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)