[Taking A Close Look At...]

Shoes and Shoemaking

""IT'S A STRONG TEMPTATION when complete satisfaction has been experienced to come back for more. This is the way with CUNNINGHAM FOOTWEAR. My goods are so stylish and such good value for the money that customers come back again and again. My Fall showing comprises a wide range of the newest goods from best makers. PRICE AND QUALITY are special features with me. My motto is quick sale and small profits. N.K. Cunningham." [Casket, 13 August 1908]

"Ill-fitted boots and shoes cause corns. Holloway's Corn Cure is the article to use." [Aurora, 25 July 1883]

"Mr. T. McElwain, representing Messrs James McCready & Co., the well known and ever popular Boot and Shoe manufacturers, Montreal, will be in Antigonish and Cape Breton in a couple of weeks with superior lines. Wait for him." [Aurora, 22 November 1882]

"Some Leather's mean, some Workmen are mean, some Styles are mean. That's how some Shoes get made and sold. Six out of every ten pairs of Shoes are shams--pasted Stock 'pancakes'. Bits of useless leather are pressed and made into insoles, just as bits of useless wool are carded with long cotton and made into shoddy." [Casket, 24 September 1890]

"The brogans (shoes) were lumped uncovered on the lower shelves, but the better class of shoes came boxed, with the picture of an Ox's head advertising their superior brand." [R.A. MacLean ed., Recollections, 1977, p. 52]

"Our best boots and slippers stood in a row awaiting tomorrow morning's Army and Navy polishing."[R.A. MacLean ed., Recollections, 1977, p. 122]

| Supporting Evidence |

[ View object ]

Date:c. 1890s
Dimensions: 17 cm long

Comments: This particular shoe was found in the wall of a building in the Tracadie area. It is made of dark leather with a high top designed to extend upward over the ankle of the child. The shoe shows extreme wear and tear and obvious signs of repeated repairs. There is restitching along the seam lines and copper plating attached to the toe area. The most interesting features of the shoe are the wooden pegs in the soles and the wooden shanks supporting the arches. Early shoes were pegged rather than sewn. This practice extended the life of the shoe because dampness rotted thread stitching. Some shoemakers combated this problem by using flax thread waterproofed and strengthened with beeswax.

This child's shoe harks back to a time of great thrift but also privation. Footwear was scarce and children went barefoot for most of the year. School registers often noted that lack of adequate footwear was a frequent explanation for poor school attendance. Shoes were especially prized by the Scots in eastern Nova Scotia. Stories of the Presbyterian open-air communions tell how people--both adults and children--walked barefoot great distances until they reached the communion site, where they finally donned their shoes. According to local lore, it was common for young people to carry their homemade shoes in their hands until they came in sight of St. Andrew's Church. Of course, in most households, the Saturday routine included boot-blacking so that footwear looked respectable for church.

Dean Goldrup

[ View object ]

Date: c. 1890
Dimensions: Size 3

Comments: This lady's laced boot with a slightly extended heel is made of dark leather with an almost reddish tint. The sole, although showing some signs of wear, is surprisingly smooth. The boot probably belonged to Winnifred or Bessie McPhee of North Lochaber. Its most striking feature is the wooden-peg construction that clearly establishes its date as late 19th century. Soles were usually applied in three layers, with the outer layer fitted with small square wooden pegs. This shoe was a modest commonsense design, contrasting sharply with the more elaborate contemporary button-boots which used hooks rather than laces. The sole of the shoe is clearly marked as Size 3.

Throughout much of the 19th century, women's shoes resembled flat slippers. They were made as "straights" which meant that the shoes could fit either foot. Towards the end of the century, the height of the heels and narrowness of the soles increased. Sizes were standardized in England in 1885 and in the United States two years later. Shoes were also available in several widths. Such evidence confirms the fact that this single boot dates from this period and was manufactured rather than handmade. Several stores in Antigonish stocked footwear: in the 1870s, John McMillan listed among his merchandise a large variety of boots and shoes from "the best manufactories in the Dominion of Canada"; McCurdy & Co. also boasted a selection of boots and shoes by the 1890s; and by 1900, the Palace Clothing Company promoted the King Quality Shoe "models of beauty and the ideal perfection of women's footwear." No doubt some of these designs came from the huge boot and shoe factory in turn-of-the-century Amherst, Nova Scotia.

Dean Goldrup

[ View object ]

Date:late 19th century
Dimensions:26 cm long

Comments: This large well-worn shoe is made of dark leather and cut low to remain below the ankle line. It was found in the wall of the same building as the child's shoe discussed above. This shoe shows signs of extreme wear and repeated repairs. Both the sole and heel reveal evidence of peg construction. In fact, many of these wooden pegs must have been added later along with extra stitching as repairs. The body of this shoe is also held together by string. Clearly, it came from a culture that valued thrift and resisted the notion of built-in obsolescence. The life of a pair of boots could be prolonged not only with repairs, but also with regular applications of oil to keep them waterproof and mutton tallow to make them pliable.

In the early days, both shoes in a pair were identical, with no distinction between a left and right shoe. This probably explains why so many newspapers featured copious cures for corns.

The early Scottish immigrants wore handmade hair-lined moccasins fashioned from the skin of the legs and knees of a slaughtered cow. They had a particularly strong odour, but proved highly functional in the deep winter snow. Many wore an adapted form of the Scottish "mogan", a type of knitted slipper with a leather sole and several layers of cloth. In rural 19th-century Maritime communities, "larrigans" or moccasins were also a popular form of footwear. Other types of footwear were the high boots (for men) and half boots (for women) made by travelling shoemakers. They were usually made from calf skin and were reddish in tone.

Dean Goldrup

[ View object ]

Date: late 19th century
Dimensions: 13 cm long and 10 cm high (child's size)

Comments: In 19th-century Maritime Canada, shoemakers often travelled with their cobbler's tools from house to house making shoes for local families. Some households possessed iron lasts (the original ones were made of wood) in a variety of sizes, from infant to adult. In the late 19th century, iron shoe lasts were sold in sets. The stand with three lasts, small, medium and large, could be purchased in 1900 for twenty cents. Shoe lasts were normally used by the head of the household who did basic repairs as well as by the travelling shoemaker. In Acadian communities, the older men often assumed responsibility for making moccasins for the family. When the shoemaker made his rounds, families usually provided a side or two of tanned leather to assist in the making of boots. These hides were usually tanned at home with the use of hemlock bark; sole leather did not require such sophisticated techniques as shaving, oiling and colouring. In the Annapolis Valley, the itinerant travelling shoemaker's occupation was called "whipping the cat." More substantial communities had shoemakers with established businesses and at least one apprentice. In the 1870s, there were at least two boot and shoemakers and dealers in Antigonish: W.R. Cunningham, Jr., "Importer and Dealer in Boots and Shoes"; and H. McDougall "Custom Boot & Shoe Maker". By the 1890s, however, factory-made shoes were readily available from mail-order catalogues as well as local stores.

Researched by Dean Goldrup

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