As remembered by Jerold and Robert Larson
(Edited with permission from “The World of DieCutting” by Robert Larson)
There are many families that have operated companies that produce all types of cutting dies and/or perform die cutting services. The families that started those companies had a special entrepreneurial spirit. Many were immigrants. They endured countless challenges to provide their customers with the required cutting dies.
Since the early days of die cutting, converters required cutting dies to cut out their component parts. The early die manufacturers provided the required dies to cut out a variety of materials. In the mid 1800’s die companies were established by blacksmiths and other craftsmen to produce cutting dies to cut leather and paper component parts.
The Larson family is but one example of a family’s effort to manufacture cutting dies. Their story is typical of the multitude of families that operated businesses to serve the die-cutting converting industry.
This is the story of the Larson family
John Oscar Larson (Oscar) was born on February 17, 1879, in Karlstad, Sweden. On or about 1897, he immigrated to the United States and settled in Worcester Massachusetts. One of the primary reasons for settling there was Worcester had a large colony of Swedish speaking families. There he met and married his wife, Wilhelmina Sandstrom.
Oscar and his wife later moved to Brockton, Massachusetts. In Brockton, Oscar learned the trade of producing forged cutting dies for shoe component parts at the Independent Cutting Die Company. At that time, most component parts of shoes were die cut using mallet handle dies the cutter hit with a large rawhide mallet. Later, 3 ½” walker high dies were used to cut out thick leather shoe soles on a “dinker” mechanical die cutter. Eventually, the ¾” clicker die was introduced. The clicker die was used on a swing arm clicker press for cutting out the thin upper leather parts of shoes and boots. At that point, 1¼” x ¼” clicker dies became the norm for cutting cloth for the apparel trades.
In 1912, Oscar and his family moved to the Boston suburb of Quincy where he worked as a die maker at the Boston Cutting Die Company in South Boston. The company serviced the shoemaking industry and the leather trades in the Boston area. At the time, there were over 50 large and small companies producing cutting dies in the eastern part of Massachusetts, mostly in Lynn and Brockton, yet Boston Cutting Die was the only one in Boston proper. A short time later, Oscar bought the company from the company’s founder, Mr. Murphy.
Oscar had a younger brother, Carl Magnus Larson, who joined the Company as a high die maker and worked there for many years until his retirement. A high die maker was actually a blacksmith who produced cutting dies over 1 ¼” up to 6 inches high on an open coal-fired forge.
Over the years the company expanded to several sections of Boston as its space requirements increased. The original location was a loft on A Street in South Boston, which was essentially a blacksmith shop that specialized in making sharp-edged dies. Today, where the original shop was located, is now part of the parking area of the former Worldwide Headquarters of the Gillette Company.
Boston Cutting Die grew quickly and Oscar bought a single-story building on Old Colony Avenue in South Boston to expand again. The new location served the company into the late-1930’s.
The second generation of Larson die makers came next. Ernest Larson was born in 1906 and Alton in 1910 and the two sons followed in the footsteps of their father and joined the business. Ernest oversaw engineering and sales and Alton managed production, although their duties overlapped to a good extent. The company continued to grow and service its growing customer base well.
The shoe industry at that time was interesting. Twice a year, shoe designers from all over New England descended upon Boston to attend the shoe and leather shows. It was a time to come to the big city and be wined and dined by their suppliers. The shoe designers created the rub of pattern sizes and selected a die maker to make their dies. If you took good care of the shoe designer, he took good care of you, and you became his die maker.
Ernest and Alton did not do much advertising in those days. They knew all the companies in the Boston area and their excellent workmanship and service seemed to be enough to keep the factory busy. During World War II, the company converted its production to assist the wartime effort and manufactured combat knives, mountain pitons and snap links for the mountain troops.
In the 1930’s, the company outgrew this facility and needed to expand again, prompting Oscar and his sons to buy a 5-story building at 615 Albany Street in Boston. The company utilized four of the five floors and the basement. The third floor was rented out to Graham Manufacturing Company, a company run by Harry Graham and his brother Chet, who was Ernest Larson’s brother-in-law. Harry Graham invented and produced the first electric stud welder used by Ford Motor Company for the first-ever push-button door handles. Today the building is part of the Boston Medical Center complex.
There were several memorable features of the building. It had a narrow staircase going up the 5 floors, an old-fashioned open elevator and a dumb waiter that was used to transport dies from floor to floor. The high die department was on the fifth floor, the clicker die department was on the fourth floor, and the machine shop that produced close tolerance dies by free hand milling was on the second floor. The shipping department and the company offices were on the first floor. In the basement, there was a small 26” Blanchard surface grinder, a huge 72” diameter sandstone wet-grinding wheel for edge-grinding the dies, and an inventory of the many different size die steels. One time Oscar was nearly killed while changing that large sandstone wheel. He lost grip while changing the wheel and as it fell it over it spun like a quarter on its edge and caught Oscar in his gut, flipping him up to the ceiling. Fortunately, he was not seriously injured, although he was knocked unconscious.
Oscar was a typically stern, no-nonsense type of employer. He ran a tight ship and demanded that his employees toe the line as most owner/managers did at the time. He had a habit of timing a worker taking time off the job to go to the bathroom. After a few minutes, enough to accomplish the task at hand, he would knock on the bathroom door to encourage the employee to get back to work.
In 1952, Oscar passed away and his sons continued the management of the company. In 1956, it became apparent that operating out of a 5-story factory was not as efficient as the family hoped and they purchases a 17,000 square foot, single floor building at 50 Freeport Street in the Dorchester section of Boston. This was the company’s final location.
In the early 1950’s the employees decided that they wanted to unionize, and Boston Cutting Die Company became a union shop. This ushered in many years of co-existing with a union hierarchy in the business; for better or worse.
In 1937, Robert Larson, the son of Alton Larson was born and in 1940 Jerold Larson, son of Ernest Larson was born. Alton and Ernest each had three children, 2 girls and one boy. It was the two sons who eventually joined the company with their fathers. Jerold was primarily involved in Engineering and Sales and Robert was involved in production, but like their fathers, they overlapped their duties. Cousins Jerold and Robert grew up in the business. It was like they had die-steel in their blood. Working so closely together for so many years, they grew to be closer than many brothers. A lot of people in the industry thought they were brothers and the cousins seldom, if ever, told people they were not.
Both boys learned the business from the ground up. They would go to work on Saturdays and school vacation days with their fathers. Their initial jobs were picking up the work rags that the men would drop on the floor, sweeping the floors and re-stocking the Coke machine. This was an honorable beginning for the SOBs (sons of the bosses.) As time went on, they learned the trade well and greatly contributed to the growth of the company.
In the 50’s and 60’s the nature of the business began to change. The shoe manufacturing shops in the Boston area started to fade away, relocating in the southern states or to overseas locations. To compensate for the loss of the shoe business the Larson’s developed new businesses to serve in the apparel trades. They expanded sales efforts in the areas in and out of New York City where many of the larger companies down south had their design offices. The company also began to service the plastics industry by producing cutting dies to cut out a wide array of soft to semi-rigid plastic materials.
In 1955, Robert enrolled in the College of Business Management with a minor in Marketing in Northeastern University in Boston. Northeastern University is a co-op school where students went to class for 10 weeks and then worked in a co-op job for 10 weeks. His co-op job experience during his 5 years at NU was with the Boston Cutting Die Company. During each 10-week job session, his father placed him in every department in the company, for example working as a clicker die bender, heat treating, in the finishing department, in the machine shop, or on the road in sales. He received well rounded training in all aspects of the business.
Jerold graduated from the College of Engineering at Boston University. Like Robert, every weekend and every school vacation was spent working at the family business. No job was too low or too dirty to learn. The training was good food for thought and technically inspiring for the young engineer.
Over the years the two Larson generations grew the business into a workforce of over 50 die makers with a total workforce of over 60 employees. Under Jerold’s and Robert’s influence, the company started to participate in major trade shows. Customers were developed all over North America and in Europe. They traveled throughout the USA working with the company sales force and representatives visiting all kinds of converting operations. These included garments (intimate apparel, shirts, men’s suits) plastics, medical, paper, gaskets, rubber, aerospace etc. Some notable problem-solving situations included die cutting mica for the nosecone shielding for the Apollo Mission, the space suits for the first astronauts and working with DuPont for their new product, Kevlar™.
Jerold and Robert made a good number of trips to Europe to see firsthand how European die makers operated. They visited cutting press manufacturers and brought home new ideas and methods to improve their manufacturing capabilities. Those trips were greatly beneficial providing advanced techniques to produce better cutting dies.
One type of cutting die that Boston Cutting Die did not manufacture was the steel rule die. Both the fathers looked upon the steel rule die with disdain as those “cheap” wood dies. Jerold and Robert campaigned to allow the company to at least sell steel rule dies because they felt that they were losing business to the steel rule die makers. They established a close relationship with Higgins Die and Die cutting Company, located in downtown Boston (the oldest steel rule die maker in Massachusetts.) When Boston got an order for a steel rule die, they would have Higgins make it. The fathers agreed to this arrangement. Eventually they saw the need to bring steel rule die production in-house and started their own die-shop for making steel rule dies. As that business grew, they bought the Higgins Die Company and eventually brought all production into the Boston Cutting Die facility.
This was an incredibly good move. The skills of steel rule die making meshed nicely with those of all-steel die making. One idea they developed was the welding of steel rule die blades. They perfected successful techniques for welding the very thin blade edges.
With the purchase of Higgins Die & Die Cutting the company acquired a Heidelberg Windmill press and 2 Kluge die cutters. The company already had a USM Samco full head press and a USM swing-arm clicker press. The company took in additional die cutting jobs to keep the die cutters busy. The USM die cutters were also used to test cut the dies and to take test cuts on hard-to-cut materials sent in by customers.
The company developed what was called the “Die Cutting Laboratory”. Recommendations were made for the best combination of die cutting press system, cutting surface and type of cutting die to cut a customer’s material. The Die Cutting Laboratory was more of mindset than an actual laboratory. Access to a large variety of dies of all different constructions, different types of die cutting presses and a whole selection of die cutting surfaces was available for testing inside the company facilities. Coupled with a wide range of proven experience in die cutting many types of materials, the company could make recommendations that were quite beneficial to their customers.
Boston Cutting Die had a comprehensive machine shop where close tolerance cutting dies were produced. The die makers would free-hand mill intricate designs on Bridgeport milling machines. One of their specialty dies was the line of Blue-Ribbon ASTM laboratory test dies. These were used in physical testing departments to cut out specimens of rubber for tear and tensile samples. The company also pioneered the manufacture of multi-contoured dies for cutting and stripping vacuum formed plastics. Ernest Larson patented what was called the Therm-O-Trim die. That die was heated with hot oil circulating the perimeter of the edge in aircraft tubing. The heated blades could easily cut through rigid plastics that might otherwise crack or leave a rough-cut edge. The dies were used in a Therm-O-Trim hydraulic press developed and built by the company.
Early accomplishments for this type of die included multi-contoured floor mats for automobiles, snow-mobile housings, automotive trim, and other industrial applications. Customers often supplied the contoured parts and multi-contoured check fixtures. The diemakers would look at the contoured part and imagine in their minds how to make the die, how to bend the blades, how to grind the exact contours in the blade to perfectly fit against the contours in the master jig and then do it manually. This was all accomplished by the skills of the diemaker craftsmen. In those days there were no computers or CNC design programs to replicate the die characteristics. Everything was accomplished by hand and good eyesight.
In 1978, Boston Cutting Die Company invested in a CNC traveling wire EDM machine. The company was the first cutting die manufacturer in the USA to incorporate wire EDM into the manufacturing process for making steel cutting dies. Shortly after, the company purchased a CNC Mill. This equipment allowed Boston to produce close tolerance ASTM and other dies without the old milling machine methods. The company could stack up blanks of dies and run them during the nighttime hours when the plant was closed. One of the local employees was on call every evening just in case the machine had a problem. When the machine stopped for one reason or another, an automated telephone call went out to the employee who would immediately come to the factory to put in a new supply of wire or solve whatever problem may have existed.
Another large investment was a new 72” diameter Blanchard Surface Grinder. This machine was used to grind exceptionally large dies to a predetermined flatness and parallelism. The company also accepted contract grinding from local steel companies. The company had two 36” and two 48” Blanchard grinders in addition.
In 1970, the company installed the first large computer system in the New England clicker die industry. It was a Burroughs Micro computer system that automated order processing, quoting, billing, inventory, payroll and job-cost processing. For the first time, the company had complete control over all the business operations. One benefit of this system was the accurate knowledge of the exact cost of each job and the profit on that job. Prior to getting the Burroughs the company had an office manager who kept the books and produced a P & L statement weeks after the end of each month. He did his job well even if his procedures were antiquated. He used a mechanical adding machine. When electronic calculators became available, he did not trust them. When the computer system arrived, he could not cope with the idea, and he retired.
In the old days Oscar and his two sons would stand by the shop door and listen to the noise level in the shop. They used to say that they could estimate how well the company was doing by the noise generated by the machines and the men in the shop. That may have been a good barometer of activity before the age of computers. My how times have changed!
In 1975 Jerold and Robert purchased a non-union clicker die manufacturing company. The history behind this acquisition is interesting. Novelty Cutting Die Company was in Brookline, Massachusetts in an old redbrick mill building. Novelty was owned by two partners. They primarily produced cutting dies to cut out women’s intimate apparel. They had always been a thorn in the side (cheaper priced) competition to Boston Cutting Die. Jerold and Robert wanted to open a dialog with the two owners, but the fathers objected to any contact with that company; after all, they were not good competitors. Jerold took it upon himself to disobey their orders and visited Novelty. They were not the demons that the fathers believed but just two hardworking partners with a small crew of die makers trying to make a living; and they made a great die.
Boston started to make dies for Novelty, and they made dies for Boston. It was a mutually beneficial situation during busy times (or during a strike.) One of the partners left the business and retired. The business relationship continued with the surviving partner. One day, the owner of Novelty came to Boston to pick up an order of dies. He came into the office lobby, had a massive heart attack, and died. His wife was waiting for him in their car in front of the shop.
After the funeral services she said that she would try to carry on the business with her son. It was not an easy task, even with all the help the Larson’s could offer. Shortly thereafter, Jerold and Robert arranged a mutually agreeable sale to take over the company. When the landlord learned of his tenant’s acquisition by Boston Cutting Die, he raised the rent over 50%. He had other plans for the mill building – condos!
Jerold and Robert bought a building in Kingston, Massachusetts about 30 miles south of Boston and shortly thereafter moved Novelty Die to its new location. Novelty, with its 12 employees was easily merged into the family operations as a non-union facility.
The employees at Boston Cutting Die Company did not like having a non-union shop in the family, but they could not do anything about it. Dies produced by Novelty Die Corporation matched the quality of the dies made in the Boston facility. The shop in Kingston could produce and deliver dies faster than the men in the Boston plant. If several men need to work overtime, the Novelty employees shared the overtime. Working in a non-union environment was less stressful, even enjoyable. The work in the Boston factory was eventually phased down and built up in the Kingston factory. This was a matter of simple economics.
In the late 80’s a definite shift was noticed in the converting business in the USA. The shoe and apparel industries were now going overseas. Other industries like sporting goods, baseballs, softballs, and many leather goods were outsourced to distant lands. No longer did the company get the large orders for brassiere dies that it had enjoyed over so many rears. Order sizes dwindled from several hundred dies per order to only a few as Gerber Cutters entered the plants.
The change in business was dramatic. It had nothing to do with the high quality and excellent service the customers were accustomed to. Boston Cutting Die still made an excellent die and could provide the tooling quickly to any company. The new challenge was that products were now being made in Asia. A new group of Asian die making companies was developed to service the companies that had outsourced their production to Asia. The rest is history.
In 1984, the Larson’s were approached and given the opportunity to sell and merge the operations into a die facility owned by Hudson Machinery Corporation. Hudson had recently acquired the Brockton Cutting Die Company in Avon, Massachusetts.
The manufacturing assets of Boston Cutting Die Company, Novelty Die Corporation and Higgins Die and Die Cutting Company were sold and merged into the operations of Brockton Cutting Die Company. The new company would be known as Brockton/Boston Cutting Die, a division of the new Hudson Die Group.
The merger was supposed to combine two of the leading die makers (Boston and Brockton) into one powerful new group. Expectations were high initially until the reality of what had happened took place. Jerold and Robert each had 2-year employment contracts. Six weeks before the end of the contracts they were told that they had three hours to vacate their offices. The offices had been ransacked the night before by the manager and he had taken all the historical records of Boston Cutting Die Company plus other industry memorabilia that Robert had accumulated over the years. Robert had written several articles on diemaking and diecutting for industry magazines. They too were all gone. This was quite a personal shock for both Jerold and Robert.
Jerold and Robert both had 5-year non-complete clauses in their contracts. In 1986, Robert became a consultant to the industry and started to write an industry newsletter. Jerold dabbled in real estate.
Now, looking back at the time that the company was sold it is evident that a good decision was made. The clicker and high die manufacturing business of today is a shadow of what it was in past years. There are fewer clicker die makers serving fewer and fewer converting customers. Some of the formerly largest clicker die making companies now are down to small numbers of employees. What was once the largest USA clicker die facility with five manufacturing facilities and hundreds of employees is now down to one factory with about a dozen die makers. A sad fact, indeed.
The Second Adventure
Jerold Larson re-entered the cutting die manufacturing business by establishing Pioneer-Dietecs Corporation in 1995. Pioneer-Dietecs produces close tolerance EDM’d cutting dies and tooling. The company specializes in ASTM close tolerance laboratory dies for tensile and tear physical testing to ASTM specifications. The company also produces printed circuit board singulation tooling to separate clusters of printed circuit arrays. In addition, Pioneer designs, engineers, and builds pneumatic presses to deliver those dies into the converting process.
Robert Larson, while not directly involved in the manufacture of cutting die tooling, was an international consultant to the diecutting process. Since 1986 he published a quarterly journal titled DDIN International, which was dedicated to all segments of the diecutting process. In 1988 he developed and presented a seminar series and trade exposition called the Diecutting Symposium that was presented for over twenty years in Asia, Europe, and North America. His last Diecutting Symposium was held in Osaka Japan in 2009. Robert also developed a website (formerly www.dieco.com) for the die cutting process with over 5000 pages of information and free access to those in the converting industries.
Robert was an organizing member of the Diemaking and Diecutting Association (DDA) in 1972 and actively participated in the association as it transformed into the National Association of Diemaking and Diecutting (NADD) and then into the International Association of Diecutting and Diemaking (IADD.) He received several awards and recognition in the industry by the IADD.
Robert Larson passed away in August 2013. He is sorely missed for his huge contribution to the diecutting industry.