Shoemaking 1850 to the Present

By 1830, exports of women's footwear from France and men's footwear from England dominated the fashionable marketplace. Shoemaking centers were now firmly established in Paris and Northampton, but the United States, whose shoe industry was centered in and around Lynn, Massachusetts, was about to change everything. Factory-style mass production using semi-skilled workers could undercut imported goods and with the American perfection of the lock-stitch sewing machine by 1860, shoes could be made as quickly as the machine-sewn uppers could be attached to the soles.

The invention of the sewing machine was primarily initiated by the need for sewing leather, not cloth, more proficiently. Chain-stitching machines were introduced in early French shoemaking factories in the 1830s, resulting in Luddite-like revolts by workers who smashed the machines in fear of losing their jobs to technology. However, chain stitching was found to be more suitable for decorative work than seam construction. It was the American Isaac Singer's patented lock-stitch sewing machine for leather in 1856 that was to begin a series of major changes to the shoemaking industry over the next thirty years.

In 1858 the McKay Closing Machine was perfected that sewed the sole to the upper efficiently without the need of a trained shoemaker. The Goodyear welting machine, developed in 1875 by Charles Goodyear Jr., the son of the man who invented the process of vulcanizing rubber, imitated the difficult stitching of a leather shoe through an upper, welt, and sole. Unlike the McKay closing machine, a Goodyear welting machine did not puncture the bottom of the sole, resulting in a suitable walking shoe for outdoor wear. The Lasting machine, invented in 1883 by Jan Matzelinger, copied the multiple motions of pulling leather around a last and tacking it into posi-tion—a time-consuming job.

These machines, all invented in the United States, secured the American ability to mass-produce footwear, as shoes could now be made at great speed and little cost. By the end of the nineteenth century, American shoes were flooding every market. Even the American idea of shoe boxes allowed for more efficient stock management and exporting of goods to Europe and the rest of the world. The European tradition of hand shoemaking was all but ruined.

Some European shoemakers survived the onslaught of cheaper American footwear by catering to the elite, creating footwear of exceptional quality and beauty. However, this worked for only a few small shoemakers. In order to survive, many European shoe companies modernized their factories, fitting them out with the latest machinery to compete with American goods, and many were successful, such as Clarks in England, Bally in Switzerland, Pelikan in Germany, and Bata in Czechoslovakia.

Through a changing workforce and insecure economy due to World War I, postwar recession, and the Great Depression, many shoe companies found it difficult to survive. However, a new process for cemented, or glued, soles in the mid-1930s brought production costs down and eliminated the need for many of the American machines. The 1930s put a focus on women's shoes in the wardrobe, now fully visible under shorter hemlines and thus a necessity for the fashion conscious. The importance of style, color, and decoration enabled European manufacturers the chance to regain supremacy. Companies such as I. Miller and Delman in the United States now saw competition from manufacturers such as Charles Jourdan in France, Rayne in England, and Ferragamo in Italy, who catered to a fashion-conscious clientele.

World War II changed the focus from style to durability. Shoe manufacturers did not suffer, because they were kept busy producing military footwear and other goods under military contract, but fashion footwear was limited by availability of materials.

As part of their postwar recovery, the Italian state aided indigenous shoe companies that were less wieldy than the huge American shoe manufacturers. Undercutting production costs, Italian shoe manufacturers quickly found a niche in the high-fashion footwear industry. By the 1960s French designers were going to Italy to have their shoes made, bypassing their own shoe-manufacturing nationals. Similar sized and modeled companies in Spain and South America with access to cheap and plentiful hides also found success in the 1970s and 1980s, at the cost of American, English, German, and French shoe manufacturers.

But the death knell for many American and European shoe manufacturers came in the development of Southeast Asian shoe industries in the late 1950s and 1960s. Cheaper labor costs for traditionally sewn footwear combined with the new slush molded plastic footwear, which could be produced by machine alone, resulted in the most profitable center in the world for the production of sports shoes—the most popular shoe style since the late 1960s.

While hand shoemakers still exist in London, Venice, and other locales, their numbers are limited and their clients few. High-fashion footwear is produced with a modicum of skilled labor in the finishing; workers whose greatest skill is computer programming make most of the shoes of the early 2000s. Cost, durability, and branding are what drive footwear production in the twenty-first century.

See also Inuit and Arctic Footwear; Ready-to-Wear; Sewing Machine; Shoes; Shoes, Children's Shoes, Men's; Shoes, Women's.


Bondi, Federico, and Giovanni Mariacher. If the Shoe Fits.

Venice, Italy: Cavallino Venezia, 1983 Durian-Ress, Saskia. Schuhe: vom spaten Mittelalter biszur Gegenwart Hirmer. Munich: Verlag, 1991. Ferragamo, Salvatore. The Art of the Shoe, 1927-1960. Florence,

Italy: Centro Di, 1992, Rexford, Nancy E. Women's Shoes in America, 1795-1930. Kent,

Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000. Swann, June. Shoes. London: B.T. Batsford, Ltd., 1982.

-. Shoemaking. Shire Album 155. Jersey City, N.J.: Parkwest Publications, 1986.

Walford, Jonathan. The Gentle Step. Toronto: Bata Shoe Museum, 1994.

Jonathan Walford

SHOES Neil Armstrong uttered, "One small step for man—one giant leap for mankind" upon his first step on the moon on 20 July 1969. In Teflon-coated nylon and rubber boots, Armstrong became the first man to come into contact with an unknown, hostile extraterrestrial environment. Ten thousand years earlier, dwellers of caves in the Pyrenees emerged from the Ice Age also wearing footwear, made from the hides of the animals they hunted, to protect them from the elements and environment.

Footwear's primary purpose is to protect, but in 10,000 years of history, footwear has taken nearly every form possible to service and compliment human bodies, influenced by environment, morality, practicality, economy, and beauty. Footwear is literally the foundation of fashion. It is the only article of clothing required to come into regular contact with the earth, taking the punishment of hundreds of pounds per square inch with every step. At the same time, it is usually expected to resist dampness, comfort the foot, last a long time, and also look attractive.

Footwear has been the subject of literature and folklore. From Cinderella and Dutch clogs laid out for Sinter Claus, to tying shoes to a newlywed's car bumper, and fetish boots—footwear is steeped in tradition and cultural meaning. From biblical times, the sandal or slipper has been used as a symbol. The Assyrians and Hebrews gave a sandal as a token of good faith and to signify the trans fer of property. In Jewish ritual, the shoe represents wealth as when a loved one dies, the grieving family goes shoeless during the shivah as a sign of poverty, for without the deceased they are poor.

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  • Negassi
    WHere would someone learn the skill of shoemaking in the 1850's?
    5 years ago

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