During the 1940s, “America’s No 1 Heel,” the slogan adopted by The O’Sullivan Rubber Company, was seen in many magazines across the United States promoting the pioneering work of Humphrey O’Sullivan from Skibbereen, Co. Cork. He born on 7th October 1853, and was the third and youngest son of Timothy and Catherine (Barry) O’Sullivan. After completing a good education at a state school, and a brief teaching post in a local school, he served a five-year apprenticeship in the printing trade, with J.W Potter & Sons. His excellent training and skills as a typesetter and his progression to assistant foreman, earned him the position of general manager of the Irish Daily Telegraph in Cork, where he was responsible for the printing of the afternoon edition of the paper. During his time with Potter & Sons, he also received tuition in speech and literature from the Rev. D. McCartie, developing his innate ability as an orator. His natural gift as a speaker placed him as a winner in two oratorical contests held in Munster Hall, Cork, and the Rotunda, Dublin. Frederick William Coburn, the author of the History of Lowell and its People, later wrote that ‘Mr. O’Sullivan spoke with earnestness, he displayed a deep knowledge of his subject and presented his points with such clearness and eloquence, that he was adjudged the winner on both occasions.’
After serving his apprenticeship and working for a brief time at Guy Brothers, job printers in Cork, Humphrey joined the Printer’s Union. In 1874, he left Ireland and travelled on the Inman Line steamship to New York, arriving with very little except the knowledge of his trade, his Printer’s Union card and his pluck and determination to succeed in America. He first secured a position in Yonkers printing office in New York, but soon moved on to join his brother James in Lowell, Massachusetts, where in 1877, he became a partner with his brother in his shoemaking and retail business, which together they developed into a very successful and profitable business.
Whilst Humphrey had been working in the printers, he had found a way to ease the aches and pains of the long hours of standing on the hard floor of the printing shop, by standing on a rubber mat. However, much to his annoyance his colleagues had also liked the idea and kept taking the mat to use for themselves. This had prompted Humphrey to cut out two pieces of the rubber mat the same size and shape of his heels and nail them to his shoes, which he found very comfortable and stopped anyone taking them.
The brother’s business grew and with an investment of $25,000, The O’Sullivan Rubber Company was established and on 24th January 1899, The O’Sullivan Rubber Heel was patented. The heels were of good lasting quality with hidden washers to hold the nails and were much more comfortable than the former leather heels. Humphrey’s invention was a huge success and soon the heels were being shipped across America, Great Britain and Europe.
The heels were advertised in various magazines and newspapers across the United States, in which Humphrey convinced the readers that his heels, ‘conserved nervous energy, make the step light and easier and lessened fatigue.’ The business continued to prosper during the Second World War, due to the demand of uniform manufacturing, but the post war years saw a decline in sales and so towards the late 1940s, the company moved towards the production of vinyl and opened their first vinyl sheeting plant, under the new name of The O’Sullivan Corporation. The company continued to grow and during the 1960s, after refining the method of laminating plastic to metal, and after purchasing Gulfstream, a plastic injection molding company, they refined the overstock method and started manufacturing luggage covers. Various plants were opened across America and Canada, and by the 1990s, the company’s clear vinyl was being used in medical products, such as intravenous medical pouches, air mattresses and inflatable splints used in hospitals.
However, due to decreasing sales and demands, the O’Sullivan Rubber Division was sold in 1986, to concentrate more on the production of plastics, forming the Regalite Plastics Corporation. In 1996, the company celebrated one hundred years in service and was suppling the industrial product markets with numerous products including swimming pool liners, roofing materials, tractor seats, geomembrane pond liners and gym equipment. Today Humphrey’s legacy lives on and operates under the name O’Sullivan Films in Winchester, Virginia and still maintains its high standard, supplying good quality film and artificial leather solutions to furniture, building and automotive industries.