19th-Century Shoe Making

Shoe Making

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.

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. 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.

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.

In 19th-century New England most people bought their shoes from a store, like the near-by Asa Knight country store exhibit. Shops like the one at OSV 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.

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.

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. 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.

Materials & Tools

Leather is cured animal skin, made at a 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 in the town of Sturbridge.

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.

Most laces were strips of leather, although dress shoes were sometimes tied with braided fiber laces with metal tips, or even silk ribbons.

People sewing shoes made their own linen thread by twisting and waxing flax fiber imported from Britain. They joined it onto a stiff but flexible boar’s bristle for sewing.

The soles and heels are made from full-thickness cowhide. 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.

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. In the late 1700s machinery was developed to rapidly cut nails from bars of iron. Like today, nails were sold by the pound.

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.

Shoe Styles

The shoes displayed at OSV, 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.

The work shoes produced here are 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Size & Fit

Shoe sizes may have been smaller in the 1830s, 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.

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.