Enger-Kress Pocketbook Co. was founded by German immigrants

By LINDA MCALPINE - For the Daily News

August 31, 2017

The Enger-Kress Pocketbook Company on Wisconsin Street, as seen in 1950. This building was constructed in 1913 and has since been converted into housing for senior citizens.
 Photo courtesy of the Research Center of the History Center of Washington County

In a storage area in the basement of the old courthouse museum, Janean Mollet Van Beckum takes a large box off a shelf, places it on a table and opens the lid. Reaching into the box, she brings out what has to be one of the creepiest items in the museum’s collection.

Mollet-Van Beckum holds a small coin purse made from the foot of a crocodile or alligator made by the Enger-Kress Pocketbook Company which once operated in West Bend. The museum has a sizable collection of items made by Enger-Kress, Mollet-Van Beckum said, noting that she recently applied for and was awarded a grant from the state historical society that will allow her to catalog and properly store the variety of handbags, wallets and other products from the company.

“Enger-Kress was founded by two men, George Enger and August Kress. Both men were born in Germany. Enger had learned the leather trade and Kress, the merchantile business in their homeland before coming to America,” Mollet-Van Beckum said Friday as she looked at the boxes lining the shelves containing sample of what the company had produced during its years of existence in West Bend.

The pair became business partners in 1882 when they founded the Enger-Kress Pocketbook Company in Milwaukee. While the match appeared made in heaven, given each man’s talents, the fledgling firm nearly was wiped out by a fire just a few years after opening.

Mollet-Van Beckum said the fire destroyed the company’s factory in Milwaukee and it just happened that at that same time, the West Bend Businessmen’s Association was looking to attract new industry to the city. In another match made in business heaven, the association gave Enger and Kress $20,000 to relocate to West Bend.

The company moved here in 1884, being housed over its early years in several different locations in downtown.

This 1920 photo shows some of the workers at the Enger-Kress Pocketbook Co.
 Photo courtesy of the Research Center of the History Center of Washington County

“By October, 1894, the company had 40 employees and was housed in Moser Hall.” Mollet-Van Beckum said.

In 1911, however, fire once again visited the Enger-Kress factory, which destroyed Moser Hall, according to Mollet-Van Beckum.

When the owners decided to build a new plant, they decided to do so out of concrete. The new factory was constructed at what is now 151 Wisconsin St.

From its humble beginnings in Milwaukee, the company continued to be innovative in its business and the expansion its product line.

According to Mollet-Van Beckum, the company was one of the first in the county to hire women. It also adopted a program by which workers could take items home and work from their homes, a boon for the many women that made up its early work force.

In the early 1900s, an employee of the company invented an automated riveting machine, which revolutionized the industry, Mollet-Van Beckum said.

Janean Mollet-Beckum, curator of collections and exhibits at the History Center, examines one of many boxes in storage Friday containing items produced by the company.
 Linda McAlpine/For the Daily News

The late Dorothy Williams, who authored “The Spirit of West Bend,” wrote that “most of the leather for the pocketbooks came from the east, and consisted largely of hides from oxen, cows and buffalos, as well as skin from calves, sheep, dogs and goats, with the preferred leather being calfskin.”

Williams noted that the area’s once plentiful oak, sumac and hemlock provided the necessary materials for tanning the hides.

“After it was treated, it was shaped, embossed (or patterned), stamped (sometimes with gold), cleaned, sewn and inspected,” Williams wrote.

Among the items that have become part of the center’s Enger-Kress collection includes samples of designs for pocketbooks, wallets and clutch purses, some being embossed and others stamped or beaded.

When writing her book, Williams evidently spoke with people who had memories of working for Enger-Kress.

“Among the memories of the old time workers is that of the beer breaks, which occurred twice a day when two boys would bring plenty of beer to supply all hands and the factory would close down for a rest period,” Williams noted.

“Another memory concerns the morals of the workers, as it was difficult at first to induce women and girls to work in a factory for their work was traditionally at home,” Williams wrote. “To preserve the moral atmosphere, the girls worked only in pairs, entirely separated from the male employees.”

During the war years, the company succeeded in landing some lucrative government contracts and started manufacturing helmet liners, chin straps and pistol holsters.

According to Mollet-Van Beckum, during World War II, Enger-Kress produced 800,000 pistol holsters, 500,000 spare cases for machine guns, 1.7 million liners for helmets, and almost 1.3 million chin straps for helmets.

After the war years, however, the company began to face stiff competition from foreign manufacturers. Enger-Kress left West Bend in the 1990s and closed for good in 2006, according to Mollet-Van Beckum.

Enger-Kress was not the only industry in West Bend to manufacture items out of leather. Next week, the history of Amity, once the world’s largest producer of personal leather goods, will be examined.