CÔTÉ, LOUIS, shoemaker, boot and shoe manufacturer, inventor, and politician; b. 21 March 1836 in Saint-Dominique, Lower Canada, son of Georges Côté, a farmer, and Julie Langelier; m. 5 Oct. 1868 Louise Pigeon in Sainte-Rosalie, Que.; they had no children; d. 6 Feb. 1915 in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que.
The eldest son of a poor farmer, Louis Côté demonstrated mechanical aptitude early in life. As a boy, he built miniature mills along a stream on his father’s farm in Saint-Dominique, drawing the admiration of passers-by but the ire of a neighbour whose land he flooded. His inventiveness and manual skill surely influenced his parents’ decision to apprentice him at age 14 to his uncle, a shoemaker in Saint-Hyacinthe.
Having received some basic instruction in Saint-Hyacinthe, Côté furthered his education in Montreal. While attending night classes, it is said, he was invited to become a boarder and full-time student at the École Normale Jacques-Cartier. Although there is no record of his attendance there, he would later credit the school’s principal, Abbé Hospice-Anthelme-Jean-Baptiste Verreau*, with laying the foundation of his success. Côté followed a pattern typical of journeyman artisans. He travelled frequently, working in Montreal, Massachusetts, and perhaps elsewhere. A skilled shoemaker with a mechanical mind, he commanded high wages for his ability to keep machinery in boot and shoe factories, such as that of Smith and Corcoran in Montreal, running smoothly.
Côté aspired to more than a decent wage as a foreman or machinist. In 1863 he and brother Georges, also a shoemaker, entered into partnership with Guillaume Bresse* in Quebec City. The association was short-lived, however. By 1866 they returned to Saint-Hyacinthe to found Côté, Côté et Côté, a boot and shoe company which was a pioneer industrial enterprise in the city.
Côté’s partners in the venture were his brother Georges, his cousin Jean-Baptiste Bourgeois, and Victor Côté, a local leather merchant with experience and capital. Their factory was described in 1871 as producing “all descriptions of boots and shoes.” It was easily the largest employer in town, with a workforce of 43 men, 22 boys, and 24 girls and an annual payroll of over $20,000. Its machinery was driven by a fixed steam engine, one of the first to be employed in Saint-Hyacinthe’s nascent manufacturing sector. In September 1876 the factory was consumed in the disastrous fire that ravaged the lower town. The Côtés considered moving to Montreal, but a year later, in a new location and without Victor Côté, they were in business again as Louis Côté et Frère. It is not known if Jean-Baptiste Bourgeois was involved. Louis and Georges moved to another site in Saint-Hyacinthe in 1883 and remained there until 1893, when they sold the company to their half-brothers Joseph-Amable and Magloire Côté.
While operating these factories, Côté emerged as Canada’s leading inventor of shoe-making machinery. In April 1870 he filed his first Canadian patent, for Côté’s Sole Trimming and Finishing Machine. From then until 1905 he patented some 32 inventions in Canada (excluding renewals of existing patents). All but five were for shoe-making machinery. He held two in partnership with a machinist from Saint-Hyacinthe, Isaïe Fréchette, who may have manufactured Côté’s machines for sale in Canada and for export.
Côté’s specialty was machinery for the production of heel stiffeners or counters. In January 1874 he filed a patent for a “rotary machine for shaping boot and shoe stiffeners.” From this point on, 14 of 25 inventions were either improvements on this apparatus or modifications to the counters themselves. The stiffeners gained strength from their characteristic clam shell pattern and were soon in use in shoe factories all over North America and Europe.
Côté’s designs won world-wide recognition, including an honourable mention at the universal exposition held in Paris in 1889. They were also the source of international litigation on at least one occasion. When a company in New England attempted to use the technology without permission, Côté sued, won, and was awarded $63,000 by a court in Boston. The company went bankrupt, however, and Côté never saw a cent.
Despite his natural reticence – “his speech was neither fluent nor abundant,” remarked one observer – Côté did step beyond his workshop. He was named a member of the royal commission on the relations of labour and capital in November 1887, but was replaced less than four months later by Guillaume Boivin because of illness. As a member of the Council of Arts and Manufactures of the Province of Quebec and a great believer in popular education, he promoted the idea of a school for technical drawing in Saint-Hyacinthe. The École des Arts et Dessins Industriels, established in 1874, was largely his initiative. His most important civic roles were as a city councillor in the mid 1870s and as the seventh mayor of Saint-Hyacinthe, from 1882 to 1885.
Côté had also successfully championed the creation of a waterworks in Saint-Hyacinthe. The fact that he was at the same time mayor and president of the private utility, the Compagnie de l’Aqueduc de Saint-Hyacinthe, became a subject of some controversy when, during the spring of 1884, critics began to complain that the intake pipe for the city’s drinking water had been placed too close to sources of industrial and domestic effluent. Public health was threatened and Côté was vigorously criticized. To his credit, he recognized the conflict of interest and offered his resignation as mayor on 26 December. The majority on council, including other partners in the waterworks, refused either to accept his resignation or to support what amounted to a vote of censure.
Côté was less visible on the public stage in the ensuing years. After selling his boot and shoe factory in 1893, he turned his inventive spirit from shoemaking machinery to measuring devices and instruments for technical drawing. He filed his last Canadian patent, for a proportional divider, on 27 June 1905.
When Côté died in February 1915 he was in financial difficulty. In 1903 he and his brother Georges had become involved in a flour mill and bakery in Saint-Hyacinthe. Perhaps the venture was an unprofitable one. To settle his estate, notaries proposed paying his creditors 76 or 77 cents on the dollar. Côté’s real heritage lay elsewhere. He left a long legacy of technical innovations and a fine example for those, especially French Canadians, who aspired to entrepreneurial success.
ANQ-M, CE2-25, 21 mars 1836, 5 oct. 1868. Arch. de la Soc. d’Hist. Régionale de Saint-Hyacinthe (Saint-Hyacinthe, Qué.), FG52 (fonds Gilles Guertin). Arch. de la Ville de Saint-Hyacinthe, Procès-verbaux du conseil municipal, 1870–94. Arch. du Séminaire de Saint-Hyacinthe, AFG1 (fonds C.-P. Choquette). Canadian Patent Office (Hull, Que.), Patent nos.402, 526, 975, 1101, 1199, 1493, 1926, 3026, 4001, 4569, 4767, 6918, 8506, 9286, 15492, 17351–52, 19821, 21949, 24073, 25305, 25355, 25358, 25655, 29087, 35604, 37864, 42425, 42828, 45570, 57300, 93916. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Saint-Hyacinthe, table 7. Canadian Illustrated News (Montreal), 4 Jan. 1879. Le Courrier de Saint-Hyacinthe, 1884–85, 16 mars 1918. Almanac, Saint-Hyacinthe, 1875. C.-P. Choquette, Histoire de la ville de Saint-Hyacinthe (Saint-Hyacinthe, 1930). Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.2. Directory, Canada, 1871. Jacques Ferland, “Évolution des rapports sociaux dans l’industrie canadienne du cuir au tournant du 20e siècle” (thèse de phd, McGill Univ., Montreal, 1985). Peter Gossage, “Family and population in a manufacturing town: Saint-Hyacinthe, 1854–1914” (phd thesis, univ. du Québec à Montréal, 1991). Saint-Hyacinthe Illustrated (Montreal), 1 (December 1886). St-Hyacinthe, PQ., Canada (Montréal, ).