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Vaporized - Part One

Whip City

Westfield, Massachusetts still calls itself Whip City. The center of the booming buggy whip business in 1893, only two companies survive today from what was once the center of a burgeoning industry. Ninety five percent of the jobs in Westfield directly or indirectly supported buggy whip manufacture in the 1890s, only a small percentage are so engaged today. The demise of the buggy whip industry has become over the eleven decades since, a trite example of obsolescence, mentioned in thousands of key note addresses since Demming first used the example to describe futile efficiency.

Speakers exhort us to avoid becoming another buggy whip manufacturer, as if we could notice when a vapourous idea unrelated to our industry would explode to vaporize us. The owner of any of the many buggy whip manufacturing operations in 1895 Westfield could have sold their shares for top dollar and re-invested the returns in the infant automobile industry, but they would have been recognized as fools for doing it. What board could have survived such a decision? What investor would have stood idly by for such idiocy? Only history could explain the logic. And history had not been born yet.

Those buggy whip businesses which crumbled under evaporating demand were well managed, even forward-looking. They teach us nothing more about death than any corpse might. They cannot give up their secrets and they may well have no secrets to disclose. They are gone.

Yet Westfield remains; still known as Whip City, though few whips are made there. The two companies that remain from the hey days have stories to tell, and stories that better instruct us than the best of those that disappeared. The US Whip Company suffered through nearly three decades of shrinking demand before redefining themselves. By that time, they were no longer masters of whip making. They looked at their operations and concluded that they were really in the braiding business. “What might we braid?” their management asked. At the time, in the mid-twenties, three markets seemed attractive mediums for a company with braiding expertise: sports equipment, medical supply, and fishing. In the sports equipment business, golf was growing in popularity, and golf clubs in those days had braided shafts. But this business seemed unlikely to sustain US Whip. Likewise the medical supply business, where sutures were in constant but not expanding demand. The fishing business, where demand for fishing line seemed promising, looked like the a growth opportunity, so US Whip started braiding fishing line, finally renaming themselves US Line in the early thirties. They are now a leading supplier of commercial and recreational fishing lines.

The Westfield Whip Company remains the sole significant link to Westfield’s whip-making past. Nearly out of business by the late forties, a retiring newspaperman took the company as a hobby and found some markets for its products. The livestock industry supported it through the fifties and into the sixties, and today the company, which traditionally sold to distributors, has begun making custom whips for a wide variety of applications. It’s no longer a buggy whip manufacturer, but a whip maker. A look at where whips are offered for sale today shows the traditional livestock industry, but they are also offered by a trendy set of discrete sex supply shops advertising on the Internet.

Neither US Whip nor Westfield Whip survived these changes, though their corporate entities remain. Those thousands of workers displaced by the vapourization of the buggy whip industry didn’t just disappear, either. The supply chain that fed and distributed the products of Westfield’s efforts are gone without much of a trace. Where did the whalebone and the rattan suppliers disappear to? Where did the leather tanners and the braiders go? Gone somewhere, but like Westfield, they survived.

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