One last dance for TicTacToes
From gloves to slippers to dance shoes: Local manufacturer ends production after 78 years
The company closed down production last week, finishing out its final orders. An auction to sell off its remaining inventory, machinery and furniture is due to take place on Thursday, and with the sale of those final items, so will go some of the last remnants of the American shoe manufacturing industry.
“We’ve hung on a long, long time. We’re one of the last,” second-generation owner, Bob Winnig said wistfully, while describing the emotions involved in the decision to close down production. “When you run a business, if you started it or you built a lot of it, it is very emotional. It’s your baby. You’ve worked with it; you’ve lived with it; you do it; and so it is.”
TicTacToes was founded as a glove factory in Gloversville by Bob’s father, Norbert Winnig, in 1941. However, the glovemaking origins of the Winnig family extend even farther into the past. Leo Winnig, father and grandfather of Norbert and Bob respectively, started a successful glove business in Europe around the turn of the 20th Century.
“A fellow by the name of Leo Winnig, my grandfather, started a glove business in what was then Czechoslovakia. He and a partner were making gloves in Czechoslovakia right up through the first World War,” Bob said. “My father [Norbert] was born in 1906. After the first World War, he was sent to Great Britain to learn English and trade, which he did. He learned the glove business from his father and he ended up being a salesman for his father.”
As a salesman, Norbert Winnig sold the Czechoslovakian-made gloves throughout parts of Europe until political and economic upheaval in the ’20s made the task of making a living extremely difficult. And so, Norbert, having learned and excelled at English early on, took his knowledge of the glove industry to the United States, and began selling his father’s gloves to high-end American department stores like Gimbels and Macys.
However, as the political climate in Europe continued to decline throughout the ’30s and while the U.S. dealt with the Great Depression, Leo’s ability to manufacture gloves in Czechoslovakia and Norbert’s ability to sell them in the U.S. became increasingly difficult. Leo was eventually forced to abandoned his glove business in Czechoslovakia and fled to the U.S. where his children already resided, as Hitler inflicted his reign of terror on Europe.
“My grandfather had to get the hell out of Europe and immigrated to the states,” Bob said. “He was an older man by then and basically wanted to retire. But he got out, and he got out with his life, not his business or his money.”
Norbert, on the other hand, was still a young man with a family and in need of a way to procure a living in order to support himself. To do so he stuck with what he knew best: gloves.
Norbert spent several years in New York City undertaking various glove-related ventures, until 1938 when he decided to move to what was at that point the glove making capital of the world: Gloversville. And so on June 15, 1941 Norbert Winnig founded the Winnig Glove Company, an event which incidentally took place on the same day Bob Winnig himself was born.
“That’s what my mother tells me. I don’t remember,” Bob joked. “But my mother said he opened up that factory on Glove Street the same day that I was born. That’s what she told me. I believe her. So that was the actual beginning.”
And so it was. The company that Norbert founded and that his son Bob would eventually take over would undergo numerous transformations as the markets and styles shifted throughout the decades in the ensuing 78 years. But its headquarters in Gloversville and its devotion to a high quality American made product remained steadfast.
Winnig Gloves made its first foray into the industry as a producer of military gloves throughout WWII.
“They were Alaskan-type military mittens for cold weather operations,” Bob said. “And also in the process of that, we made [ladies gloves], from what I remember, as an offshoot of the military [gloves]. The inside of those mittens were made out of rabbit fur for warmth. So the scraps he ended up taking off of that and making what they called ‘bunny mittens,’ which were little ladies mittens made out of bunny fur.”
As the war came to an end, Winnig Gloves transitioned from producing military gloves and begin instead to produce dress gloves, a move that garnered several years of success, but which eventually tapered off with the decline in popularity of this type of glove.
“That business ended up going down hill because of fashion,” Bob said. “Men and women started to wear less gloves. It was a fashion trend at that time.”
Norbert Winnig’s business at that point underwent the first of its radical transformations — a change which came about due to a chance phone call from a family plumber and a message that was nearly missed out on due to the forgetfulness of a then 10-year-old Bob Winnig.
“There was a phone call that came into the house in 1951 and it was from my father’s plumber. He wanted to speak to my father, and my father wasn’t home. So I said, ‘Well gee, I’ll take the message and I’ll pass it along.’ Well, I didn’t,” Bob said.
Fortunately for Norbert, he ran into the plumber several weeks later who was able to give the message again, this time directly to Norbert. This plumber had a brother-in-law that worked for a Rochester belt company called Hickok Belts. This company was interested in having a pair of men’s slippers made of leather manufactured to accompany a particular series of belts that were currently in production. Norbert, unfamiliar with the process of manufacturing footwear, decided to take a chance and accepted the offer from the Hickok Belt Company.
Norbert produced a pair of slippers for Hickok, and soon began producing his own ladies slippers — a move that fundamentally changed the nature of the Winnig business for decades to come. Norbert eventually changed the name of the company to the Winnig Slipper Company and produced high end slippers for women throughout the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, going through various style changes, from a lightweight leather product reminiscent of a moccasin; to a polka-dotted design, quite radical for its time; to a folding slipper conveniently sold in the hosiery department of high end stores; and eventually to a more sturdy heeled slipper in the ’70s that could be worn both indoors and outdoors as a street wear shoe. This last incarnation of the Winnig slipper ushered in the company’s transition to street wear shoes.
“Many of the companies that were in the so called slipper business started to go overseas [at that point] to get their product. We did not. We kept up with it here. But we transitioned away from slippers per se, or in the hosiery department distribution, if you will, and we started to try and distribute through regular shoe resources, such as Sears,” Bob said.
By this point, Bob had graduated from Syracuse University with a degree in economics and had finished a tour of duty in the U.S. Army and was back working as a sales manager in New York City for what was now becoming the Winnig Shoe Company.
“That was in 1972 to 76, or there abouts. They were really shoes [at that point],” Bob said. “I was the sales manager at the time working down in New York. I had the background of the factory, but was working in the Empire State Building and had to go down the road to sell shoes. That was my job, basically. It wasn’t a big management job, it was basically a salesman. Nothing more, nothing less. So [through that] I learned the entire shoe business. It was a lot of fun. You met people, you saw people. There were a lot of heartaches too, but there was a lot of fun, also.”
It was during this time that the company products acquired the name TicTacToes, which would stick right up until the end.
“We didn’t like the name [which at the time] was called Feather-Mocs. It didn’t have the bite we thought it should have,” Bob said. “One day one of our salesman came in, I was in my office, he just stuck his head inside the door and said ‘Tic Tac Toes.’ As soon as he said it, we registered it and that was it. It was up and going from that point on.”
Bob returned to Gloversville in the late ’70s as the company’s progression into street wear shoes continued. By the 1980s Bob had taken on more of a leadership roll within the company and eventually becoming president and owner in the late 1980s after the passing of his father. This time also coincided with the great influx of imported shoes.
“What had started in the mid-70s, where maybe 15 to 20 percent of the market was imported, by the mid-80s it was now 50 percent of the market. And the trend was downward for the American industry,” Bob said.
At this point, the Winnig Company underwent its final transition to dance shoes when a sideline salesman selling TicTacToes shoes in West Virginia came across a customer in need of square dancing shoes.
“He called me one day and he said, ‘Bob, I’m in with this customer and they would like to know if you could do a square dancing shoe.’ I said, ‘I don’t even know what a square dancing shoe is. What is it?’ Well, he sent me the sample and it was right up our alley. We could do it. He wrote an order. And that was our first step into dance shoes,” Bob said.
Bob said the primary difference between a dance shoe and street shoe, in terms of women’s shoes, is the addition of a strap and a goring to fasten the shoe to the foot, and a sueded bottom to prevent damage to a dance floor and for better maneuverability.
“Those are the two differentials that make up a dancing shoe: a sueded bottom and a strap, believe it or not. Those are the two simplest things to do and that was how we got involved in dancing shoes,” Bob said. “We started with square dancing, and one thing led to the next and before we knew it we were into it, involved in a big way making all sorts of dancing shoes.”
From square dancing and ballroom dancing shoes, to theatrical footwear, to a specially made organists shoe, Bob Winnig and his team carved out a niche for themselves, manufacturing and selling U.S. made shoes while all around them the industry collapsed.
“NAFTA came along in Clinton’s era, and when that hit, that sort of put the death knoll on the American shoe manufacturing industry,” Bob said. “But we stayed within our little niche making dancing shoes, which was too small a market, honestly, for large companies like Nike and such. These huge companies, it wasn’t worth it for them. Whereas a smaller company like us, it paid. I sent my kids through college with that.”
Nevertheless, the industry continued to dwindle and the once mighty Winnig Shoe Company, which employed nearly 400 workers at its peak, by 2019 had been reduced to only four — a team with enough knowledge and skill between them to renew the industry, if only there was any room in which to build it.
Linda Getman who began working for Norbert Winnig in the slipper days continued to put together the final orders of shoes on Tuesday, even after the last scheduled days of production, while her daughter Linda, an employee since 1993, continued work in the office. Bob Williams, a “shoe dog” as they are known in the industry, who before coming on board with Bob, worked 15 years for Daniel Greens in Dolgeville — where TicTacToes stitcher Judy Greensleete also worked beforehand — was also diligently crafting shoes on Tuesday.
“If somebody were actually interested, they could rebuild the workforce around those people. They have the knowledge. And once they’re gone, they’re gone,” Bob said. “The history, that’s probably the biggest shame of it. The knowledge is going to disappear. It doesn’t mean the rest of the world won’t do it. They’ll figure it out. But we Americans won’t.”
TicTacToes finally closed down production last week. But Bob walks away from the business with pride in what he accomplished despite the vanishing of the market around him.
“It’s somewhat of a sad chapter, but you grow accustomed to things,” Bob said. “I probably felt much worse about it in the heydays. But finally you accept it and you say okay and you drift into your niche and you hold on to your niche and that’s what you do. You forget about the bigger horizon. It was my life, I’m not ashamed of it. That’s what I did, that’s what I knew. That’s what I am.”
Bob is donating various historical artifacts from the company to the Fulton County Museum. TicTacToes Manufacturing will then hold an auction, open to the public, at 9 a.m. on Thursday at 1 Hamilton St. Gloversville with Dave Eglin as the auctioneer at which the remaining inventory, including over 6,000 pairs of shoes and slippers will be up for auction, as well as machinery, materials, tools and more.
“Everything in the building from the inventory, to the chair you’re sitting on, to the machines and shoes, office equipment, computers, you name it. Everything. Even the pictures on the wall,” Bob said.
For more information on the auction, contact Adirondack Auction Sales at (518) 848-7040 and for information on machinery call Bob at (518) 773-8187.