Ypsilanti’s Glaswegian Cobbler-Inventor

December 15, 2010 by  
Filed under Columnists

Archibald's signature on his 1874 patent application for "Mcnicol Cement."

Archibald's signature on his 1874 patent application for "McNicol Cement."

The Scottish-born immigrant contribution to 19th-century Ypsilanti life is undersung. Farmer-poet William Lambie published numerous poems in the Ypsilanti Commercial and shared a correspondence with Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier. Helen McAndrew was a doctor maintaining her own hospital in an era when few women worked outside the home. Archibald McNicol did not allow his humble occupation of cobbler to prevent him from becoming an inventor.

Born in Glasgow on February 8, 1839, Archibald apprenticed as a shoemaker. He emigrated at age 27 just after the American Civil War. After stints in Canada, Detroit, and Romeo, Michigan, he settled in Ypsilanti. He married Michigan-born Helen Treat in 1872 at age 33.

As a cobbler, Archibald spent his days cutting shapes from leather, stitching scraps together, and nailing on soles. However he had a creative and problem-solving mind. Two years after his marriage he filed a patent for an invention connected with his trade. He named his creation after himself.

“McNicol Cement” was compounded of India-rubber, gutta-percha, balata, and chloroform. The concoction was a glue for leather and a waterproofing agent.

The antique terms deserve explanation. “India rubber” is probably most familiar to old-timers as gum elastic, derived from a tropical tree and at one time common in pencil erasers. Gutta-percha and balata were other forms of rubber also derived from trees. The chloroform Archibald mixed into his concoction was likely purchased from a downtown drugstore.

“To cement pieces of leather together,” read Archibald’s patent description, “skive [pare down] each piece of leather to a wedge-like edge, apply the McNicol cement to both pieces, and after lapping them together pound slightly with a hammer or mallet to bring the pieces into close contact, and give ten minutes to thoroughly dry.” Skiving the edges of the leather before gluing them together increased the surface area and made for a smooth joint without a ridge.

McNicol Cement seems to have had some success. In his 1881 book “History of Washtenaw County,” Charles Chapman included mention of the cobbler-inventor. “In 1867 he came to Ypsilanti,” said Chapman, “and soon after invented the well-known McNicol cement, and traveled and sold the county and state rights for over 11 years.” However, Archibald did not abandon his occupation of shoemaker.

By 1880, Archibald and his one-month-older wife Helen were 41. They lived on Summit Street with their 7 year old daughter Jeanie and their 3 year old son. Helen’s 79 year old mother Sarah shared their home, as did a 28 year old apprentice shoemaker, Wentworth.

Archibald wasn’t through with inventing. In 1886, when he was 47, he filed a patent for a “door check,” a spring-loaded device that slowed the closure of the door upon which it was mounted, preventing it from slamming.

At the turn of the century, Archibald was 61. He continued to work as a shoemaker and along with his son, who worked as a grocer, supported an entire household that included Archibald’s wife Helen, his 23 year old son and his son’s wife Maud, Archibald’s 17 year old daughter Helen, and Maud’s 6 month old infant, also named Helen. Archibald owned the home, at 717 Congress Street.

He shared a shop downtown at 128 East Michigan Avenue with the candymakers Schiappacasse and Bullo and with insurance agent Edmund Hewitt. The shared shop’s neighbors included the F. C. Banghart meat market and the Senate Saloon.

In his 60s, Archibald was still not finished with inventing. In 1902, he filed for a patent for his improved hook and eye fastener, an intricate wire contraption that appears to have been intended for use on clothing, not shoes. Soon afterwards, Archibald turned 70. The art of shoemaking that he’d learned as a boy in Glasgow had enabled him to make a living, maintain a downtown shop, and successfully support a family in America for many decades.

Archibald’s wife Helen passed away and was buried in Highland Cemetery. Shortly after his 71st birthday, Archibald fell ill. He was taken to Ann Arbor’s Homeopathic Hospital and there died.

On Archibald’s death certificate, the coroner wrote as cause of death “autointoxication.” The period term did not refer to alcohol but to a theory of the day that self-poisoning resulted from incorrect nutrition or malfunction of the digestive system. Archibald’s daughter Jean signed the death certificate.

Archibald was buried with Helen in block 54 of Highland Cemetery.

Have an old-time story to share? Drop Laura  a line at ypsidixit@gmail.com.