Next time somebody tells you one company can't make a difference, answer one word: “Horween.” Remove Horween from the picture and what do you have left? The NFL with no footballs, the NBA shooting plastic, and half of professional baseball players hot-handing pop flies. Not bad for a razor strop maker from the Ukraine. Isadore Horwitz came to Chicago in 1893, just in time for the legendary Chicago World's Fair. Other than helping Horwitz find a job in a tannery, this World's Fair gave us Cracker Jacks, the zipper, the Ferris Wheel, spray paint, and Pabst Blue Ribbon, a hall-of-fame of American products.
Horween, who changed his name to sound more American, opened I. Horween and Co. on Division Street in Chicago after the turn of the century. Safety razors almost put them out of business until they started thinking outside the strop. Over the next century or so, they pounded out some really creative ways to give leather new life, like forging mechanical leather for engine seals and gaskets or constructing the water resistant leather boots that Marines used to defend northern Africa during The Big One.
As the Horween boys played and coached the new sport of football, they learned how to make shell cordovan – a type of leather derived from the rump of horses. Whenever leather gleams like phosphorous, as in ankle boots from Alden or Brooks wingtips, consider yourself cordovanned. Right now Horween is the only place on the continent to find cordovan because of the intense, six-month shelling process.
By the beginning of the 21st century, nearly all the tanneries had left the US for cheaper pastures and Horween had to retool again. They've turned themselves into the primary source for handsome American leather and a supplier for tanneries around
the world, putting out 120,000 square feet of rawhide every week. They are able to keep the quality high because sorting is still done by a single person who decides which hides past muster and which ones don't make the cut.
Professional sports may be their main business now, but the fifth generation of Horweens is gearing up to crimp, currier, fellmonger, moellon and shaganappi for a brave new world of leather lovers, and that includes you.
Beauty, after all, may be more than skin deep, but it doesn't have to look that way.