History: Latex Gloves 1

Charles Goodyear and the Strange Story of Rubber


In midsummer of 1834 a bankrupt hardware merchant from Philadelphia, Charles Goodyear, walked into the New York retail store of the Roxbury India Rubber Co., America’s first rubber manufacturer. He showed the store manager a new valve he had devised for rubber life preservers. The manager shook his head sadly. The company wasn’t in the market for valves now; it would be lucky to stay in business at all.

He showed Goodyear why: rack on rack of rubber goods which had been melted to malodorous glue by the torrid weather. In the company’s factory at Roxbury, Mass., he confided, thousands of melted rubber articles were being returned by outraged customers. The directors had met in the dead of night to bury $20,000 worth of stinking rejects in a pit.

The “rubber fever” of the early 1830s had ended as suddenly as it had begun. At first everybody had wanted things made of the new waterproof gum from Brazil, and factories had sprung up to meet the demand. Then abruptly the public had become fed up with the messy stuff which froze bone-hard in winter and turned glue-like in summer. Not one of the young rubber companies survived as long as five years. Investors lost millions. Rubber, everyone agreed, was through in America.

Goodyear disappointedly pocketed the valve and took his first good look at rubber. He had played with bits of it as a child, but now, at 34, he experienced a sudden curiosity and wonder about this mysterious “gum elastic.” “There is probably no other inert substance,” he said later, “which so excites the mind.”

Returning to Philadelphia, Goodyear was clapped into jail for debt. It was not his first sojourn there, nor his last. He asked his wife to bring him a batch of raw rubber and her rolling pin. Here, in his cell, Goodyear made his first rubber experiments, kneading and working the gum hour after hour.

Charles GoodyearIf rubber was naturally adhesive, he reasoned, why couldn’t a dry powder be mixed in to absorb its stickiness — perhaps the talc-like magnesia powder sold in drugstores? Out of jail again, he tried, with promising results.


He talked a boyhood friend into backing a modest venture. Charles, his wife and small daughters made up several hundred pairs of magnesia-dried rubber overshoes in their kitchen. But before he could market them summer came, and he watched his footwear sag into shapeless paste.

Neighbors complained about Goodyear’s smelly gum, so he moved his experiments to New York. There a friend gave him a fourth-floor tenement bedroom for his “laboratory.” A brother-in-law came to his squalid quarters, lectured him about his hungry children, advised him that rubber was dead. “I am the man to bring it back,” said Goodyear.

He was adding two drying agents to his rubber now, magnesia and quicklime, then boiling the mixture and getting a better product all the time. Impressed, a New York trade show awarded him a medal.

Goodyear lavished all the arts of decoration on his dingy samples, painted them, gilded them, embossed them. Running short of material one morning, he decided to re-use an old decorated sample and applied nitric acid to remove its bronze paint. The piece turned black, and Goodyear threw it away.

A few days later he remembered that somehow the blackened scrap had felt different. He retrieved it from his trash can and found he was right. The nitric acid had done something to the rubber, made it almost as smooth and dry as cloth. This was better rubber than anyone had ever made before.

A New York businessman advanced several thousand dollars to begin production. But the financial panic of 1837 promptly wiped out both the backer and the business. Destitute, Charles and his family camped in the abandoned rubber factory on Staten Island, living on fish he caught in the harbor.

In time, Goodyear got new backing in Boston and again seesawed to momentary prosperity. His partners wangled a government contract for 150 mailbags, to be manufactured by the nitric-acid process. After making the bags Goodyear was so sure of himself that he stored them in a warm room and took the family away for a month’s vacation. When he returned, the mailbags were melted. Underneath their “dry-as-cloth” surface lay the same old sticky gum.

After five futile years, Goodyear was near rock bottom. Farmers around Woburn, Mass. where he now lived, gave his children milk and let them dig half-grown potatoes for food.

The great discovery came in the winter of 1839. Goodyear was using sulphur in his experiments now. Although Goodyear himself has left the details in doubt, the most persistent story is that one February day he wandered into Woburn’s general store to show off his latest gum-and-sulphur formula. Snickers rose from the cracker-barrel forum, and the usually mild-mannered little inventor got excited, waved his sticky fistful of gum in the air. It flew from his fingers and landed on the sizzling-hot potbellied stove.

When he bent to scrape it off, he found that instead of melting like molasses, it had charred like leather. And around the charred area was a dry, springy brown rim — “gum elastic” still, but so remarkably altered that it was virtually a new substance. He had made weatherproof rubber.

This discovery is often cited as one of history’s most celebrated “accidents.” Goodyear stoutly denied that. Like Newton’s falling apple, he maintained, the hot stove incident held meaning only for the man “whose mind was prepared to draw an inference.” That meant, he added simply, the one who had “applied himself most perseveringly to the subject.”

The winter after Goodyear’s discovery was the blackest of his life. Dyspeptic and gout-racked, his health broken, he hobbled about his experiments on crutches. He knew now that heat and sulphur miraculously changed rubber. But how much heat, for how long? With endless patience he roasted bits of rubber in hot sand, toasted them like marshmallows, steamed them over the teakettle, pressed them between hot irons. When his long-suffering wife took her bread from the oven he thrust in chunks of evil-smelling gum.

At night he lay awake, afraid that he would die and the secret die with him. He pawned his watch and the household furniture.

When even the dinnerware was gone, he made rubber dishes to eat from. Then the food was gone too.

That spring he went to Boston to look up friends, found none, was jailed for nonpayment of a $5 hotel bill, and came home to find his infant son dead. Unable to pay for a funeral, Goodyear hauled the little coffin to the graveyard in a borrowed wagon. Of the 12 Goodyear children, six died in infancy.

At last he found that steam under pressure, applied for four to six hours at around 270 degrees Fahrenheit, gave him the most uniform results. He wrote his wealthy New York brother-in-law — who had once lectured him about his parental obligations — of his discovery. This time the brother-in-law, a textile manufacturer, was interested, for Charles told him that interwoven rubber threads would produce the fashionable puckered effect then much favored in men’s shirts. Two “shirred goods” factories were rushed into production and, on the ruffled shirtfronts of dandies, rubber rode to worldwide success.

As soon as he could, Goodyear disposed of the manufacturing interests which might have made him a millionaire and went back to his experiments. He wanted to make everything of rubber: banknotes, musical instruments, flags, jewelry, ship sails, even ships themselves. He had his portrait painted on rubber, his calling cards engraved on it, his autobiography printed on and bound in it. He wore rubber hats, vests, ties.

Goodyear saw rubber as what we know it is today: the first and most versatile of the modern “plastics.” He perceived in it a “vegetable leather” that defied the elements, an “elastic metal,” a wood substitute that could be shaped in molds.

Some of his ideas still turn up as “new” uses for rubber. Many food packagers, for example, now wrap their products in Pliofilm, a rubber-derived plastic; Goodyear suggested the same application in 1850. Rubber paint, car springs, ferryboat bumpers, wheelbarrow tires, inflatable life rafts, and “frogmen” suits are other recent innovations he described a century ago.

Goodyear’s business deals, licensing manufacture under his scores of patents, were ridiculously bad. Shirred-goods rights, for instance, went for royalty of three cents a yard; the licensees made $3 a yard.

Against “patent pirates” Goodyear was forced to prosecute 32 infringement cases all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In one famous 1852 case, his advocate was no less a personage than Secretary of State Daniel Webster. Goodyear paid Webster $15,000 for temporarily doffing the robes of Cabinet office — the largest fee ever paid an American lawyer to that time. In a two-day speech Webster won a permanent injunction against further patent infringements. It made headlines, but it didn’t stop the piracy.

Goodyear was slow in filing foreign patent applications. But he had sent samples of his heat-and-sulphur-treated gum to British rubber companies without revealing details. One sample was seen by famed English rubber pioneer Thomas Hancock, who had been trying for 20 years to make weatherproof rubber. Hancock noticed a yellowish sulphur “bloom” on the Goodyear sample’s surface. With that clue, he reinvented vulcanized rubber in 1843, four years after Goodyear. By the time Goodyear applied for an English patent he found that Hancock had filed a few weeks earlier.

Offered a half-share of the Hancock patent to drop his suit, Goodyear foolishly declined — and lost. A friend of Hancock named the contested process “vulcanization,” after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.

At the London and Paris world’s fairs of the 1850s Goodyear installed great pavilions built entirely of rubber, floor to roof. When his French patent was canceled on a technicality and his French royalties stopped before he could pay his bills, he was seized by gendarmes and hustled off to a 16-day stay at his familiar “hotel” (as he called it) — debtors’ prison. There he received the Cross of the Legion of Honor, bestowed by Emperor Napoleon III.

When he died, in 1860, he was $200,000 in debt. Eventually, however, accumulated royalties made his family comfortable. His son Charles Jr., inherited something more precious — inventive talent — and later built a small fortune on shoemaking machinery.


Neither Goodyear nor his family was ever connected with the company named in his honor, today’s billion-dollar Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., the world’s largest rubber business. In 1898, almost four decades after his death, the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company was founded and named after Goodyear by Frank Seiberling. Goodyear’s only direct descendant among modern companies is United States Rubber, which years ago absorbed a small company he once served as director.

Today there is a cultivated rubber tree for every two human beings on earth. Three million tree “milkers” harvest the crop. The United States alone imports almost half of it, and synthesizes as much or more from petroleum. Nearly 300,000 Americans earn their livelihoods in rubber manufacturing, this year will produce $6 billion worth of products.

The whole huge apparatus owes its existence to the invincible little fanatic who might have died a bitter man, but didn’t.

“Life,” he wrote, “should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents. I am not disposed to complain that I have planted and others have gathered the fruits. A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps.”

Reprinted from the January 1958 issue of Reader’s Digest ©1957

History: Latex Gloves 2

William Stewart Halsted, the Father of “Safe” Surgery


In 1878, Caroline Hampton, the niece of famed Confederate general Wade Hampton III, and graduate of New York Hospital, became a scrub nurse to the famous Johns Hopkins surgeon.
Caroline Hampton worked for William Stewart Halsted, who is for many medical and surgical achievements. He is the father of “safe” surgery

Nurses and physicians had to scrub for a long time with harsh soap and then dip their hands in mercuric chloride. Many proved to be hypersensitive to the procedure, including Hampton; she soon developed dermatitis on her arms and hands. Hampton was an excellent scrub nurse and rather than lose her, Halsted contacted Goodyear Rubber Company which had been experimenting with new rubber products. The result was a specially made pair of thin rubber gloves which eliminated the necessity for Hampton to dip her hands in the mercuric chloride. She soon became so adept with the gloves that others, following her example, began using them.

Halsted wrote the following description in a 1913 review article on surgical technique.  “In the winter of 1889 and 1890 – I cannot recall the month – the nurse in charge of my operating room complained that the solutions of mercuric chloride produced a dermatitis of her arms and hands. As she was an unusually efficient woman, I gave the matter my consideration and one day in New York requested the Goodyear Rubber Company to make as an experiment two pair of thin rubber gloves with gauntlets.  On trial these proved to be so satisfactory that additional gloves were ordered. In the autumn, on my return to town, an assistant who passed the instruments and threaded the needles was also provided with rubber gloves to wear at the operations. At first the operator wore them only when exploratory incisions into joints were made. After a time the assistants became so accustomed to working in gloves that they also wore them as operators and would remark that they seemed to be less expert with bare hands than with the gloved hands.”

Infection dropped from twenty percent to almost nothing, and by 1894 all operating surgeons at Johns Hopkins were ordered to wear rubber gloves. Rubber gloves soon became standard equipment for medical and nursing personnel and, of course, as a suitable climax for the story, Hampton and Halsted were married.


Billhead of a Goodyear Rubber Gloves Distributor

Bonnie Bullough: The care of the sick: the emergence of modern nursing. 1979

History: Latex Gloves 3

Neil Tillotson, The Wizard of Dixville Notch

Neil Tilotson

Tillotson Rubber Company was founded in 1931 by entrepreneur Neil Tillotson, or “Mr. T,” as he was affectionately called. Synthetic rubber had been invented only 20 years earlier by Russian scientist S. V. Lebedev, and latex (rubber in its liquid form) had just been introduced in the 1920s. Those breakthroughs, combined with processing and vulcanizing technologies developed earlier and improved during the 1910s and 1920s, initiated a new era for the rubber industry. During World War I, particularly, demand for rubber surged as warring nations sought substitutes for limited traditional rubber supplies.

Tillotson got into the latex and synthetic rubber industry just as it was dawning. The 16-year-old Tillotson left a commercial trade school early, forgoing a probable future as an accountant to pursue his interest in technology and engineering. He answered an ad for a position in Singapore with the United States Rubber Company, but a concerned uncle arranged for him to take a job closer to home with the Hood Rubber Company laboratory in nearby Watertown, Massachusetts. His experiences at Hood, a processor of natural rubber, eventually led him to become interested in emerging synthetic rubber technologies and to form his own company.

From the start, the adventurous, ambitious, and forward-thinking Tillotson was destined to run his own unique and successful enterprise. And his background had prepared him well for the challenges he would face. His ancestors had thrived in the Northeastern United States before the French and Indian Wars, and Tillotson was raised by frugal, independent Yankees in northern Vermont. His upbringing taught him that “the simple solution was often the best one and that an open mind was the seed bed of successful solutions,” and that “if you own things at the ‘right price’ you never have to worry about being able to make a profit.”

Tillotson had shown his entrepreneurial bent at the age of ten. He saved enough money to buy a 1,000-mile book of commuter railroad tickets, for which he paid only two cents per mile. The cost of a single ticket was three cents per mile. The enterprising Tillotson was able to rent the books to other travelers at a rate of two-and-one-half cents per mile and turn a quick profit. According to his son Tom (in a 1990 speech to the Newcomen Society), that “fifty-fifty sharing of the benefits between the participants in a transaction became the cornerstone of his business philosophy.”

By the time he was in high school Tillotson was anxious to be on his own. He left home and high school early, in his early teens, and managed to find work on a chicken farm for room and board in Lowell, Massachusetts. He began attending the commercial trade school to prepare for a career in accounting. Shortly thereafter he left to take the job with Hood Rubber. He would work for Hood Rubber for several years before starting his own business, but not continuously. Shortly after taking the job at Hood, he quenched his desire for adventure by enlisting in the cavalry during World War I. The underaged recruit–Tillotson lied about his age to get in–expected to go to Europe, but was sent to Texas instead. Interestingly, Tillotson served as a cavalry trooper under General Pershing, chasing the infamous Pancho Villa through the hills of northern Mexico.

In 1918 Tillotson returned to Boston, and to his job at Hood Rubber. He studied engineering at night school, but his boss at Hood quickly realized that Tillotson’s problem-solving abilities and lab skills were largely innate. Tillotson, a high school dropout, in many ways was outperforming graduate engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In fact, Tillotson’s lack of formal training was a plus in that he often reached solutions based on intuition–Tillotson later adopted a lab technique championed by rubber industry guru Harvey Firestone of not taking any lab notes and minimizing formality in an effort to enhance creativity and problem solving.

After latex was invented in the 1920s in Germany, Hood Rubber assigned Tillotson to a team of researchers that investigated uses for the natural liquid rubber. Tillotson quickly realized that a big advantage that latex had over hardened natural rubber was that it could be used to create products without heavy machinery. Although Tillotson was fascinated by latex, Hood Rubber showed little interest in the material because it had already invested heavily in hardened rubber technologies. So Tillotson worked in his attic lab at home, along with his unemployed brother and father-in-law, to develop a product that they could produce with latex and sell.

True inspiration to develop a product came to the threesome early in 1931, when fallout from the Great Depression forced Hood to shut down its Watertown plant for a few weeks and to furlough its workers. The entire Tillotson family worked almost endlessly during the downtime to perfect their first marketable product: a balloon made with ears and painted with a cat’s face. A Boston novelty company named C. Decieco & Son was Tillotson’s first customer. Decieco purchased more than 2,000 of the balloons and was able to sell them the next day at a parade in Lexington.


The Tillotson family went to the parade to see how their product was received. Neil Tillotson was sure that they had a hot product on their hands when he saw a little girl pull her balloon down and kiss the cat’s face. The next day he sunk his entire savings of $720 into his new venture. He rented a factory for $25 per month and started what was first called Gardner Rubber Co. and soon dubbed Tillotson Rubber Co. Incredibly, the fledgling business churned out a whopping 5 million balloons during its first year of business. The company generated sales of $85,000 that year and turned a tidy profit of $5,000, which was an impressive sum for a business started with only $720 in the midst of the Depression.

Tillotson left his job at Hood in 1932 to devote all of his time to the new company. He paid $8 for a Greyhound bus ticket that would allow him unlimited stops on a trip from Boston to St. Louis. For five weeks he jockeyed from town to town. When he would get to a new city he would get the names of wholesale novelty dealers out of the phone book at the bus station and then visit and try to sell his cat-faced balloons to them. True to his frugal upbringing, he cut costs by sleeping on the bus, washing in men’s rooms, and eating sparingly in small-town cafeterias. He returned from the five-week trip with a bounty of orders for the upcoming year.

Tillotson managed to grow his company throughout the early and mid-1930s, despite the rough economy of the period. In 1937 he moved to a larger manufacturing facility. He also began developing and manufacturing a few other latex products, including latex-coated gloves and aprons for chemical workers. During World War II, when demand for latex and other rubber products soared, Neil Tillotson served as a consultant to the War Production Board, identifying sources of rubber to replace depleted natural supplies.

It was not until after the Second World War that Tillotson’s sales soared. Balloons continued to be the company’s mainstay, but Tillotson began experimenting with other products. Among other successful offerings, the company developed and manufactured latex girdles, baby pants, and latex-coated ink sacks. Tillotson Rubber secured its niche by staying on the cutting edge of technology. The company built the first high-volume automated dipping conveyor, which allowed a single operator to produce large volumes of balloons and other goods at a rapid pace. The high-tech machine was a major advancement, as most companies at the time still performed latex dipping by hand using racks. The conveyor was still in use in the early 1990s, producing boots that kept windshield wipers from freezing in the winter.

Tillotson Rubber’s big breakthrough came in the early 1960s, although the company would not fully capitalize on the breakthrough until the 1970s. Neil had hired a part-time lab technician named Bud Consolie. Consolie, who was a full-time fireman, became known in the company as a development genius. He was instrumental in helping Tillotson Rubber to develop the first latex medical glove. The chief advantage of the glove was that it was elastic, so one size easily fit all hands. With gloves and balloons as its core products, Tillotson Rubber managed to post average annual sales of about $1 million throughout the late 1960s and into the 1970s.

Neil’s sons, Rick and Tom, became involved in the business in the 1960s and in 1971 the family restructured the company as a partnership composed of all three men. Rick took charge of plant operations and Tom assumed responsibility for sales. The brothers started moving the company’s manufacturing operation to Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, where their father had purchased a hotel called The Balsams. The hotel had been a successful resort near Neil Tillotson’s grandparents’ home when he was a boy. It went bankrupt in the 1960s and Neil purchased it with the intent of running it as a hotel, or even as a factory for his company. It eventually became both; the Balsams became a premier ski resort in the 1970s and was also used to house part of the company’s manufacturing operations.

Tillotson Rubber flourished during the 1970s and much of the 1980s under the direct guidance of Tom and Rick. Rick took control of the balloon business, diversifying from conventional novelties into new markets for balloon bouquets, balloon sculptures, and mylar foil balloons. The company was eventually churning out more than 100 million balloons per year, and it was still producing the original cat-faced balloons. Tom oversaw the medical glove business, which grew rapidly. By the mid-1980s Tillotson was operating the largest examination glove plant in the world. A subsequent plant expansion gave the company a production capacity of more than 1 billion gloves annually.

Meanwhile, Neil Tillotson remained active in the business and pursued related interests. In 1972 he engineered the purchase of the former Firestone Tire & Rubber facility in Fall River, Massachusetts. It became the foundation of the company’s manufacturing expansion in the Northeast. In the late 1970s Neil pursued a goal he had set during World War II of developing a commercially viable source of natural rubber latex in the Americas. He bought 35,000 acres on the east coast of Nicaragua on which he planned to build a plantation, but the property was seized a few years later by the rebel Sandinista government. In 1979 Neil purchased an experimental plantation in Guatemala from Firestone. He nurtured the plantation and by the late 1980s all of Tillotson’s latex glove operations were being supplied by the local source. Neil even bought a freighter and built a latex processing plant as part of an effort that resulted in full vertical integration for the company.

Aside from innovative products and manufacturing technology, Tillotson Rubber Co.’s success throughout the mid-1900s and through the 1980s was largely attributable to Neil Tillotson’s partnership philosophy. Tillotson believed that any time the right people were brought together with the right products, success was imminent. Thus Tillotson’s organization was essentially composed of a number of partnerships that gave responsibility for different aspects of the business to different people or entities.

For example, Tillotson marketed its latex examination gloves by forming numerous partnerships with medical products distributors. To set up that marketing stratagem, the company formed a partnership with a respected Tillotson employee named Cal Robinson. The Tillotsons helped Robinson set up his own company, which ultimately assumed responsibility for all aspects related to marketing the gloves. Meanwhile, Tillotson handled all manufacturing-related duties. As with all of the company’s partnerships, the arrangement created a win-win situation in which all parties benefited.

Tillotson’s partnership strategy eventually resulted in a network of companies centered around Tillotson Rubber Co. Those companies, by the early 1990s, included the following: Best Manufacturing, a top producer of industrial gloves; Tillotson-Pearson, a maker of fiberglass sail and power boats and industrial fiberglass products; Textile Rubber and Chemical Company, the largest independent supplier of backing compounds used by the carpet industry; and Borden and Remington Chemical, which was a leading New England manufacturer and distributor of industrial chemicals.


Among the most prosperous of Tillotson’s segments during the late 1980s was latex gloves. The fear of contracting and transmitting AIDS in the medical community, and in other markets, spawned massive demand growth for hand protection.  Remarkably, the company’s 97-year-old founder, Neil Tillotson, was still active in the company in 1995 after nearly 65 years of service. He died at age 102 on October 17, 2001.

Principal Subsidiaries: Best Manufacturing.
Source:  International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 15. St. James Press, 1996.