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A History of Emanuel Pulier's Involvement with The Bonita Handbag Manufacturing Company And Newberg Leather Products

In 1922, at age 18, Emanuel “Manny” Pulier immigrated to New York City from Letichev ( ), a Ukrainian town. The family spoke Russian at home. In the U.S. Pulier learned English and with his older brother Ben ran a candy store in the Bronx to support the family and put him and Ben through school. Working as a licensed civil engineer, Pulier found himself blocked from advancement to a supervisory position because he was Jewish, so he sought a new career.
Leonard Goldsmith, a cousin of the Pulier brothers, had just lost his partner in the Bonita Handbag Company BonitaHandbagManufacturingCo and was about to quit the business. (The partner had once encountered the word “bonita”–beautiful–during a visit to Mexico and had chosen that for the name of the company.) For $3,750 Emanuel bought in, relying on Goldsmith's description of his own expertise and of the inventory, both of which quickly proved nearly worthless. The struggling firm survived only because the general economy was rebounding strongly from the Great Depression and the Second World War. After several months Pulier learned enough about business and manufacturing to take over the firm entirely. With the end of the Second World War the market for fashions for middle-class and working women surged.

Pulier spotted a cowhide bag in a shop window. The heavy eighth-inch thick leather had not previously been used for ladies' bags, but the simple design and “sporty” look struck him as something that would appeal to the many women who had entered the workforce during the war and were now experiencing considerable autonomy and a fresh self-image. Coincidentally a freelance salesman came by to asked if Bonita could copy a bag he had just picked up at Alexander's department store ( ). It was made of paper, again an unusual material for the field. Realizing something novel might catch on, Pulier experimented with two heavy leather hides he managed to find (they were hard to get in New York) and showed his samples to buyers at Arnold Constable ). This immediately resulted in an order for three gross top grain cowhide bags. (A gross is 144–a dozen dozen.) From this origin the style took off and Pulier appended the moniker “Sport Age” to Bonita's logo.

Not long after Pulier saw a young woman wearing a war surplus binocular case as a shoulder bag. The notion seemed promising, but Bonita lacked the necessary heavy duty stitching equipment. Pulier was turned down by several manufacturers until a Polish refugee Paul Newdow, a partner in Newberg Leather Products, estimated that such a bag could be produced for $50 per gross (less than 35 cents for each bag). Pulier offered $100 to induce the company to take the project on. The collaboration resulted in Bonita selling many thousands of binocular-style bags all over the country, making both firms highly profitable.

After one of the Newberg partners died, Pulier purchased the widow's third of the firm for $5,000 then contracted for production of several other top grain cowhide models. Each year competitors thought such handbags had seen their last season, but instead sales kept growing and for a while Newberg and Bonita had that market to themselves. To meet the demand, Bonita purchased its own heavy equipment to manufacture the bags and continued to subcontract with Newberg.

The manufacturing business was seasonal not only in periodically requiring new designs, but also involving alternation between a rush to fill orders and slack times where all but a “skeleton staff” of key workers (the “cutter”, the foreman, the shipper and the “secretary” and later the chief salesman) were "laid off". This core crew remained with Bonita for many years, allowing all to retire in relative comfort.

In the highly competitive handbag industry, profitability depended on not wasting leather, which cost more than labor and overhead. This required designing bags so that shapes to be assembled could fit snugly across a hide like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. Furthermore, the “cutter” had to eyeball each hide and skillfully plan just how to use nearly all of it. The chief cutter Lenny Luft, who had escaped from Czechoslovakia just ahead of the Nazi invasion was thus one of the key workers.

The process of cutting involves a “clicker”, a machine with a large flat steel table and a massive flattened “arm” suspended on a column behind it. The cutter swings the arm out of the way, drags a hide across the table and places a die on top of the hide. The die consists of a wooden block into which is set a sharp-edged steel band curved into a mirror image of the shape to be cut. The cutter swings the arm back over the die and pulls a lever on it. With a loud bang (the “click”) the arm slams down on the die, forcing it through the leather, and almost immediately a belt driven by a continuously spinning electric motor raises the arm back up and engages a mechanism to keep it in place. The cutter then moves the die or places a different one on the hide, and stamps out another shape until the hide is nearly completely used up. Scraps can be snipped with shears to become thongs, trim or decoration and the remaining leather is thrown into a trash barrel.

Manufacturing of handbags demand precise cutting of a wide variety of materials. Steel dies were made, inserted into large press machines like this to cut quantities of pieces quickly. (See Accurate Steel Rule Dies AccurateSteelRuleDies) This machine is known as a clicker.

Leather dies are precision items, difficult to make and expensive. They had to be ordered well in advance of the season. Contracting with a reliable die maker was important.
Accurate Steel Dies AccurateSteelRuleDiesmade the custom steel dies for the clicker machines that cut materials for handbags. They were mounted into press-type machines from companies like Bata Engineering. BataEngineering

Pulier spent several off-seasons relocating the shop, usually to a larger space each time. A suitable location would be a loft building between Manhattan's “midtown” and the financial district and between Second and Sixth Avenues. A large open floor space was needed to accommodate big machines and let people and materials move about freely; also a freight elevator and provision for trucks to deliver material and pick up cartons of handbags. There had to be adequate lighting and electrical service and toilet facilities and an “office”. Each larger place meant higher rent and a new lease commitment and thus greater risk. Moving involved tearing down the old arrangement, transporting equipment, supplies and records, planning a new layout, installing everything and ensuring safety before rehiring workers. Eventually Bonita had to lease two floors to accommodate its operations.

Some of the workers were fairly skilled, some not and the pay scale reflected this. Handbag assembly could involve riveting pieces of leather to each other, stitching pieces together with a heavy-duty sewing machine, punching holes or slits and feeding thongs through them, attaching buckles and ornaments with rivets or glue, staining the cut edges of the leather, threading belts though their buckles, clipping off loose threads, stuffing crumpled tissue paper into bags to maintain their shape, then inspecting bags, wrapping them, and placing them into cardboard cartons. From the beginning, in designing a bag, it was essential to consider how the assembly could be performed efficiently, and some designs had to be discarded as too costly to assemble.

The atmosphere in Bonita's factory floor under Leo Berner the foreman was usually harmonious and businesslike. Most of the workers had recently moved to the city from Puerto Rico and many were unable to communicate in English. Each day they would find their time card in a rack and insert it into slot in a clock that would punch (and in later years print) the time on the correct line for that day ( ). When they left they would “punch out”. Their pay was by the hour as shown on the time card, with “time and a half” for overtime work (more than 8 hours). Cheating (having someone else punch one in or out) was not a major problem.

Near the punch clock was a Pepsi machine that dispensed bottles for five cents each. This price was maintained at Bonita for years after most employers had moved up to ten or fifteen cents. There was no such thing as a coffee break. There was no lunch room. Everybody brown-bagged, including the “boss”.

Werner Newmark was in charge of shipping. Bags were sold by the gross or sometimes by the dozen. The flattened cardboard cartons had to be opened out and folded, filled, sealed with adhesive tape, labeled and secured with twine.

The “secretary” Joan Kenner handled all the office work, bookkeeping, correspondence, telephone answering and taking of orders. She had a machine for embossing a grid of holes into a check to prevent its being altered, a typewriter and many rubber stamps. The home grown bookkeeping system lacked provision for preventing or detecting fraud or embezzlement. Its operation depended on Joan's knowledge and honesty. Pulier felt that substituting a standard, safe bookkeeping system according to proper accounting standards would have required two additional office workers and someone to supervise them. Instead, Joan was able to efficiently handle a revenue flow that came to exceed one million dollars a year.

The standard terms for sales of bags (“3/10 E.O.M. F.O.B New York City”) offered a 3 percent discount for payment received by the 10th of the month, with the purchaser responsible for shipping costs outside of New York City. Without inducement for prompt payment, businesses usually hang on to their money as long as they could get away with it, since everyone in trade has cash flow problems. Cash was of course always an issue, since Bonita had to invest heavily in materials and labor in anticipation of the next season and could hope only later to receive payment for whatever product it might actually sell. If sufficient leather were not on hand early in the season or even before the season, it might not be possible to meet demand, which would mean lost opportunity and would give competitors a material and psychological advantage. On the other hand, having much unused material and inventory at the end of a season could be disastrous.

Businesses usually would borrow capital from banks in order to prepare for a season and meet payroll until payments began to arrive, or they could turn to “factors” who would lend money at stiff rates while taking billings as collateral. If all this was insufficient an enterprise could seek money from loan sharks. Luckily, consistent success enabled Bonita to draw on its own reserve funds most years.

Aside from the loan racket, organized crime was involved in protection and trash removal. Paying to keep goons from vandalizing the shop happened not to be a major problem for Bonita, although it was common in other industries in New York City. Garbage pickup was another story, as that entire sector was dominated by the so-called Mafia and there was no choice but to pay unreasonably high fees to the monopoly.

There was sufficient competition in the real estate market to keep leases affordable. The cost of moving was only occasional. Year-end bonuses were based on profits. Advertising was not cheap but Pulier could sketch adequate images of his designs to avoid needing much expensive photography for the fliers distributed to potential customers. Before a season, samples had to be created and shipped out as well to convey a better idea of the look and feel of a new bag and show the inside compartments and lining and the quality of the workmanship. Samples would go out to the largest customers and to the showroom Bonita maintained in midtown, run by Fred Kahane, the chief salesman. Gene Arkin was the New York City salesman.

All the key staff were Jewish. Despite some persistent antisemitism, even in New York, being Jewish was advantageous in the handbag and “shmatte” (rag, i.e., garment) industries, which were largely owned and managed by Jews. Despite the intense competition there was a sense trust based on shared experiences with antisemitism and memories of the Holocaust. As for the large-volume buyers, they had to make deals with Jews as the "only game in town".

Bonita's signature product became medium to large-size top grain cowhide or crushed cowhide bags for “smart” casual wear. The firm was one of the first to popularize shoulder bags, which were more practical for women on the go than the typically more reserved and formal small underarm purses or clutch bags. (The backpack style was not sufficiently “feminine” for shopping or commuting to work.) For some time Bonita also produced bags from "pony" leather with the fur still on and some patent leather bags along with matching belts for some styles.

The company pioneered making ladies' handbags of Neolite, a kind of artificial rubber from the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company. Bonita's demonstration that Neolite could be put to other use than water-resistant soles for shoes led to its application for valises until better materials were developed. Plastic was another promising handbag material that initially brought good profit to Bonita until competition drove prices too low.

Molded plastic requires less stitching than shapes simply stamped from flat sheets, but injection molding, the dominant process, requires expensive machines and molds. Pulier and Newdow came across a new vacuum forming machine that heats a sheet of vinyl laid over a mold, pulls the sheet into the mold by pumping the air out of it, then blow air back in to pop the formed plastic out and cool it. Molds could be quickly and cheaply prepared in-house. Newdow and Pulier joined a third investor (who, like both of them had a wife named Sonia) to create Trisonia Manufacturing, which generated a modest profit, but never provided formed plastic suitable for handbag manufacture.

Another novelty associated with Bonita during the 1950s was “Myra Mason, Inc.,” that offered Bonita bags by mail order, personalized with brass initials requested by the purchaser.

Pulier designed some of Bonita's ornaments, often with a heraldry-like theme. He would carve a model from wood, then make a plaster of Paris mold into which he would pour a molten lead-tin alloy to create samples. A maker of charms for children's bracelets took on manufacturing the ornaments for Bonita. Soon other handbag manufacturers were ordering similar ornaments for themselves and the lucky trinket maker became quite wealthy.

Aside from exploiting new materials, Pulier introduced an innovation in portable radios. Typically, people would carry their radio by a built-in handle. When Pulier came to the Westinghouse Corporation to propose that a carrying case with a strap slung over the shoulder would let people conveniently listen while they walked he immediately received an order for 10,000 pieces. (Huge corporations like that dealt in terms of thousands, not in terms of gross.) When other radio manufacturers followed suit, Newberg Leather Products switched entirely from handbags to radio cases.

Before many competitors had found their way into this market, Pulier had came up with the idea of using a cheap grade of leather instead of plastic for the case of a portable radio. This bypassed the delay and expense of creating new injection molding dies for each new radio model. Pulier asserted that new models could be put out “overnight”.

Philco's ( ) initial order of 5,000 cases at a good price was immediately followed with a standing order for as many pieces as Newberg could possibly produce. Gradually competitors moved into this market, profitability declined, plastic manufacturing techniques became preferable and leather lost its allure with the public.

In the late 1970s Pulier chose to retire although Bonita was thriving. He sold the business to Pyramid Leather Goods ( ) and stayed on for less than a year as an adviser. The key people also left. Pyramid absorbed Bonita and discontinued the brand.
Many thanks to Myron Pulier and his family for sharing this unique history.

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Page last modified on September 30, 2009, at 06:48 PM