Best Foot Forward-Part Two

Production started as a small-scale industry carried on at home by family members using their own equipment with some craftsmen using an apprentice system. In the mid-1700s, John Adam Dagyr, a Welshman, known as “The Father of American Shoemaking,” practiced his craft in Lynn, Massachusetts; each of his workers handled one part of the shoemaking design. A journeyman, in a workshop, might cut the leather for the shoes or be assigned the job of attaching the bottom – Dagyr had given birth to the shoe production line. Massachusetts’s shoemakers, by 1768, exported nearly thirteen thousand pairs of shoes to other Colonies and when the Boston and Albany Railroad came through Natick, Massachusetts, in 1836, the state became one of the largest producers of boots and shoes in North America. Manufacturers began to employ thousands of women, in the 1830s and 40s, who worked at home stitching the leather uppers of shoes; the payment for long hours of toil was low and there were fines for work that was late or faulty. By the end of the century, shoe factories appeared and the first retail shoe store opened in Boston in 1794, though custom-made shoes wouldn’t be replaced for another 100 years. France and England set the style for women’s dress shoes with fabric of brocade decorated with gold and silver buckles, a pointed toe and a French heel
The Rolling Machine, invented in 1845, took the place of the lapstone and hammer cobblers used to pound leather and when Elias Howe’s sewing machine was adapted to shoemaking, manufacturers joined the Industrial Revolution.
Lyman R. Blake, a shoemaker, invented a machine, in 1858, for sewing the soles of shoes to the uppers then sold the patents to Gordon McKay, an inventor and engineer, who improved upon Blake’s invention. During the Civil War, McKay made boots for Federal troops; the Union Army fought the Confederates in much superior footwear and Mckay acheived wealth and success.
The factory system, during the Civil War, made some men prosperous but most workers barely survived on the scanty wages paid. Organizations formed by different trades had existed in the United States as early as 1791; in Philadelphia, representatives of workers and their employer met for talks on labor issues in 1799. Poverty led to an increase in the number of unions organized to improve pay and working conditions. Eight hundred women operatives and four thousand workmen marched during a shoemaker’s strike in Lynn, Massachusetts in 1860. In New England, twenty thousand would successfully strike and the number of local union organizations increased at a steady pace during the mid-19th century. “Thank God,” Abraham Lincoln said, to striking New Haven factory workers on March 6, 1860, “We have a system of labor where there can be a strike.”
McKay offered his mass-produced machine to factory owners who would agree to pay him five hundred dollars and a portion of the money saved on each pair of shoes. The manufacturers could use the machines without investing large sums of money and McKay made parts of the machinery interchangeable and assembled a body of men who could replace or adjust the machines. Shoe manufacturers now equipped large buildings with lofts and abandoned cotton mills with the stitching machines. Production of right and left shoes became commonplace. In 1875, a machine that would be known as the Goodyear Welt Sewing Machine was discovered and became successful under the management of Charles Goodyear, Jr., the son of the inventor of vulcanized rubber. By 1880, there were twenty-three shoe factories in Natick, Massachusetts. There were also factories in Malden, Brockton and Lynn, considered by some, “The Shoe-making Capital of the World.” Young women from rural homes were recruited for factory work, moved to industrial communities where they lived in boarding houses and achieved a degree of independence.
In the early part of the century, square-toed shoes came into fashion and would remain stylish until the 1880s; the 1850s brought boots worn under wire-framed supported skirts that would swing and expose the ankle and foot. Buttonhooks became a necessity for high-buttoned shoes worn by ladies of fashion who might choose a silk upper laced boot, a Russian leather walking boot or the topical leather that once covered an alligator, reptile or kangaroo. Men’s fashion featured laced or “gored” (elastic sided) ankle boots. When the first big cattle drives between Texas and Kansas, began around 1867, boot-makers in Kansas, influenced by Mexican Vaqueros, developed the cowboy boot. Narrow toes fit easily into stirrups and reinforced steel arches gave support to the feet while high boot tops protected against irritation and an unexpected encounter with a needle-tipped cactus or a venomous snake. The 19th century also introduced the first canvas-topped, rubber-soled sports shoe.
Walt Webster, a New Yorker, was granted a U.S. patent in 1832, for a process of attaching rubber soles to shoes and boots. But rubber, in extremely cold weather, became hard and unyielding and during long, hot summers changed to a gooey mess that emitted a rank odor. Progress was made when the vulcanized process for curing rubber was discovered in 1839 by Charles Goodyear; the Philadelphia hardware merchant. Goodyear accidentally overheated a mixture of rubber, sulfur and white lead and the rubber became flexible – problem solved.
The term “Sneaker” was first used in 1873 – a.k.a. gym shoe, speed shoe, sand shoe, tackies, bobos or tenny – while in England, the shoe was known as “The Plimsoll.” By the 1890’s, a laced canvas upper with a rubber sole was manufactured and sold as a croquet sandal and though the price, at a steep $6.00, was too expensive for the average income, it became popular with the upper classes. Spalding followed with a rubber soled, canvas tennis shoe and clothing and shoes began to be designed for newly active women interested in tennis, bicycling and yachting. By the turn of the century, the tennis shoe became accepted as casual wear for children. Boys liked to don a baseball uniform, turn up the brim of their cap, tilt it sideways, or like today’s generation – backward. They wore tennis shoes with high tops made of white canvas, with black rubber soles and binding, and a round emblem over the ankles. In 1921, the Sears Catalogue advertised tennis shoes for $3.50; during the Great Depression, the price went down with men’s bleached white duck uppers with a vulcanized crepe rubber sole selling for 89 cents and canvas work-shoes for $1.49. For the next forty years, sneakers remained basically the same; in the 40s poor boys wore sneakers, lower middle class boys wore leather shoes but in the 1960s the shoe began to change and today’s “athletic shoes” – bearing the imprint of top designers and endorsed by world famous athletes command top dollar.
Until the 20th century, a person had to be wealthy to afford a custom-made shoe and men often made one pair of shoes last several years; shoes assembled in a factory cost considerably less and though cobblers still made a large percentage of shoes from 1900 to 1910, factories began to gain over craftsmen. Styles were limited, women wore black or brown-laced boots for outdoor activities and changed into leather or cloth slippers at home. New York and Missouri now joined many other states in the manufacture of shoes. By World War I, Portsmouth, New Hampshire’s leather and shoe manufacturing became that state’s leading industry; again in World War II, boots for the military were supplied from its shoe factories.
Weather influences the choice of footwear in all climates; the popularity of the sandal, (the word sandal derives from the Latin word sandaliem,) in warm countries is timeless, whether utilitarian or fashionably adorned. Wooden shoes or sabots protect feet against water and mud in European countries and North American Indians, Eskimos and Laplanders and Siberian tribesmen wear the moccasins or soft-skinned boots, used for generations, in colder climates. The suture on the front of the moccasin is a vestige of the string that in years past was gathered and tied around the ankle.
Footwear has been developed for and worn by workers in specific occupations. Dancers require special pointe and character shoes while safety shoes, worn on construction, archeological and industrial sites, have toecaps reinforced with steel, fiber or plastic and shoes with a sturdy sole offer extra support to members of the medical profession, the police and fire departments. Orthopedic shoes are constructed to alleviate the pain of post-operative surgery, trauma and diabetes as well as corns, bunions and hammertoes.
Twentieth century footwear design appealed to the casual and youthful. Men wore low oxfords, loafers, ankle boots and sport shoes while women’s shoes, whether high, spiked or low heeled had thin platform soles. By 1914, the fair sex sported colorful and glamorous shoes – high heels slim ankles and tighten calf muscles – and hosiery and shapely legs were exposed as hemlines climbed to mid-calf. A level never before reached; quite different from Victorian times when the leg was known as the lower limb. By 1918, as World War I continued and relatives and friends were lost or injured, a more independent woman strode about in sensible shoes and lace-up boots and chose subdued colors.
The young and the young at heart danced the Charleston in a “bar” shoe that could be securely fastened and featured a low heel and closed toe in the flamboyant 1920s; luxurious satins and brocades were the fabrics of choice and dainty feet slipped into feminine Harem slippers and slides. Good times came to an end with the depression, beginning in 1929, when many of the unemployed, searched for jobs in shoes stuffed with paper to cover the holes in their soles. The footwear became known as “Hoover shoes,” named after the President of the United States.
Platform shoes reappeared in the 1930s and World War II brought a shortage of leather (restricted to military use,) and a ban on the use of rubber. Shoe rationing went into effect on February 7, 1943 with Americans restricted to three pairs and the British one pair per year. “Wedgies,” were introduced – their soles made of wood or cork – the cork achieved greater popularity than the heavy wood. Many women wore platforms and gained an inch of height, there were six color choices and the fabric was reptile skin and mesh. Manufacturers, after the War, marketed shoes for men with double-soled shoes; the design based on those worn by the military.
The 1950s introduced new models each season – those who enjoyed being “Decked out,” wore stiletto heels, platform shoes, and mod shoes in fantastic colors, Italian shoes, and cowboy boots and, influenced by the charming motion picture star, Audrey Hepburn, ballerina flats. James Dean, a popular young movie actor, who starred in “Rebel Without a Cause,” wore jeans, a T-shirt and white sneakers and students around the globe copied his style. Elvis Presley scored a hit with a song titled “Blue Suede Shoes,” and suede became a fad for young men. A hip young woman, in the 1960s, donned “Go-Go boots,” the song “These Boots Were Made for Walking,” climbed the charts and many shoes were made of vinyl and plastic. During the 60s and continuing into the 70s, teenagers and rock n’ roll shaped fashion with Beatle boots and Mary Quant footwear. The motion picture, “Saturday Night Fever,” introduced strapped platforms for women and platform loafers for men. Platforms – for men and women – became both fashionable again and resplendent with swirls, far-out kaleidoscopic colors and seven to eight-inch stacked heels.
Health and fitness defined the 1970s. Bare feet slipped in and out of cheap, strong and popular clogs while aerobics and jogging brought special footwear designed for athletes. Millions of pairs were sold; the junior generation enjoyed the informality, older people the comfort. The shoes, broad-based, cushion-soled and promoted by sports stars, denoted status and were “in.” Designer labels set the trend; Nike had a wave, Converse a star, Adidas a triple stripe, Pima a flying wedge, Goodyear the winged foot of Mercury.
“Jellies,” a molded plastic shoe, in a variety of colors, began to be sold in the 1980s and are still worn today and the 80s featured trainers worn with business suits. Eddie Murphy, Chris Evert, Michael Jordan, Mick Jagger and David Bowie donned them. Cybill Shepherd attended the 1985 Emmy Awards dressed in a black gown and trainers. Television stars, Jerry Seinfeld and Ellen DeGeneres, wore them on-screen in the 1990s. Tracksuits often accompanied the trainers; the style popularized by young African-American men, soon became fashionable for men and women of every age, size and ethnic group. Footwear in the 1990s included close-fitting boots, sneakers, pumps, sneaker-pumps, mules, sandals and flats – a myriad of styles for every activity.
Platforms are in vogue again in the 21st century along with flip-flops, macrame ankle wraps, athletic shoes that lace from the tip of the toe to the top of the ankle, mules and backless slides. Shoes are detailed with embroidered flowers, crystals, shells, coins, fringe and beads. Toes are both round and pointy, heels are narrow and high.
From early civilization until today, leather, a breathable, flexible material has been used to fashion footwear. Calf is the most popular for fine shoes while the most adaptable is side leather made from hides. Goatskin is used for dress shoes and slippers, reptile skins such as alligator, lizard and snake slither in and out of vogue and silk, satin and linen are chic for eveningwear. Natural rubber endures but synthetic rubber, discovered during World War II by Waldo Seamon, a chemical engineer and inventor, has grown into an important shoemaking material for waterproof soles. Plastic, along with other synthetics, imitate suede and patent leather and are utilized for the upper part of less expensive shoes
The United States was a leading producer of shoes until the end of the 1970s when imported shoes entered the market. Today, the manufacture of footwear has shifted to Taiwan, Korea, Brazil, Italy, Spain, India and Myanmar with over six billion pairs of shoes manufactured annually in China.
Born without resilient, shock absorbing pads under his toes and soles or the horny sheath of hooves, mankind began wearing foot coverings while in pursuit of life’s necessities. We’ve come a long way from rough leaves, skin and tree bark but through the ages, from civilization’s early days until today, a person’s choice of footwear and its condition has offered clues to personality, status in the community, income and fashion savvy.
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