Figure 1 (left). National Airmail stamp cachet for the week of 15-21 May 1938 honoring Gloversville, N.Y. Figure 2 (right). The first patent for an aquatic glove.
Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 53 no. 4, December 2000
by Jay G. Ruckel
The Inventive Genius of Nineteenth Century New Yorkers in Glove Technology as Seen in Records of the United States Patent Office
Early nineteenth‑century America was an era of relative glovelessness, but the new Republican nation soon entered an epoch of democratic handwear. Rather than rare luxuries for royalty or nobility, well‑made gloves were soon to be made available for everyone. The story of this industrialization is revealed graphically in the archives of the United States Patent Office.
This paper is the result of a thorough patent search for gloves and glove‑related items from 10 April 1790, the date of the original Patent Act, through 31 December 1899, final day of the nineteenth century. A total of 574 patents were discovered from that period, beginning with the first patent awarded by the United States Government in 1855 for an aquatic glove that is virtually identical to modern day high‑tech handwear for water aerobics (Figure 2).
The century’s final approved glove invention was a fastener by George T. Chapman of New York City on 24 October 1899. This “snap” would soon supplant the but‑ ton, the clasp, straps, and lacings as the primary method of fastening gloves. (1)
For the period 1855‑1899, a total of 574 glove‑related patents were awarded. Of those, 185 (or 32 percent) were granted to inventors from New York State, and 89 (or 16 percent) were given to applicants from the greater Gloversville area. However, these statistics are skewed by the abundance of glove fasteners—286 awards or 50 percent of the total. If these mostly New England inventions are factored out of the equation, then the New Yorkers account for 64 percent of all glove‑related innovations, with 31 percent of the patents granted to individuals in the greater Gloversville area, commonly known as the Twin Glove Cities of Johnstown and Gloversville, N.Y., and their environs. Clearly, the motto “Gloversville Gloves America” rang true to form during that city’s heyday in the 1800s, as evidenced by the United States Patent Office records.
American glove making in the early nineteenth century had followed the European tradition reaching back to the Worshipful Company of Glovers of London, established in 1349, (2) and even further in France to the reign of Charlemagne, who, in the year 790, granted rights to all monks of the Sithin Order “to procure skins and make gloves, girdles, parchments, and book coverings.” (3) Their tools and methods, as depicted in Diderot’s Encyclopedia of 1764, had remained relatively unchanged for centuries.
Figures 3, 4, & 5. The patents for patterns originated by S. J. Clute, D. B. Gunn, and R. D. Burr, which are still commonly used to this day. They patents show ways of cutting that made efficient use of leather with little waste.
The basic structure of gloves or mittens consisted of a hand section, thumb‑piece, and forked finger inserts (known as “fourchettes” in French and “forgets” in English). Revolutionary American inventors refigured this basic premise of glovecraft (Figures 3, 4, and 5). Patterns originated by S. J. Clute, D. B. Gunn, R. D. Burr, and others are still commonly used today for work gloves and garden gloves, because they allow maximum consumption of leather with the least amount of waste through the utilization of smaller scraps of material, without sacrificing fit or comfort.
Figure 6. A patent for a die for cutting gloves. This and similar inventions supplanted scissors for cutting gloves.
Simple scissors were supplanted by complex technological steel cutting dies with knife edges in the form of required patterns (Figure 6). These dies were deftly engineered so that finger slits could be expanded or contracted to accommodate various sizes, and thumb‑holes were removable, ensuring that both left and right hands could be cut with the same instrument. A French glove‑maker, Xavier Jouvin, originated this system in 1838. As a medical student in Grenoble, he studied hands of his patients and eventually identified 320 different sizes. (4) He called his invention an iron hand, or “calibre.” (5)
Mechanical sewing machines radically transformed a cottage industry that had been built with the fingers of outworkers hand‑sewing gloves in their homes. In fact, Gloversville factory owners waited four full years, after the sewing machine was introduced in 1852, before adopting it for glove manufacture. They felt that this newfangled industrial monster would put all hand‑sewers out of work. (6)
Ironically, the sewing machine helped provide many more jobs with the number of glove and mitten manufacturers in Fulton County rising dramatically from about 40 in 1856 to roughly 250 in 1870—and the number of glove‑making jobs in the greater Gloversville area soaring from approximately 1,000 in 1856 to nearly 8,000 in 1900, when Fulton County was producing 57 percent of all gloves made in the United States. (7)
Figure 7. Since gloves were sewn inside out, it wasn’t long before someone invented a mechanism for turning gloves.
Better made gloves were soon available at more economical prices. The Singer Company designed special models for gloves, such as the pique machine with an upright post for insertion into each finger stall. As most handwear was sewn inside out, Gloversvillians quickly invented apparatus that rapidly turned the gloves, four fingers at a time (Figure 7).
During the early 1800s, gloves were “ironed” with human body warmth from the seamstress. As Bill Severn writes in Hand in Glove: “When a woman finished sewing a glove, she would put it on a chair and sit on it while she sewed its mate and then tuck that one beneath her to replace the first, so that she was always pressing one with her own weight while she sewed the next.” (8)
Figure 8. A patent for steam pressing
Inventors such as H. J. Anthony and A. C. Calder‑ wood (Figure 8) industrialized this process with steam filled glove dryers, pressing forms and thumb‑stick finishing apparatus. This machinery created new job categories of “Pressers” and “Layers‑off.” (9)
Figure 9. Multiple patents were issued as inventors tried to solve the problem of ripping of cuff seams. H. W. Burr (1882); M. King (1883); W. W. Whittaker (1886); E. V. Whittaker (1881); R. D. Burr (1887) and W. M. Tyrrell (1889), all from Gloversville, offered a variety of design solutions.
Technical glitches, such as the frequent ripping of cuff seams at the wrist, became resolved through multiple patents (Figure 9). Gloversvillians E.V. Whitaker, H.W. Burr, M. King, W.W. Whitaker, R.D. Burr, and W.M. Tyr‑ rell addressed this nagging problem with various creative solutions. The common denominator of their designs was staggering the normally straight seam around the wrist. The ultimate result in all cases was a tighter, more attractive fit at the wrist and a more durable, longer‑ lasting glove. Greater protection was also provided, as Morris King noted in his patent dated 13 February 1883:
“It is very well known that to preserve the hand in a warm, pleasant condition the blood‑veins should be constantly covered as much as the hand itself.” (10)
Figure 10 (from top). Form follows function. Gauntlets were not only protective coverings, but served other functions as well. J. W. Latcher and M. E. Dunham patented a removable cuff (1875). W. S. Tooker designed leather gauntlets with animal fur backs (1870). E. V. Whitaker’s glove patent (1874) had decorative gores that used extra leather scraps. J. B. Whipple added a pocket for money or small objects (1873).
Form then followed function (Figure 10). Gauntlets became much more than mere protective coverings for vulnerable blood‑veins at the wrist; they emerged as artists’ canvases where inventors were free to experiment with creative new designs. W. S. Tooker devised an ingenious method of uniting animal fur backs and leather palms for a seamless back gauntlet. J. B. Whipple provided a money pocket, or “portemonnaie,” on the inside of the cuff where it was not exposed. Ornamental gauntlets with swirling embroidery and pinked edges were patented by F. Farrant; and E.V. Whitaker introduced decorative gores using extra scraps of unused leather of other material. Finally, J. W. Latcher and M. E. Dunham brought from their drawing board a detachable gauntlet cuff that could be applied to any glove, and then removed for cleaning, so that coat sleeves would not be soiled by the handwear.
Figure 11. Advancements in glove fasteners from button to snap by Gloversville inventors, 1876-1890.
Glove fasteners emerged from the button, through springs, clasps, bands, pivot pins, levered hooks, corded studs, studded eyelets, spring sockets, socket rings, spring buttonholes, ball‑and‑string, spring button, flanged tube, flanged eyelet, and finally the everlasting snap. As mentioned previously, 50 percent of all glove‑related patents in the nineteenth century were for fasteners, and most of these came from the New England states of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. Patent wars raged through the 1880s. W. S. Richardson of Boston received an unprecedented eight patents in a single day (15 May 1888) for his glove fasteners. All of the major innovations in glove fasteners were also designed by patent‑holders from Gloversville (Figure 11).
Figure 12. The most patented hand-wear of the nineteenth century was the corn-husking glove.
Perhaps a surprising result for this study is that the most patented glove during the nineteenth century with a total of 21 awards was the “corn‑husker” (Figure 12). This selection of husking handwear resembles a panoply of armor with their spurs, metal discs, plates, rivets, scales, buckles, grommets, thumb shields, prongs, metallic staples, and serrated saw blades. None of theses corn‑husking gloves were designed in Gloversville; most patents for this style were assigned to applicants from the Midwest. The 1900 Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalogue offered nine different husking gloves, mittens, and pins ranging in price from four cents to seventy‑eight cents per pair. (11)
Figure 13. Patent evolution of the boxing glove from 1878–1899. The two gloves in the middle of row two show a patent for a glove that stored marking fluid in the glove to mark a hit.
Gloves revolutionized the bare‑knuckled sport of boxing (Figure 13). The first American patent for a boxing glove was granted in 1878. This post dates English counterparts, judging by the Queensbury rules published in 1867: “8. The gloves to be fair‑sized boxing gloves of the best quality and new. 9. Should the glove burst, or come off, it must be replaced to the referee’s satisfaction.” (12) Patent Number 522,568 dated 24 July 1894 provides a logical alternative to the extremely subjective judging standards of the game. Marking fluid was stored in the glove and it was dispensed onto the opponent’s body during each direct hit. Therefore, judging could be objectified simply by counting the number of indelible dots on each boxer.
Figure 14. Patent evolution of the baseball glove from 1887-1898.
During its pioneer beginnings, baseball was a glove‑ less sport. Players fielded balls with their bare hands, and bat‑less batters often swatted balls with their bare palms. (13) Figure 14 illustrates the evolution of the baseball glove from a thin‑skinned half‑glove to the outsized, overstuffed mitts of today.
Figure 15. A grooming glove.
Figure 16. The voltaic glove
Figure 17. Tennis glove.
Figure 18. A purse-securing glove.
Figure 19. Glove with removable thumb and forefinger stalls.
Figure 20. Vanity palm mirror glove.
A number of unusual gloves surfaced during my research. In 1883, R.W. Thompson invented a grooming glove, whereby brush bristles were permanently stitched to the glove itself (Figure 15). Thomas Forster of Streatham, England patented the first India rubber gloves for surgical operations, which are the direct ancestors of contemporary latex medical hand protectors. G. Ashman’s aquatic glove improved upon the original 1855 life preserver patent by adding webbing between the fingers of non‑absorbent, oiled silk. The bathing glove incorporated a sponge directly into the palm. F. Simpson’s voltaic glove offered health‑producing electrical charges as fasteners of copper and zinc interacted to produce voltage currents (Figure 16). The tennis glove was a well‑conceived notion that never actually caught on with that sport (Figure 17). Brooklyn‑born W. J. Fanshawe patented his unique glove in 1891 with a purse‑securing chain attached to the palm that “will prevent leaving it on a store counter and frustrate snatching of the purse by thieves (Figure 18).” L. L. Tabor and A. Sedmiheadsky designed detachable thumb and finger stalls for those requiring both warm hands and an exact tactile sense (Figure 19). And Leopold Frank of London, England, installed a mirror in his 1892 gloves, claiming: “My improved gloves are provided with the means for enabling wearers to reflect their personal appearance when desired, while the gloves serve their ordinary purposes without any inconvenience to the wearer (Figure 20).”
This study revealed a total of 56 different glove‑related patent classifications (Table I). Each of these categories is worthy of a presentation in its own right.
In an earlier work, the author learned that there is virtually no research literature on the subject of glove stretchers. (14) Aside from an isolated sentence or two in costume history books, or an occasional advertisement to the trade, the most enlightening prose concerning glove stretchers was that found on a surviving cardboard box giving instructions for their proper use. Then a dozen or so patents were located, thus fleshing out the story considerably. Figure 21 illustrates four different glove stretchers that often do double duty as glove powder dispensers and hand measurers.
Figure 21. Patent for a glove stretcher/powderer.
In conclusion, significant results of this investigation include the following:
• The accumulation of 574 glove related patents from 1790–1899 provides an excellent and definitive primary source catalog for glovemaking technology during the nineteenth century in the United states. • The 56 different glove related category breakdowns provide insight into the social milieu surrounding the proper glove wardrobe in the 1800s, with such Victorian bygones as : glove adjusters, glove wrappers, glove‑bands, glove stretchers, glove‑safes, glove trees, glove measurers, and glove towers. • The high percentage of patents awarded to New York State inventors (nearly two‑thirds) emphasize and validate the predominance of that region, specifically the greater Gloversville area (with nearly one‑third of all glove‑related patents in the United State glove industry. • This patent archives provides an excellent foundation and background reference for nearly all handwear and glove accoutrements utilized during the twentieth century, and most contemporary gloves can be related directly to this documented ancestry.
Although today primarily a ghost town of a single‑industry city, Gloversville can still boast its nineteenth century genius in glovecrafts, and these primary sources from the United States Patent Office proffer documentary evidence of that genius that will echo across the centuries.
1. A complete archives of these glove‑related documents has been amassed as a definitive primary source for the Glove Museum, the author’s private collection in New York City. 2. Anonymous, Hands and their Handicrafts: Gloves (London: The National Association of Glove Manufacturers, 1949), p. 17. 3. C. Cody Collins, Love of a Glove (New York: Fairchild Publishing Company, 1945), p. 31. 4. Valerie Cumming, Gloves (London: B.T. Batsford Ltd). 5. Editors, “Gloves.” CIBA Review (Basle, October 1947), p. 2230. 6. Jay G. Ruckel, The City of Gloversville, N.Y.: A Romantic Step Back into the History of American Glovecraft (New York: The Glove Museum, 1985), p. 22. 7. Barbara McMartin with W. Alec Reid, The Glove Cities: How a People and their Craft Built Two Cities (Caroga, N.Y.: Lake View Press, 1999), p. 27 and p. 60. 8. Bill Severn, Hand in Glove (New York: David McKay Company, 1965), p. 147. 9. In the 21 May 1887 edition of Harper’s Bazaar Frederic Remington depicted the work of the Gloversville factory workers. Remington, incidentally, was married to a woman from Gloversville, N.Y. 10. Morris King patent application, 13 February 1883. 11. Joseph J. Schroeder, Jr., editor, Sears, Roebuck and Company Catalogue, (Chicago: Follett Publishing Company, 1900, reprinted by the Gun Digest Publishing Company, North‑ field, Illinois, 1970), p. 552. 12. Michael Heatley and Ian Welch, History of Boxing (London: Selecta Book, Ltd., 1997), p. 15. 13. Daniel Okrent and Harris Lewine, editors, The Ultimate Baseball Book, (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1979), pp. 12‑30. 14. Jay G. Ruckel. “The Bygone Glove Stretcher: From Pure Function as a Humble Factory Tool To Pure Form as Elegant Decorative Object,” paper prepared for the Coo‑ per‑Hewitt National Design Museum Symposium on the Decorative Arts, 1997. The Glove Museum has upwards of 2,000 glove stretchers in its collection.