Sunday, September 11, 2011

Florence Z. Melton, 95, Creator of Slippers, Dies

Florence Zacks Melton, who took a material invented as a helmet liner for World War II tank crewmen and turned it into cushy foam-rubber slippers that have soothed billions of tired feet and have been a familiar gift for four decades, died Jan. 8 near her home in Boca Raton, Fla. She was 95.

Her death was confirmed by her son, Gordon Zacks.

It was in a loft in Columbus, Ohio, in 1948 that Mrs. Melton and her first husband, Aaron Zacks, started the R. G. Barry Corporation and began making the slippers, called Dearfoams. (They named the company after their sons and the son of an investor.)

The slippers, made of washable terrycloth or velour, come in a variety of colors. Some Dearfoams have slightly raised heels, some have backs, some have straps, some have open toes and some have tassels — but all have that soft foam-rubber insole, at least a half-inch thick.

Although Mrs. Melton had the idea for the slipper, she was never an officer of the company; she held the title of consultant. She did, however, hold the patent for the slipper, as well as 18 other patents for products like shoulder pads and cushioning devices for exercise and physical therapy machines.

Mrs. Melton’s son, who is now chairman of R. G. Barry, said his mother’s life was something of a rags-to-riches tale. Born Florence Spurgeon in Philadelphia on Nov. 6, 1911, Mrs. Melton was a daughter of Meir and Rebecca Spurgeon, both of whom had fled the persecution of Jews in Russia in the late 1890s. Her father was a door-to-door furniture salesman and her mother ran a boardinghouse.

Three months before she was to graduate from high school in 1929, Mrs. Melton dropped out and got a job as a sales clerk at Steketee’s Department Store in nearby Camden, N.J., to help pay the rent. Later that year, Mr. Zacks moved to Camden from Billings, Mont., to find a Jewish bride, and was hired as a buyer at Steketee’s. The Zacks were married a year later. Mr. Zack died in 1965.

Besides her son, of Boca Raton, Mrs. Melton is survived by 6 grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. In 1968, she married Samuel Melton, a stainless-steel manufacturer. He died in 1992.

By 1937, the Zacks had moved to Hagerstown, Md., and opened a drapery and slipcover store. It failed, leaving them with a $25,000 debt that they paid off over seven years. In 1946, they moved to Columbus, where Mr. Zack worked at a department store. But the couple wanted to go back into business, and Mrs. Zack had an idea.

Early in the postwar days, fashion still had a military look: women wore double-breasted suits with padded shoulders. To clean the garment, the shoulder pads had to be removed, then sewn back in place. In 1947, Mrs. Melton patented a cotton-batting shoulder pad with an elastic tab that could be snapped to a bra strap, eliminating the need to sew it into a garment. The product, Shoulda-Shams, sold well. The next year, the Zacks started the R. G. Barry Corporation.

“After the successful launch of the shoulder pad, my mother was reading an article in Popular Mechanics describing the fact that foam rubber had been created during the war by the Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, mostly for the helmets of tank crews,” Gordon Zacks said. “She thought: Wouldn’t it be great to mold foam rubber into the shape of a shoulder pad, eliminate the cotton batting and have a machine-washable product.”

The Zacks went to the Firestone headquarters in Akron and signed a contract to use foam rubber for their shoulder pads.

“On the drive back to Columbus,” Gordon Zacks said, “my mother said: ‘Aaron, you know what we ought to do with foam rubber? We ought to walk on it.’ ” She patented the idea in 1948. Since then, the company has sold more than a billion pairs of slippers.

In her later years, Mrs. Melton established the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, which, in association with the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, offers adult education based on the Torah and the Talmud in 60 cities in 6 countries. It has 25,000 graduates.

In 1968, Mrs. Melton’s patent for the foam rubber slipper expired. Since then, companies worldwide have sold about three billion pairs of similar slippers. But Mrs. Melton’s company remains competitive: last year it sold more than 25 million pairs.


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