Shoemaking in Colonial Times

 

Part 2 of 12 

Soon after the colonies were settled and manufacturing industries were established in the various towns, the authorities began to enact laws for the purpose of regulating industry. The Puritans tried to make the laws of Moses the laws of the land.

In 1630 the General Court of Massachusetts Bay colony tried to regulate wages by enacting the following law:

"It is ordered that no master carpenter, mason, joiner or bricklayer shall take love 16 pence a day for their work, if they have meat and drink, and the second sort not above 12 pence a day, under pain of 10 shillings fine, both to giver and receiver."

This early attempt establish a maximum wage did not continue in force long, for the Court soon authorized the fixing of "wages as men shall reasonably agree." Later a similar maximum wage law provided that workmen who accepted more than the maximum wage should be liable to a fine, but exempted the employers who paid more than the maximum wage from punishment. This act was according to the spirit of the times, when it was common belief that the position and the rights of the employer were superior to those of the employee.

The Massachusetts General Court enacted other laws to regulate wages. It permitted constables to discriminate between skilled and unskilled laborers, and to apprehend and punish idlers. It furthermore authorized constables to summon mechanics from their benches during harvest time and make them work in the fields harvesting the crops.

In 1651, the Massachusetts General Court authorized shoemakers of Boston to form an organization. It granted this organization broad powers for the control of the shoe industry, but it forbade schemes to increase prices, and it reserved to the courts the right to settle disputes over wages or conditions of employment. 

Later, the General Court provided that a butcher should not tan leather and that a tanner should not make shoes and that a shoemaker should not make leather.

The court also provided that tanners who made poor leather should be fined, and forbad the use of "insufficiently tanned leather" in boots and shoes. These were some of the early shoe and leather laws. The court also enacted laws forbidding "persons of mean estate" to wear great boots, or other expensive kinds of footwear. These laws, like the old sumptuary laws of Europe, were intended to prevent extravagance in apparel.

Edited text from "A Short History of American Shoemaking" by Fred Gannon (1912)

A Short History of American Shoemaking #1

Beginnings of American Shoemaking

Part 1 of 12

Boots and shoes tell much of the story of people. Savages of warm climates go barefooted. The soles of their feet become hard as leather. Nomads wear sandals of bark trees, woven grass or rawhide. Egyptians had sandals of papyrus and leather. Greeks had shoes for battle of iron and brass. Romans, in days of gorgeous luxury, decked their boots with fine skins, gold and jewels. Prehistoric people of Britain wore boots of rawhide. Knights of battles of the Middle Ages encased their feet and legs in metal. Dandies of luxurious courts of England and France wore elaborate footwear. Dandies of the English court even turned up the toes of their shoes so much that they were fastened by gold chains to the knees and the dandies of the French court wore heels so high that they walked as if on stilts. Puritans in England wore stout shoes with square toes, and they were sometimes called "Square Toes".

Early settlers to this country brought over supplies of strong, serviceable footwear of good bark tanned leather. Each man of John Endicott's company, which settled in Salem in 1628, was one of the best equipped colonial companies with four pair of boots. The new country was rough and even the stoutest shoes quickly wore out on the rocks of its paths and the stone and stubble of its fields. New supplies were had from England on the second arriving ship. Naturally colonists in need of footwear adopted moccasins of the Indians, made of buckskin leather. These proved serviceable, especially to hunters and travelers on foot. But the total supply footwear in the new and growing country soon proved insufficient to the needs of the people and they demanded that shoemakers come from Europe and make shoes for them.

The first shoemakers to arrive appear to have been Thomas Beard, a shoemaker of St. Martin's, London, and Isaac Rickman, who was sent over by the New England Company to the settlement of Salem, May 28, 1629. In a letter from the company's headquarters in London to Governor John Endicott at the Salem settlement, the following instructions concerning them were written:

"Thomas Beard, a shoemaker, and Isaac Rickman, being both recomended to us by Mr. Symon Whetcombe, to receive their diet and houseroom at the charge of the company, we have agreed they shall be with you, the Governor, or placed elsewhere, as you shall think good, and receive from you or by your appointment, their diet and lodging, for which they are to pay, each of them at the rate of 10 pounds a year. And we desire to receive a certificate under the hand of whomsoever they shall be so dieted and lodged with, how long a time they have remained with them, in case they shall otherwise dispose of themselves before the year be expired, or at least-wise the end of each year, to the end we may here receive payment according to said agreement. The said Thomas Beard has in the ship, Mayflower, divers hides, both for sole and upper leather, which he intends to make into boots and shoes in the new country. We pray you let Mr. Pierce, the master of said ship, view the said leather and estimate what tonnage the same may import, that so the said Beard may either pay unto you there, after the rate of four pounds a ton, for freight of the same, the like for his diet, if there be occasion to use any of his commodities or otherwise, upon your advice, we may receive if of Mr. Whetcombe, who has promised to see the same discharged.

"We desire also the same Thomas Beard may have some fifty acres of land allotted  to him as one that transports himself at his own charge. But as well for him as all others that shall have land allotted to them in that kind and are no adventurers in common sort, which is to support of fortifications, as also for the mystery and divers other affairs we hold it fit that these kind of men, as also such as shall, come to inherit lands by their service should, by way of acknowledgement to such from whom they receive their lands, become liable to the performance of some service certain days in the year, and by that service they and their posterity after them hold and inherit these lands, which will be a good means to enjoy their lands from being held in captive and to support the plantations in general and particular."

Beard, the first American shoemaker, prospered in the colonies. He settled in Salem and plied his trade there for 14 years or more. He was made a freeman on May 10,1643. soon afterwards he moved to Portsmouth, NH., where he purchased an estate and made his home. Rickman probably returned to England after a short experience in this country. Of him the colonial records say nothing. 

Other shoemakers followed Beard to the colonies. In 1638, Philip Kertland, was granted 10 acres of land in Lynn, Massachusetts to begin shoe manufacturing. Lynn was to become one of the foremost shoe manufacturing cities of the country.

Henry Elwell, another colonial shoemaker, came to this country on the ship Hercules in 1634. He settled in Scituate, Massachusetts and was admitted to the church in 1636. He enlisted in the colonial army for the Pequot War. His house was burned by the Indians.

The little town of Reading granted its first shoemaker "rights and wood and herbage" meaning that he could gather, free of charge, from the town lands such wood as he wished for fuel and such herbs as he wished for medicines. The town of Ipswich admitted within its limits a shoemaker in 1654 and another in 1663. Other towns were also admitting shoemakers as people were in need of footwear and shoemakers were welcomed men among them. Yet, no matter how much a shoemaker was desired he had to receive permission from the town to establish his home or shop within it's limits. The colonists wished to keep out undesirable persons.

It is difficult for us today to understand the circumstances under which the first shoemakers established their industry in this country. The colonies were thinly scattered along the Atlantic coast. The great ocean lay between them and their supply base in the home country. It was a far distance to send to England for leather, shoes, tools and other commodities. 

The first settlements were adventures in industry, trade and government. They depended, for their existence, upon trade with the Indians, with whom they bartered for skins, and upon their fishing and lumbering industries, whose products were sent to Europe. Several colonies, particularly Massachusetts, made unusual experiments in government, and endeavored to regulate occupations, wages and fashions by law, as well as various matters of politics and religion. the position of the shoemaker in colonial times was quite curious.

Many early settlers, by necessity, became jacks of all trades. They hunted deer, bear, and other creatures in the woods, ate their flesh for food, and made their pelts into leather for shoes, stockings, caps, coats and other articles. Farmers raised cattle, sheep and goats, and ate their flesh for food, tanned their pelts into leather in tanning pits in their own yards, using the bark from nearby trees. Commonly, early settlers made and mended shoes for themselves and their families.

A few traveling shoemakers tramped from house to house, carrying a kit of tools and a supply of leather, where they made and mended shoes, and also related the latest news and gossip of the towns, in the homes in which they stopped. In the towns, a few shoemakers established stores, in which they sold shoes made by themselves or imported. James Everett, who came to Boston in 1634, was a leather dresser and shoemaker, also a landlord and a selectman. The inventory of his estate showed he carried a good sized stock of shoes.

Edited text from "A Short History of American Shoemaking" by Fred Gannon (1912)

 

Blake - McKay Stitching Machine

 

 

When the Civil War broke out, the government of the United States was in a dilemma as to how to provide a sufficient quantity of shoes for the armies of the North. So many shoemakers had volunteered that many of the small shoe shops, where most of the shoes were made, were now without shoemakers to make the shoes or even finish the ones in process. In Marblehead, manufacturers rode around town , waving rolls of bills, and offering double and triple wages to shoemakers who would finish their work before leaving for the war. The price of shoes more than doubled as the shortage became critical.

 

Congress considered the removal of the tariff on shoes, so that army shoes, as well as civilian shoes, could be imported from England. A crisis was at hand in American shoemaking. The armies of both the North and South were shod with footwear, where the outsole was attached by wooden pegs, which failed from the harsh wet Winter weather. Many went barefoot or with bandages wrapped around their feet.

 

It was about this time that Colonel Gordon McKay introduced a specialized sewing machine for sewing the soles of the shoe to the upper or top portion. The productivity of this machine replaced the shoemakers who had left for the front. This was also the beginning of the factory system of making shoes. The quality of the the shoes produced on the McKay machine was superior to the pegged construction. The price of shoes declined at a very substantial rate, providing consumers with lower cost footwear and much better quality.

 

This machine was invented by Lyman R. Blake, a shoemaker and Singer Sewing Machine Co. technician. Blake was born in South Abington, MA (now Whitman, MA) on August 24, 1835. His initial exposure to shoemaking was in his brother Samuel’s factory, working his way up to foreman of the upper fitting department. After returning to school for six months he went to work in the Gurney and Mears shoe factory and in 1857 became a partner in the shoe firm, but unfortunately the firm failed after two years.

 

Blake took his knowledge of sewing machines and invented a thread carrying arm to fit inside the shoe that would stitch through the insole, upper, and finally the outsole itself. The arm created by Blake was hollow and rounded at the tip so as to allow the toe of the shoe to be stitched. The arm contained a mechanism for chain stitching and waxing the thread. A patent was issued to Lyman Blake in 1858.

 

Realizing that further development, eventual production and marketing were beyond his means, he sold his rights to Colonel Gordon McKay for $8000 in cash and $62,000 from profits in the company.

 

Blake went to Staunton, VA, where he established a retail shoe store. The war started and Blake took the last northbound train that was to run from Virginia for four years, leaving his store and $50,000 when he returned to Abington.

 

Nearly broke, Blake rejoined McKay and began the job of improving his machine and introducing the stitcher to the British Isles. While the machine bore the name of McKay in this country, it became known as the Blake machine in Great Britain.

 

With the Civil War in full swing, many shoemakers had joined the the army and shoe orders from from the army were nearly impossible to fill with the limited number of shoemakers available. McKay and Blake were able to install the machine in several New England factories. By 1862, thousands of pairs of shoes were sewn on the McKay stitchers. Shoemakers at the front, who had deserted their benches before the McKay machine appeared, used to study the shoes, and wondered how in the world any sort of machine could be made to sew shoes, particularly with the thickness of leather involved.

 

The outlook for the machine was bright but, still finding it difficult in selling the machine outright, McKay decided to lease them. The shoe manufacturers leased the machines and paid a per pair royalty to McKay. McKay’s idea of leasing caught on and is still in use today.

                                                            Colonel Gordon McKay

                                                           Colonel Gordon McKay

 

The McKay machine revolutionized the shoe manufacturing industry. It drew shoemakers from the little ten-footer shops, in which shoes had been handmade for decades, into the machine based factories. The quality of shoes improved dramatically while the cost to consumers was reduced substantially.

 

When Lyman Blake, as inventor of the McKay machine applied for a patent extension in 1876, he testified that from July of 1862 to July of 1876, 177,665,135 pairs of shoes had been sewn on the McKay machines, at an average savings of 18 cents per pair and a total savings of almost $14 million dollars.

 

Shoe manufacturers also testified that the McKay machines had enabled them to develop better manufacturing methods and to improve their product. Shoemakers testified that the machine had enabled them to decrease their hours and increase their wages, which benefited their health. When shoemakers worked by hand, they bent over their lasts much of the time, cramping their lungs. Consumption, as tuberculosis was then called, was a common disease among shoemakers. But, the prevention of it came, not from the science of medicine, but from the art of invention. The McKay machine, which Blake invented, enabled shoemakers to stand while working, and to breathe normally. As a consequence, cases of tuberculosis among shoemakers greatly diminished.

 

Colonel McKay and the Blake machine became an important factor in the formation of the United Shoe Machinery Company in February, 1899.