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)