“There is probably no other inert substance,” Charles Goodyear once said of rubber, “which so excites the mind.”
It’s safe to say most of us don’t share the love Goodyear, who was born in New Haven and raised in Naugatuck, had for the substance derived from rubber trees. But Goodyear’s passion — and it was indeed that — for rubber would ultimately change the world and leave an unmistakable imprint on Naugatuck and the region as a whole.
In 1834, Goodyear, then a bankrupt hardware store owner living in Philadelphia, learned while visiting the New York retail store of the Roxbury (Massachusetts) India Rubber Co. that the company was nearly bankrupt. The financial straits were due to the effect the environment had on existing rubber; it would turn rock-hard and crack in the winter and melt in the summer heat.
Over the next five years Goodyear conducted experiments in an attempt to solve what was perhaps the greatest industrial puzzle of the century: how to stabilize rubber.
As he embarked on his studies, he battled often-crippling poverty. He went to debtors’ prison so many times during his life that he called it his “hotel.” When one of his infant sons died, he could not even afford a funeral.
Yet Goodyear pursued the quest to stabilize rubber with Ahabian zeal. As Ann Marie Somma writes for connecticuthistory.org, “Goodyear mixed chemicals into raw rubber in pots and pans in makeshift laboratories that he set up in his wife’s kitchen and also in debtors’ prison. … He inhaled the fumes of toxic concoctions, including nitric acid, lime, and turpentine, that he mixed together and kneaded into the rubber to make it stable. … When he ran out of money to pay for his experiments, he begged or sold his family’s furnishings, even his children’s textbooks.”
During one particularly lean period during this time, his family survived thanks to charity from local farmers in Woburn, Massachusetts, where the family had settled. The farmers gave his children milk and let them dig for potatoes. It was in Massachusetts where Goodyear realized by accident that combining rubber and sulfur with heat caused rubber to harden and stabilize. He perfected this technique over the next few years. In 1843 he established the Naugatuck India-Rubber Co. in Naugatuck, and in 1844 he patented his process for stabilizing rubber. He named the process vulcanization, after the Roman god of fire.
Thanks to Goodyear licensing his vulcanization process in the area, Naugatuck became a hub of the rubber industry. One of its major thoroughfares is still named Rubber Avenue.
In 1892, nine Naugatuck rubber companies consolidated into the United States Rubber Co. Four years later, the massive company was one of the original 12 stocks making up the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
The company would later form the Keds brand and release in 1916 the iconic Champion, the first major shoe with rubber soles. While these were not the first shoes specifically designed for athletics, they may have been the first shoes dubbed “sneakers,” as the rubber-soled shoes were quieter and therefore perfect for “sneaking” around.
Earlier, in 1904, in order to offset the costs of purchasing chemicals needed in the rubber vulcanization process, the United States Rubber Co. formed the Naugatuck Chemical Co. It occupied 20 acres of land along the Naugatuck River and produced the needed sulfuric acid as well as a variety of other chemicals, including pesticides. However, its most well-known product was probably the nationally recognized, Naugatuck-inspired Naugahyde, an artificial leather often used in upholstery. A popular ad campaign in the 1960s and ’70s jokingly claimed that Naugahyde was derived from a cartoonish creature called a Nauga. The company even sold Nauga dolls. Not everyone got the joke, and a myth developed in some — hopefully small — circles that Naugas were real animals.
The 1960s and ’70s saw the decline of industry in Naugatuck and the Valley as a whole. Many factories were shuttered.
As for Goodyear himself, due to poor financial decisions, his groundbreaking invention never made him wealthy or even financially secure. He died in 1860 at age 59, $200,000 in debt.
He is buried at the Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven.
The Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. opened in 1898, several decades after Goodyear’s death. Though named after him, it had no more direct connection to Charles Goodyear than the Tesla auto company does to inventor Nikola Tesla. Goodyear, however, might not have minded that a company profited from his name and his work, as they were not the first or last to do so.
“Life,” Goodyear 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.”
More stories from our tribute to the Lower Naugatuck River Valley: