Sturbridge, Massachusetts, c. 1800-1850
Moved to OSV, 1939
"Why thus alone are you ploughing, Mr. Thrifty?" "O sir, my boys have all left me and turned shoepeggers." -- 1834 Farmer's Almanac
After 1825, shoemaking was an expanding industry and a young man’s trade. Most shoemakers were under the age of 30 and earned 25 cents for completing the production of a pair of shoes.
The putting-out system for making large quantities of shoes developed in eastern Massachusetts in the late 18th century and then was adopted in many parts of the New England countryside. Central shop manufacturers—sometimes storekeepers—provided raw materials and picked up the finished product. They arranged for young women in their homes to sew the soft leather upper parts of the shoes for three to five cents a pair.
Shoes were usually completed in small shops, where each worker sat at a bench with his hammer, last, awls, pegs, string, wax, and bristles close at hand.
Shoe pegging was the fastest technique for attaching the soles and heels to the upper part, used along with stitching or sometimes nailing. Fast workers could finish four pairs of “pegged shoes” a day, using wooden pegs made cheaply by machine. The pegs were ¾" long, tapered, and slightly thicker than a wooden match. Stitching or pegging, depending on the quality and price desired, were skills that a young man could learn in a few months.
The Shoe Shop at the Village portrays the production of men’s shoes, more widespread in the countryside than that of women’s. Durable cowhide shoes and boots with thick soles were made to be shipped from Boston for sale in Georgia and Ohio, Cuba, Haiti, and Chile. By the mid-1830s, the New England shoe industry was ranked with textile manufacturing, taking second place only to farming. In Massachusetts 23,000 men and 15,000 women were employed. In 1837, close to three million pairs of men’s boots and shoes were produced in the central part of the state alone.
Excerpted from Old Sturbridge Village Visitor's Guide
© 1993-2004, Old Sturbridge Inc.
|Shoe Shop Frequently Asked Questions|
|How did they make shoes?|
|How long does it take to make a shoe?|
|How long did these shoes last?|
|How much did shoes cost?|
|Is this where people in town bought their shoes?|
|For whom did shops like this make shoes?|
|Where did the leather come from?|
|What kinds of leather were used?|
|Where did shoemakers get their tools?|
|Are these shoes “straight,” that is no lefts or rights? When did they start making “lefts and rights” (shoes specifically for the left and right feet)?|
|Did shoes tie or buckle in the 1830s? When did they start to make tied shoes?|
|Were shoes made in sizes?|
|What were the laces made of?|
|Why are some shoes made inside out (flesh side out)?|
|Did New Englanders wear clogs in the 1830s?|
|How much did a shoemaker earn?|
|What kind of thread was used to sew the uppers?|
|Did people wear boots in 19th century New England?|
|Weren't people's feet smaller back then?|
|Weren't these shoes uncomfortable?|
|What are the soles made of?|
|How are the soles attached?|
|How were shoe pegs made?|
|How were shoe nails made?|
|Are these dress shoes?|
|How did a man learn how to be a shoemaker?|
|How did they make shoes? |
While there were custom shoemakers in early 19th century New England who made shoes to order, most shoes were mass produced (although by hand) and sold through stores. Shoe manufacturers paid women to sew together pre-cut “uppers” in their homes, then distributed the sewn uppers and thick sole leather to men in shops like this one. Here the shoes were “bottomed” by applying soles and heels, attaching them with wooden pegs. The manufacturer then shipped the finished shoes to wholesalers and storekeepers far and wide.
|How long does it take to make a shoe? |
An experienced shoemaker can peg the soles and heels on between 3 and 5 pairs of men’s work shoes in a day, so a single shoe takes between 1 and 2 hours to complete.
|How long did these shoes last? |
With occasional repairs and proper maintenance, a pair of shoes could last for a couple of years. Repairs might include heel-taps and half-soles, while maintenance included regularly rubbing grease into the uppers to help preserve and waterproof them.
|How much did shoes cost? |
Keeping in mind that monetary values in the 1830s were not the same as they are today, a pair of men’s shoes could range from as little as 75¢ to as much as $2.00, depending upon style and quality. Women’s shoes ranged from 37-½ ¢ to about $2.00 a pair. Thus a pair of shoes cost at least one day’s pay, and often more.
|Is this where people in town bought their shoes? |
In 19th century New England most people bought their shoes from a store, like the near-by Asa Knight country store exhibit.
Shops like this were small factories. Men working here produced large quantities of shoes for shipment elsewhere, and did not engage in retail sale. There were, however, custom shoemakers who made better quality shoes to order. Such custom-made footwear cost more than “store shoes,” however.
|For whom did shops like this make shoes? |
Men in shops like this made shoes for an entrepreneur shoe manufacturer on a piecework basis. Manufacturers in this area then shipped most of these shoes for sale to the southern and western United States, as well as to the western territories and the Caribbean. Some of the shoes were sold in New England as well. By the 1830s Massachusetts alone produced over 15 million pairs of shoes and boots each year.
|Where did the leather come from? |
Leather is cured animal skin, made at tannery. There, hides were cleaned and scraped, soaked in chemical solutions (often made from ground oak bark), and then worked and curried. The process of converting animal skin into leather took many months or more to complete.
In the 1830s there were over 400 tanneries in Massachusetts alone. Two of those tanneries were here in the town of Sturbridge.
|What kinds of leather were used? |
Work shoes, those most commonly made in this area, had split cow or steer-hide uppers, and full-thickness soles and heels. Horsehide was sometimes used for boots. Dress shoes might be made from thinner calf or goat skin, with sheepskin sometimes used for linings.
|Where did shoemakers get their tools? |
Since the manufacturer supplied the lasts (wooden forms around which shoes are made), a shoemaker only needed a modest kit of knives, awls, hammers, and a few other tools. These tools, of both American and European manufacture, were readily available through stores in the 1830s.
|Are these shoes “straight,” that is no lefts or rights? When did they start making “lefts and rights” (shoes specifically for the left and right feet)? |
The work shoes produced here are indeed made on a single “straight” last (wooden form). Thus a new pair of these shoes consists of two identical shoes that can be worn on either foot. (Eventually the shoes will mold themselves to the wearer’s right or left foot, however.)
Shoes have been made specifically for the left or right foot for thousands of years, although this style has gone in and out of fashion from time to time. Straight shoes (made initially to fit either foot) were the common fashion from about the 1500s until the late 1700s when lefts and rights began to return to favor, especially for dress shoes. Work shoes began to return to the left and right style by the mid-1800s.
|Did shoes tie or buckle in the 1830s? When did they start to make tied shoes? |
The shoes had been tied since before recorded history. The fashion of buckled shoes reigned for about a century, but had started to fade by around 1800. By the 1830s almost all shoes were tied.
|Were shoes made in sizes? |
Yes, shoes were made in standard sizes in the 1830s, just as they are today. There is no firm documentation as to when the practice of producing shoes in specific sizes began, however, although there are many theories. It does go back several hundred years.
|What were the laces made of? |
Most laces were strips of leather, although dress shoes were sometimes tied with braided fiber laces with metal tips, or even silk ribbons.
|Why are some shoes made inside out (flesh side out)? |
Putting the flesh side of leather out was standard practice for shoes meant to be worn extensively out of doors. This technique resisted scuffs and protected the strong, smooth side of the leather from wear.
|Did New Englanders wear clogs in the 1830s? |
Clogs (wooden-soled shoes) were rare in this area, although some women did wear wooden-soled overshoes called pattens in wet, muddy weather.
|How much did a shoemaker earn? |
Shoemakers were paid on a piecework basis for “bottoming” shoes, depending on how much they produced. Rates ranged from 17¢ to 30¢ per pair, so between about 75¢ to $1.00 (in cash) could be earned in a day.
|What kind of thread was used to sew the uppers? |
People sewing shoes made their own linen thread by twisting and waxing flax fiber imported from the Britain. They joined it onto a stiff but flexible boar’s bristle for sewing.
|Did people wear boots in 19th century New England? |
Yes, boots were sometimes worn for riding and farm chores, although they were expensive. As a result, shoes were much more commonly worn than boots. A pair of boots might cost as much as a farm laborer earned in a week! Some family members might even share a pair of boots.
|Weren't people's feet smaller back then? |
Perhaps, but not so dramatically that it would be readily apparent. Some studies indicate that the average shoe size was about half a size smaller 200 years ago than it is today. We have a pair of size 14 shoes in our collection, and several pairs of shoes sized 18 also survive in other museum collections.
|Weren't these shoes uncomfortable? |
Like modern shoes, a good fit is important. Since these work shoes are not padded, and are made heavy and stiff to help protect the feet, they do not feel like modern sneakers. However, they are all leather, and so in time they will conform quite comfortably to the wearer’s feet, unlike modern synthetic materials.
|What are the soles made of? |
The soles and heels are made from full-thickness cowhide.
|How are the soles attached? |
Some shoes had the soles sewn on, but in the 1800s the soles of most shoes were held on with wooden pegs. Pegging shoes together proved both faster and cheaper than sewing.
|How were shoe pegs made? |
By the 1830s, peg manufacturers had developed machinery to quickly saw and split shoe pegs out of local hardwoods such as birch, maple, or beech. They were readily available for sale to shoemakers.
|How were shoe nails made? |
In the late 1700s machinery was developed to rapidly cut nails from bars of iron. Like today, nails were sold by the pound.
|Are these dress shoes? |
The shoes displayed here, like most shoes made in this area in the 1830s, are heavy workshoes for men and boys. Dress shoes often resembled modern dancing slippers. These "pumps" were made of much thinner leather, or even cloth, and usually lacked heels. Examples of dress shoes for men and women may be seen at the Asa Knight store, next door to this shop.
|How did a man learn how to be a shoemaker? |
Custom shoemakers might learn their trade by serving an apprenticeship as boys. Men who worked in a shop like this, however, only pegged the soles and heels to one style of shoe. This required considerably less skill, and might be learned from a friend or relative in a few weeks.