Amity Leather Products, started with one employee in 1915, became a world-renowned company

By LINDA MCALPINE - For the Daily News

Sept. 7, 2017

This view of Amity Leather Products Company was taken from the south driveway of the high school (later Badger Middle School) looking northeast across Fourth Avenue (now Main Street). Amity Leather Products built this factory in 1924, expanded it in 1929 to include the tower section, and moved in completely after the fire at the Hangarter Building in February 1930. The building is listed as a Historic Landmark on both the National and State Registers. Photo courtesy of the Research Center of the History Center of Washington County. The insert at top, right, shows the building on Aug. 22. It has been converted into apartments.
Submitted photo/Photo by Linda McAlpine for the Daily News.

In the fall of 1915, Robert H. Rolfs found himself searching for just the right word to name his new company — a word that would convey friendliness and confidence. In the end, he settled on a word that would become synonymous with high end leather products the world over — Amity.

Rolfs founded Amity Leather Products Co. in September 1915, according to an article in the July 13, 1950, issue of the West Bend Pilot.

Rolfs new business venture, which would eventually go global, had humble beginnings.

According to the newspaper story, Amity Leather Products Company was located in a single room on the second floor of Peters’ store on Main Street in West Bend. It had one employee when it opened.

Late West Bend historian Dorothy Williams, in her book “Spirit of West Bend,” wrote that Rolfs started the company based on the premise that a man’s billfold could become “a fashion accessory, which was a new idea in 1915.”

Just two short years later, business was booming and the company was feeling growing pains. From just a single employee in 1915, by 1917 it employed 15 workers and two office staff. The firm moved to the third floor of the Hangarter building, also on Main Street, and opened a sales office in New York.

In 1917, however, America went to war, which could have spelled disaster for the two-year-old firm, but the company joined the war effort. Amity, according to the article, manufactured leather jerkins — a short, close-fitting jacket — for the troops. The additional business required more space, so Amity took over the entire Hangarter building. It also caused a demand for more employees — by the war employment had risen to more than 50.

By 1924, when the company was less than a decade old, its need for space had grown critical and it was decided it needed a home of its own. Plans were laid for a plant to be built.

The building, at 723 S. Main St., West Bend, was, according to the 1950 article, “modern, designed to provide comfortable and pleasant working quarters and the newest and most efficient leather good equipment was installed.”

That same year, Amity took another big step in its growth by launching a national advertising campaign in leading magazines of the day, along with a new slogan — “If Stamped Amity It’s Leather.” The company was building a reputation among consumers for providing the highest quality and finest workmanship in its products.

In 1929, an addition was built on the plant on South Main Street that included a tower, which quickly became a local landmark.

Amity found even more success in the 1930s when it introduced a billfold dubbed “the Director,” of which Williams wrote, “with its secret pocket and space for spare keys, was a runaway success.”

Williams noted that in 1938 the company “capitalized briefly on the popularity of the pandas in the Brookfield Zoo and produced a billfold made from panda skin which was for sale for $5,000.”

Amity also expanded by purchasing other companies. According to a news story, in 1931 Amity bought the Eiseman Kay Co. of Chicago, which produced travel kits.

Growing pains continued to plague the company and in 1946 it acquired a production facility in Sturgeon Bay. In 1948, a second plant was purchased in Sturgeon Bay.

The company that started with one employee in a single rented room grew to become the world’s largest producer of personal leather goods, the newspaper article stated.

Over the years, according to the article, Amity introduced innovations to employees, such as profit-sharing, and cash bonuses.

Rolfs, who was interviewed for the 1950 article, when asked to what he attributed Amity’s success, said credit “belongs to the over 750 employees working today and to those many hundreds of people who worked with Amity in years past who produced the finest personal leather goods and handbags made.

“The meaning of the word, Amity, friendlessness and cooperation, has been reflected constantly through the past 35 years in the relationships of all who have worked at Amity and all who buy from Amity,” Rolfs said.

In the next decades, the leadership of Amity remained in the Rolfs family, with the founder’s two sons. Thomas J. Rolfs, who served as chairman of the board and Robert T. Rolfs, president.

In 1992, however, the two Rolfs sold the family-owned company and it was renamed AR Accessories, Inc,, according to a West Bend Daily News story dated Dec. 1, 2007. In the late 1990s, it ceased manufacturing in West Bend and its headquarters were moved to Brown Deer. In 1998, the company was acquired by Tandy Brands Accessories through bankruptcy proceedings.

The Dec. 1, 2007, article detailed the demise of the once West Bend based Amity company. A distribution center in the city, all that was left of the world’s largest producer of personal leather goods, was to be shut down, and 95 jobs were eliminated.

“Historic Amity’s former manufacturing and administrative space are now the home to the Amity Apartments and the West Bend School District’s central office. Amity’s former design center behind the main plant, still one of the cities signature buildings, is now the school district’s Rolfs Education Center,” the story of Amity’s closing concluded.

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