F.E. Partridge Rubber Company: Changing The Face Of the Retail Tire Market
Tires became a hot commodity as first bicycles and then automobiles became popular. In Guelph, several tire manufactures entered into the market intent on making a profit. The only one that lasted for more than a couple of years was F.E. Partridge Rubber. It was the largest and most successful of Guelph’s tire producing companies. First formed in Montreal, Quebec in 1915 and incorporated in 1916, it made its move to Guelph in 1916.
The reason given in India Rubber World for this action was the need to expand both the size of its facilities and types of products. The article stated that the “enlarged facilities being thus provided for the manufacture of the company's numerous lines of rubber goods, as well as special advantages for handling an increasing trade in druggists' sundries, automobile tubes and tire accessories.” The move to Guelph was to allow the company to focus on what became its best-known product -automobile tires.
The decision to relocate was not made by one person alone. In fact, it involved the company’s Board of Directors. However, the driving force behind it was the company’s President, and founder - F. E. Partridge.
FE Partridge: The Man behind the Company
F. E. Partridge was born in Bowdoinham, Maine in 1873. He started to work in the rubber industry in 1894 at age 21. His first job was on the factory floor of the Maynard Rubber Co., a shoe factory in Claremont, New Hampshire. He worked his way up to superintendent, before moving to the Boston Woven Hose and Rubber Co., Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he took over the position of night superintendent. After a 4-year stint in Boston Partridge became general superintendent of the Combination Rubber Co. plant in Bloomfield, New Jersey. From there, he was to change countries as well as jobs, becoming first superintendent than manager of the Canadian Rubber Co., Montreal, Canada. Through hard work and dedication, he worked his way up to become vice-president of the company.
In 1915, FE Partridge appears to have decided he no longer wanted to work for other companies. He made the decision to establish his own business going into partnership with Vincent Cooke. The result was the F.E. Partridge Rubber Company. Its products were commonplace to the existing rubber companies - various rubber articles including druggist sundries and automotive inner tubes and tire accessories.
In late 1916, shortly after its incorporation, Partridge introduced the notion of leaving Montreal for Guelph. Supported by his Board of Directors, the company went ahead and leased the facilities of Independent Rubber, taking over the space and machinery used by Standard Rubber in a factory on Metcalfe Street. Partridge was to remain in control of this factory until it went into liquidation in 1927.
Although not a native of either Canada or Guelph, Partridge did become involve in various local social and industrial concerns. He shared with two other business owners the cost of sponsoring the Victoria Lawn Bowling club’s first tournament in 1919. Furthermore, he contributed to the industrial base of the city through the founding of another rubber-based manufacturer in Guelph. This one did not produce tires. Instead, it was created to produce footwear. The company, a separate entity from Partridge Rubber, was Northern Rubber, located at the corner of Alice and Metcalfe.
Partridge was also to take part in national organizations beneficial to his company. He was an active member of the influential Rubber Association of Canada. According to Footwear in Canada, he became one of its directors in 1921. He shared this position with two other notables in the rubber business:
1. WH Miner, Montreal - Miner Rubber Company
2. R. F. Foot Merritton Ontario - Independent Rubber Company
The Growth of the Company
During the years Partridge operated in Guelph, it used mainly natural rubber and “gutta percha.” The major sources were South America and Ceylon. Synthetic rubber was on the market but was not as commonly employed in the making of tires and tire accessories until World War II forced manufacturers to turn to more reliable materials. The specific products coming out of the Guelph facility included:
· Hot water bottles
· Tobacco pouches
Partridge Rubber managed to set up and continue its production in spite of World War I, a conflict that the Industrial Banner said “upset manufacturing conditions.” In fact, the company actually expanded its physical facilities and swallowed many of the local rubber companies. In 1916, they took over Standard Rubber and, in 1919, F E Partridge went ahead and acquired the local branch of the Independent Tire Co. They expanded the facilities until, at the end of that year, Partridge Rubber occupied what was described as “a modern five-storey structure.” Industrial Canada went on to say the daily output of the company was:
· 475 tires
· 600 tubes
· 500 hot water bottles
· 1,000 tobacco pouches
With a plan to further enlarge the premises in the coming year, Partridge Rubber was hoping to boost tire production to almost double its current output. This would mean hiring more men to work in the factory.
However, the company did more than borrow from other companies. In 1917, the company showed its desire to innovate coming up with a patent for a “non-skid” tire. They also made certain to patent their trademarks beyond Canada and the United States. The Partridge trademark was registered as far as New Zealand. India Rubber World in 1920 described the Partridge Rubber Company, Ltd. trademark accordingly:
“Representation of a tire with a partridge standing within the lower part — pneumatic and solid tires, inner tubes, casings, tire accessories, mechanical rubber goods, druggists' sundries, and all other goods manufactured from India rubber and gutta goods than no 40.”
Yet, where the Partridge Rubber Company made a unique and long-term contribution was in retail. In 1919, the Daily Colonial printed that F.E. Partridge was planning to expand the sale of tires into retail stores. Interestingly enough, during this era most tire sales were restricted to “garages and branches or service stations of the then big tire manufacturers.” Partridge was changing this by allowing local hardware stores, harness stores and other “general merchants” to sell automobile tires. The Retail Merchants' Globe praised this approach stating:
“A new field holding out immense business possibilities to the retail trade almost in general, has been opened up by the P. E. Partridge Rubber Company, Limited. of Guelph, Ont. Hundreds of hardware dealers are already profiting by the opportunity afforded, while to the business of many a harness dealer the chance has meant a new lease of life.”
When questioned about the ability of a retailer to sell tires, Mr. F. E. Partridge is quoted as saying: “Tires, if they are good and are known, will sell themselves. The demand is everywhere.” This seems to be borne out by the increase in demand for Partridge Tires from at least one harness maker - Samuel Trees & Co., Ltd. In 1920, this company doubled their order for Partridge Tires. Through this innovation, Partridge was expanding the company’s sales, opening a new means of marketing to small and large tire firms and providing harness companies and similar factories another new chance to survive in a changing environment.
F. E. Partridge and Northern Rubber
In 1919, F.E. Partridge declared his intention to expand his company into another field. This was the production of rubber footwear. To achieve this, he pushed for certain concessions from the city in March of that year. According to Footwear in Canada, the company was hoping to “erect a rubber footwear factory … which [would] employ 500 people.” Among the hotly contested items were a tax exemption and $50,000 loan for 15 years.
The outcome was the construction of a commodious facility at the corner of Alice and Metcalfe streets. When completed, the reinforced concrete building, 80 x 200 feet, rose 4-storey. The structure also had a basement.
The Industrial Banner noted the industry would be opening in 1920. When operational, it could produce daily 5,000 pairs of rubbers per day. The company also expected to hire around 500 hands to ensure this capacity would be met. FE Partridge became the President of what would be known as Northern Rubber. He hired two other notable individuals in the rubber industry to assist him. These were:
1. F. W. Kramer, formerly superintendent of the Dominion Rubber Co. factory at St. Jerome, as vice-president and superintendent
2. A. F. Dwyer, formerly manager of the Maple Leaf Rubber Co., Port Dalhousie, as secretary-treasurer
At the time, Partridge viewed this factory as a means of expanding this company’s capabilities. He is quoted in the Guelph Mercury in 1919 that the footwear venture was part of his policy. It was a way for him to "compete with his competitors in all lines of the rubber business." Although Northern Rubber was legally independent of the FE Partridge Rubber Company, its products – rubber footwear, were to bear the Partridge brand.
The Strike of April 1920
The company was not without its labour troubles. FE Partridge was, it appears, not sympathetic to unions. This is indicated by his reaction to the company’s only strike.
In April 1920, the workers went out. The 50-60 workers were asking for an increase in wages for piece work. All were members of the local Rubber Workers Union. The strike lasted into May with support from John A. Flett of the American Federation of Labour. He tried to work with management and workers to reach a solution, but Mr. Partridge refused to have a meeting.
This state of affairs continued. In May, the Labour Gazette recorded the strike remained “unterminated.” The same is noted for June. At this point, the number of active strikers had dwindled to the single digits. By July, the Gazette wrote: “Information received indications conditions no longer affected.” This rather obtuse remark is the last one made in reference to the FE Partridge Rubber Company strike of 1920.
The 1920s were a period of growth. However, they also saw an increase in the accident rate of the company. From 1920 to 1923 inclusive, at least 4 accidents took place in the plant. Milling machinery claimed 3 fingers one - from J. Barrie in 1921 and 2 from A.L. Boles in 1923. The most serious accident ever to take in the plant occurred May 19, 1922. It affected 4 workers. Two, T. Carto and J. H. Hogg were seriously scalded by the steam from a vulcanizing vat. Two other unnamed workers were "slightly scalded" but did not require hospitalization. At teh time, they were being paid between $5 and $6 a day.
FE Partridge Closes
In spite of safety concerns and a bitter strike, the company continued to produce rubber products. Ads for the company appeared in industrial magazines such as Hardware and Metal, Automotive News and The India Rubber World as well as such national magazines as Maclean’s and local publications as The O.A.C. Review. While growth and production seem to have continued successfully over the earlier 1920s, it was not sustainable. The company did not last into the 1930s. It went into liquidation in February 1927, closing its doors for good by the end of that year.