a ready sale and prove a prosperous feature of the business. Her advice was excellent. Soon White Brothers were making ooze in all shades of the rainbow and putting out something over two hundred dozen skins a day at a handsome profit. Colored Russia calf was another feature brought out by the firm, which was well received by the eastern leather trade.

A new tannery, up-to-date in every feature, was built in another part of Lowell about this time, and Russia calf, Willow calf, Box calf and a variety of other calfskins were turned out in what was then considered very large quantities. The history of Box calf is particularly interesting. Several of the leading tanners were experimenting with chrome tanning, so Mr. White, who was more or less acquainted with them and their work, fitted up a little laboratory of his own and set to work on the same problem, doing much of his experimenting in the evenings after dinner. After a number of apparent successes which proved to be delusions, Mr. White produced a very passable piece of chrome tanned calfskin, wrote out the formula and put it in the safe. From this point he progressed rapidly and soon the firm was turning out some very salable leather called Box calf. The name had nothing whatever to do with the type of leather or process by which it was tanned. In casting about for a new name for the chrome tanned calfskin, Mrs. White suggested that they call it Box calf for a Joseph Box, a custom shoemaker in London, who had once made her a very beautiful pair of shoes while she was visiting in England. The name sounded well, so it was adopted, and not long after an artist from Worcester, Massachusetts, added distinction to the trade name by painting for a trade-mark the picture of a calf in a box, which was copyrighted. The original picture now adorns the office of the American Hide & Leather Company. The last decade of the nineteenth century was one of great prosperity for White Brothers & Company, whose calfskin business extended throughout this country and was well known in Europe.

In 1899 the American Hide & Leather Company was formed by the amalgamation of a number of independent concerns, and acting upon the advice of some well known manufacturers and financiers, the White brothers decided to accept its invitation to join. This step was later much regretted by Mr. White, who found his peculiar talents of little constructive value in the uniform and standardized production policies of big industry, and he eventually resigned his position as vice president of the company. After spending a few years in the west in the mining industry he returned to the east and helped one of his sons, Richmond L. White, get established as the manager of a small tannery in New York state. Negotiations were well under way for Mr. White to enter the leather business in France, but as the World war was in progress and the participation of the United States in the struggle seemed imminent, he concluded that the circumstances were not favorable for the development of such a project and returned to this country. Shortly thereafter he came to Little Falls to take charge of the plant of the Barnet Leather Company in this city, and was later joined by three of his sons, who are today connected with that firm. This tannery is now the largest calfskin tannery in the world, with a capacity of ten thousand skins per day.

Mr. White was united in marriage to Miss Ida Vining Moseley, who was born in Lynn, Massachusetts, February 18, 1858, and is the daughter of Edward Van Horn and Mary (Vining) Moseley, deceased, who lived in Montreal, Canada. Her father was a leather manufacturer and was one of the men with whom Mr. White's father was associated during his sojourn in Montreal. Five sons were born to Mr. and Mrs. White, all of whom are living: E. Laurence White, born August 11, 1884, in Lowell, Massachusetts, is now engaged in the investment business in New York city, under the firm name of Watson & White. His wife was Miss Harriet Lancashire, daughter of J. H. and Sarah (Wright) Lancashire of New York city; Gordon K. White, born in Lowell, July 11, 1885, is also connected with the firm of Watson & White of New York. He is not married; Richmond Lane and Barrie M. White, who were born in Lowell, August 26, 1887, and October 4, 1891, respectively, are connected with the Barnet Leather Company of Little Falls as general manager and superintendent of the local tannery. Richmond Lane White married Edith Bellas, daughter of Thomas and Emma (Foot) Bellas; and Barrie M. White married Barbara Beebe of Boston, daughter of Frederic and May (Bickam) Beebe; Maurice T. White, the youngest son, also resides in Little Falls, where he is employed in the Barnet Leather Company's tannery as superintendent. He was born in Lowell, September 10, 1896, and is unmarried.

When death claimed Edward Lane White, on the 18th of November, 1922, the leather industry lost one of its most original and constructive minds. His contributions to its development have stood the test of time and are more highly valued today, perhaps, than they were at first, when their value was less understood. While Little Falls had been privileged to call Mr. White one of its citizens and industrial leaders but a comparatively brief time, his worth to the community had become so apparent in the few years he lived here that his passing brought a sense of loss to all. He is survived by his widow, who now resides in Boston, and his five sons, three of whom are carrying on the fine traditions handed down by their father and grandfather in one of America's great industries.

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