Taken from Shoes of the 19th Century  

Shoes of the 19th Century

Shoes in the 1800's

As late as 1850 most shoes were made on absolutely straight lasts, there being no difference between the right and the left shoe. Breaking in a new pair of shoes was not easy. There were but two widths to a size; a basic last was used to produce what was known as a "slim" shoe. When it was necessary to make a "fat" or "stout" shoe the shoemaker placed over the cone of the last a pad of leather to create the additional foot room needed.

Up to 1850 all shoes were made with practically the same hand tools that were used in Egypt as early as the 14th century B.C. as a part of a sandal maker's equipment. To the curved awl, the chisel-like knife and the scraper, the shoemakers of the thirty-three intervening centuries had added only a few simple tools such as the pincers, the lapstone, the hammer and a variety of rubbing sticks used for finishing edges and heels.

Efforts had been made to develop machinery for shoe production. They had all failed and it remained for the shoemakers of the United States to create the first successful machinery for making shoes.

In 1845 the first machine to find a permanent place in the shoe industry came into use. It was the Rolling Machine, which replaced the lapstone and hammer previously used by hand shoemakers for pounding sole leather, a method of increasing wear by compacting the fibres. This was followed in 1846 by Elias Howe's invention of the sewing machine. The success of this major invention seems to have set up a chain reaction of research and development that has gone on ever since. Today there are no major operations left in shoemaking that are not done better by machinery than formerly by hand.

In 1858, Lyman R.Blake, a shoemaker, invented a machine for sewing the soles of shoes to the uppers. His patents were purchased by Gordon McKay, who improved upon Blake's invention. The shoes made on this machine came to be called "McKays." During the Civil War, many shoemakers were called into the armies, thereby creating a serious shortage of shoes for both soldiers and civilians. The introduction of the Mckay was speeded up in an effort to relieve the shortage.

Even when McKay had perfected the machines, he found it very difficult to sell them. He was on the point of giving up since he had spent all the money he could spare, when he thought of a new plan. He went back to the shoemakers who had laughed at the idea of making shoes by machinery, but who needed some means of increased production. He told them that he would put the machines in their factories, if they would pay him a small part of what the machine would save on each pair.

McKay issued "Royalty Stamps", representing the payments made on the machinemade shoes. This method of introducing machines became the accepted practice in the industry. Mention is made of it because it had two important bearings on the industry. First, shoe manufacturers were able to use machinery without tying up large sums of money. This meant that, in the event a new shoe style suddenly became popular and called for major changes in shoe construction methods and production equipment, the manufacturer wasn't left with a huge investment in machinery made obsolete by these changes - nor with the prospect of further investment for new machines. Second, it developed a type of servive which has proven to be of great value in the shoe nad other industries.

This unique service was used in the shoe industry long before it spread to other industries. McKay quickly found that in order to ensure payment for the use of the machines it was necessary to keep them in operation. A machine which wasn't working did not earn any money for Mckay. He therefore made parts interchangeable and organized and trained a group of experts who could be sent wherever machines needed replacement of parts or adjustment.

In 1875 a machine for making a different type of shoe was developed. Later known as the Goodyear Welt Sewing Machine, it was used for making both Welt and Turn shoes. These machines became successful under the management of Charles Goodyear, Jr., the son of the famous inventor of the process of vulcanizing rubber.

Following McKay's example, Goodyear's name became associated with the group of machinery which included the machines for sewing Welt an Turn shoes and a great many auxiliary machines which were developed for use in connection with them.

Invention as a product of continuous research has progressed at an almost incredible pace ever since. This has required great sums of money, sometimes more than a million dollars, to perfect one shoemaking machine, and tireless patience and effort. Inventors have often mechanized hand operations that seemed impossible for any machine.

We have progressed along way from the lasting pincer, a simple combination of gripper and lever. For centuries it was the hand shoemaker's only tool for shaping the shoe around the form on which it is made - aided only by his thumbs and tacks, The lasting pincer is a good tool and is still occasionally useful; with it a century ago a man with great effort might form or last a few pair in a long day. Today's automatic toe laster for Goodyear Welt shoes can last 1.200 pairs in an 8-hour day.

taken from:


The Stuart cavaliers--king's men all--that immigrated to America during the Cromwellian Interregnum brought with them their thigh high riding boots...with high heels. Many settled in the south and indeed the bulk of the southern plantation class was descended from cavalier stock; a fact that played a big part in the unfolding of the American Civil War and the pre-eminence of the southern cavalry. Before and after the civil war many southerners emigrated to Texas or went west to escape the devastation of the war. Again their notion of high heels and nobility went with them.
And as the new century began, boots became very fashionable, even for women. In 1815, Arthur Wellsley, First Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. In the wake of his victory and his ensuing popularity, Wellington boots became THE style. The major difference in these boots from previous styles was that the heels were low cut and the tops were only calf high. At Northampton there is a pair of dress wellingtons made in 1817. They are a four piece boot--vamp, counter cover, front and back tops--with beaded side seams (the same layout as a modern cowboy boot).
The vamps and counter covers are black patent leather, the tops are maroon with an olive top binding and trim...and they have a fancy decorative stitch pattern on the front of the leg. With 1" stacked leather heels and inside canvas pulls they are remarkably like the western boots that later became part of the history of the American frontier. In 1847, S.C. Shive, in America, patented the patterns and crimping board for what we call a Full Wellington--a two piece boot that found wide acceptance among the military, horsemen, and adventurers of the time. By 1868 Wellingtons were almost exclusively an American style, not much seen in a Europe which preferred the Hessian boot.
From the 1850's to the 1880's, the full wellington was the boot that military officers were issued. And although by regulation, foot soldiers and enlisted men were issued shoes (ankle high lace-ups--predecessors of the packer), the full wellington was preferred and was the boot that went west with the army and the nation.(see photos) During the Civil War, the Quartermaster Corp. requisitioned supplies from many different civilian contractors. The word shoddy derives from this time and refers to a particular kind of wool cloth made from mill sweepings. This cloth was made into blankets and coats and often fell apart as soon as it got wet. In the same vein, military boot orders were often filled by unscrupulous contractors, as well. This is significant in light of the fact that at the end of the war the federal government had a half million pairs of surplus boots on hand--boots which needed to be disposed of. In the years that followed, troops stationed on the frontier often found that the boots that they were issued fell apart quickly, especially in the severe climate and terrain. Just naturally they turned to nearby civilian makers to replace the defective footwear. This business was to be the foundation of the cowboy boot trade that flourished in the ensuing years. It must be said that during and after the war, the Quartermaster Corp. was deeply involved in testing various designs...from leg heights, to methods of attaching soles, to different types and origins of leather. Many advances in construction and materials were introduced by the military. The leather that was settled upon for construction of the uppers is especially noteworthy. After much experimentation, an oak-tanned Spanish leather which was heavily waxed on the flesh side became the standard. And it was from this waxed calf that most of the early cowboy boots were constructed, as well.
By 1870 the standard boot worn by frontier horsemen was, essentially, a variation of military issue. The Coffeyville pattern, as it was called, had a higher Cuban heel (scooped instead of straight in profile); and the front of the boot, despite being basically a full wellington, was often grafted. Indeed, this grafting or piecing of the front of the boot is almost the distinguishing characteristic of many non-military boots. This is not too surprising given that all boots, whether made for military issue or as bespoke (custom) footwear, were made by civilian makers during this time.
By the 1880's the cowboy boot, as a separate style, was beginning to emerge. Now we begin to see stovepipe tops, star and horseshoe inlays, stitch patterns and high heels. By 1900 the four piece boot had become the dominant form--probably as a response to the difficulty of construction with a full wellington, an emerging standard of fit that was somewhat more precise than heretofore, and the fact that, historically, the four piece wellington had been reserved for wealthier customers. Styles, of course, did change with the times. Many are the variations of color and decoration. Heights of heel and top have come and gone; and subtle regional variations have also emerged, so that today, for an experienced eye, there is a marked difference in the Texas boot and the northern boot and perhaps, even the Great Basin boot. For those familiar with western boots, there are presently four major variations of the historical cowboy boot. There is the four piece--the dress wellington--which, as we have seen, evolved from the full wellington in the 1800's. Of course, there is the full wellington itself, which is still around and being made by a few custom makers, both in historical and contemporary configurations.
In 1887, the military began to issue a different style of boot. Like an English riding boot, they had a seam running up the back of the boot rather than up the side as in the traditional wellington. And in fact, by 1889, the officers boot looked almost identical to the English style. This pattern remained standard issue until the army abandoned the horse and horse units shortly after the 1st World War.
During the late 1800's, many prize work competitions were staged to demonstrate that factory workers could not compete with skilled craftsmen. Some of the fanciest and most refined work ever to be done was created for these exhibitions. Ms. Swann tells of coming across boots made in Philadelphia for show that were stitched 64 stitches to the inch. Now just about the finest work that can be done on leather with a modern sewing machine is approximately 30 stitches to the inch. More stitches only tear the leather. Additionally, we know that this work was done by hand. James Devlin says in his book The Guide To The Trade that this work was done with an awl so fine that upon an accidental piercing of his hand, the wound neither hurt nor bled; and that a human hair was used for a needle. And although those working in the trade--the boot and shoemakers--are fewer each year; those who work the bristle and the awl do so under the scrutiny of the ghosts of past masters.
taken from;