Horween Leather Company

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Horween Leather Company

2015 Elston Avenue
Chicago, Illinois 60614
Telephone: (773) 772-2026
Fax: (773) 772-9235
Web site: http://www.horween.com

Private Company
Employees: 175
Sales: $35 million (2005 est.)
NAIC: 316110 Leather and Hide Tanning and Finishing

Horween Leather Company is legendary in and around Chicago for its meticulously crafted leather and the family who stands behind the name. With over a century of producing quality leather for shoes, belts, wallets, apparel, and footballsthe company and several family members are inexorably linked to footballHorween remains committed to offering its one-of-a-kind products to clients worldwide. Arnold "Skip" Horween III, great-grandson of founder Isadore Horween and company president, continues a family tradition dedicated to producing some of the best leather in the world.


The Horween Leather Company was not yet a glimmer in Isadore Horween's eye when he boarded a ship for the United States from the Soviet Union. Horween arrived in the United States, and Chicago, Illinois, in particular, in 1893 during the city's famed World Fair. Isadore remained in the country's "second city" as it was called, second only to New York City in growth and commerce at the time, and began working as a leather tanner in the meatpacking district where hides were plentiful. Horween had learned the trade back in the Ukraine, but honed his skills further in the Windy City. He opened his own tannery shop, Horween Leather, on the northwest side of Chicago in 1905.

Isadore earned a reputation for his superbly crafted shell cordovan razor straps. It was a painstaking months-long process, requiring patience and dexterity. By the time his sons, Ralph (b. 1896) and Arnold (b. 1898), learned their father's trade, Horween Leather was a success and the family enjoyed the fruits of Isadore's labor. The boys were able to attend a new and exclusive school founded by Colonel Francis W. Parker, considered the "father of progressive education." Heavily influenced by American philosopher and reformer John Dewey, Colonel Parker created a learning environment where students were shaped for greatness through a curriculum of service, citizenship, and community. Both Ralph and Arnold thrived at Parker school, earning good grades and excelling at sports.

The Horween boys grew into outstanding athletes and fell in love with football, a sport gaining popularity on college campuses throughout the East Coast. Ralph Horween went off to Harvard University in 1914, followed by Arnold in 1916. Both young men served their country during World War I, returning to Harvard in 1919. They earned national fame as part of the Crimson football team, with Ralph as fullback and kicker, and Arnold as halfback. Both helped Harvard take down a number of rivals, including arch nemesis Yale during the legendary 191920 season.

While the Horween boys had perfected their game in high school and then college, semiprofessional football teams were popping up across the country. In Chicago, the Morgan Athletic Club was formed in 1899. The team went through several name changes before becoming the Chicago Cardinals, a team that would play a pivotal role in the lives of the Horween boys and Horween Leather's future.


In January 1920 Arnold captained the Crimson team at the Rose Bowl, in Pasadena, California. Harvard took on rival Oregon for the national championship. It was a magnificent game in which both Arnold and Ralph played pivotal roles to help Harvard win its first and only Rose Bowl title. Ralph graduated in May 1920 and returned to Chicago. Arnold followed in 1921 and the brothers signed with the Chicago Cardinals professional football team, under assumed names so their mother would not be embarrassed. Mrs. Horween, like many ladies of the time, did not believe playing football was a proper or respectable job for gentlemen, so the boys became the McMahon brothers for the next two years.

While playing for the Cardinals Arnold met George Halas, a defensive end who played for the Chicago Bears (originally the Decatur Staleys until 1922). The two became friends, having much in common, including outstanding college play and Rose Bowl appearances (Halas in 1919 for the University of Illinois, Arnold in 1920). Arnold coached the Cardinals (with Ralph assisting) during the 1923 and 1924 seasons. He then returned to Harvard, coaching football from 1926 to 1930. Ralph, too, returned to Harvard, to earn a law degree. Isadore continued to run the prospering family business, awaiting his sons' return.

By the 1930s Horween Leather had joined the industrial revolution by introducing hydraulic equipment to its production line, increasing output yet still allowing time for the painstaking tanning process that had made the company famous. Arnold had come back into the family fold and helped expand Horween's product line, providing leather for finely crafted shoes and boots, as well as many styles of belts and wallets. When the advent of World War II turned most American businesses to the war effort, Arnold's tanning expertise landed the company a huge military contract. He helped refashion World War I boots into strong, water-resistant field footwear for soldiers serving in World War II. Horween became the country's official leather supplier for Marine footwear during the war. Three years after the war ended, in 1948, the company's founder, Isadore, died.


After the war ended, Horween Leather returned to its roots. The company did, however, segue into a new product line at the urging of Arnold's friend George Halas. Halas was coaching the Chicago Bears and had been a founding member of the National Football League (NFL). The NFL needed sturdy, well-crafted footballs to be used by all teams in the league. The production of specialized leather for footballs turned into a labor of love for Arnold. Not only did he devise a new tanning process called Tanned in Tack (later a registered trademark of the company), but he could also relive his glory days on the field knowing players were using footballs fashioned from Horween leather.

By the 1950s Horween was supplying leather for NFL and college teams, sent directly to the league's official supplier, Wilson Sporting Goods. As football continued to gain popularity, both as a professional sport and at colleges and high schools, Horween became the go-to firm for tough, printable, water-resistant leather. The contract brought in more than a third of its revenue, but no glory, since everyone knew NFL and NCAA footballs came from Wilson, but very few knew the leather came from Chicago's Horween Leather Company. The same was true when Horween began supplying tanned leather to Rawlings Sporting Goods, the official glove supplier for Major League Baseball.


Horween Leather Company was founded in 1905. For more than 100 years, our goal has been to make the best leather in the world. Making the best means doing lots of little things right. It means never mistaking fastest or cheapest with best. It means always using formulas that cut no corners, and components chosen strictly for their quality.

In addition to footballs and baseball gloves, Horween continued to create beautifully crafted leather goods for an increasingly sophisticated clientele. The company had a number of patented tanning processes and was able to produce a wide array of colors and finishes for its leather products. Supplying leather for shoes, both casual and dress, became a mainstay instead of a sideline.

Just as the business underwent changes, so too did the Horween family. Arnold's brother Ralph left the Midwest in 1952 for Virginia. Though Ralph had not been part of Horween Leather's daily operations, he had still been nearby running his law practice. Another Horween, however, had joined the company ranks. Arnold's son, Arnold, Jr., had returned to the Chicago area after graduating from Harvard University and serving two years in the Army. Arnold, Jr., began his tenure as treasurer, but was a fixture at the tannery where he was known as "the Rock" for his strength and bulk. Like his father, uncle, and grandfather before him, Arnold, Jr., was a leather aficionado.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s Horween continually upgraded its goods, introducing new leather finishes for an increasing array of footwear (casual and dress shoes, golf shoes, work boots, cowboy boots), briefcases, clothing (like fine leather jackets and coats), and accessories (belts and wallets), while the remainder went into sporting goods (footballs, baseball gloves, and basketballs) for both professional and amateur athletic markets.


Arnold, Jr., succeeded his father as Horween Leather's chief executive in 1985 and ushered in a new era as the fourth generation of Horween men, represented by his son Arnold III, known as "Skip," came on board. Skip, like most Horween men before him, had worked at the firm during his teens to learn the family trade. After earning degrees in economics and archeology from Bowdoin College in Maine and an M.B.A. from Chicago's Northwestern University, Skip joined Horween Leather as treasurer in 1985, the same year his grandfather Arnold passed away.

Skip Horween continued to climb the corporate ladder and in 1995 was named Horween Leather's vice-president. The following year, his great-uncle Ralph reached two milestones on August 3, 1996: he turned 100 years old and became the first NFL player to ever reach the centennial mark. Ralph was feted in Chicago and his home in Virginia. Well wishers included NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue, who sent a letter stating, "Without the pioneering efforts of individuals such as you and your brother Arnold, there would be no NFL." Nine months later, in May, Ralph died in Charlottesville, Virginia.


In the new millennium Horween continued to provide numerous Fortune 500 companies with its exquisitely tanned leather. While its longest-standing relationships included sporting goods giants Rawlings and Wilson, Horween also supplied leather to Spalding (a division of Russell Corporation) for indoor Arena Football League footballs, and leather shells to the Timberland Company, Alden Shoe Company, Cole Haan, Allen-Edmonds Shoe Corporation, Brooks Brothers, and Johnston & Murphy for high-end footwear.

Skip Horween took the reins of the company in 2002 as president, with his father, Arnold, Jr., remaining as chairman of the venerable firm. Unfortunately, Arnold, Jr., passed away the following April, in 2003, just before the company's acquisition of one of Canada's oldest tanneries, Dominion Tanners. The Winnipeg-based company, which had experienced financial problems and was near bankruptcy, brought a line of finely crafted leather boots, shoes, and specialty leathers to Horween's holdings. Belinda Knopf, formerly of Dominion, was hired to develop new markets for Horween products.


Horween Leather is founded in Chicago by Isadore Horween.
Ralph and Arnold Horween play in the Rose Bowl, helping Harvard defeat Oregon.
Ralph and Arnold join the Chicago Cardinals football team under assumed names.
Horween Leather moves to 2015 Elston Avenue on Chicago's near north side.
Arnold Horween coaches the Chicago Cardinals football team. Horween produces leather for Marine footwear during World War II. Horween begins making leather for the National Football League (NFL).
Arnold, Jr., takes the reins of Horween Leather.
Arnold "Skip" Horween III becomes president of the company.
Horween Leather begins supplying leather for the Arena Football League.
Horween Leather Company celebrates 100 years in business.

The company celebrated its centennial in 2005 with little hoopla. Instead, the tanners and management of Horween Leather continued to do what Isadore Horween did 100 years earlierthey carefully worked leather shells through the process of tanning, using oils, dyes, and numerous steps to achieve the highest quality product. As Skip Horween noted on the company web site, "Horween Leather is an American process and an American tradition. In today's market, where speed and flexibility are at a premium, we strive to give our customers an unparalleled blend of quality, consistency, responsiveness, and innovation."

Horween Leather never skimped on quality, even in its lean years, as testament to a tradition ingrained in both its products and family members. "We are founded on the belief that people can tell the difference between quality and not," Skip Horween stated in a company press release. "My great-grandfather set about making us a niche company before that term was coined. I think we'll be around for as long as people want excellence." With reported sales of more than $35 million for 2005, Horween Leather continued to deliver "excellence" in a myriad of leather, suede, and rawhide goods from shoes and boots to briefcases and belts, as well as millions of footballs, baseball gloves, and basketballs.

Nelson Rhodes


Joseph Clayton & Sons, Ltd.; Eagle Ottawa Leather Company; Gutmann Leather Tanneries; Leathersmith Designs, Inc.; Tandy Leather Factory.


"Arnold Horween, Harvard Leader," Chicago Daily Tribune, January 21, 1920, p. 13.

"Brothers!" Chicago Daily Tribune, November 9, 1919, p. A3.

Goldstein, Richard, "Ralph Horween, 100, Oldest Ex-NFL Player," New York Times, May 27, 1997, p. D19.

Grischke, Mark, "Big Red," Forbes FYI, September 2, 2004, p. 57.

Hageman, William, "Take Him Back to the Ball Game," Chicago Tribune, December 19, 2004, p. 1.

Rolek, Barbara, "Horween's Leather Bound by Tradition," Chicago Tribune, October 27, 2003, p. 1.

Thompson, Jack, "NFL Player Hits Century Mark," Chicago Tribune, August 4, 2003, p. 2.

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