Early Shoemaking

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"The Old-Time Shoemaker." Leading up to America’s Colonial era, shoes were largely—and literally—homemade. Courtesy of The New York Public Library.

Until America’s Colonial era, shoes were largely homemade. A typical shoe was composed of a “sole,” the layer between foot and ground, and an “upper,” the material that extends across the top of the foot. Early shoemakers could build a shoe at home through a process of pounding and preparing leather then cutting material for the upper to fit one’s foot shape. They would bore holes in both the upper and the sole to peg or sew them together, and then affix an insole and outer sole.

The Massachusetts shoe industry benefitted from the arrival of skilled craftsmen from Europe. One such reputed shoemaker was John Adam Dagyr, who immigrated to Lynn, Massachusetts from Wales in 1750 and found his business “producing shoes equal to the best made in England.” Across the state, other trained shoemakers and their apprentices were beginning to rival and exceed the quality of imported shoes with their custom footwear.

The Revolutionary War necessitated the mass-production of shoes for the Continental Army, as well as an increase in leather tanning from domestic livestock. The efficient “Central Shop System” arose at the turn of the eighteenth  century, with separate stages of shoemakingcutting, fitting, lasting, and bottoming—happening at different craftsmen’s own shops or homes before the shoe’s components were combined. Years later, technological advancements in the mid-nineteenth century and the need for more shoes with the advent of the Civil War pulled the shoemaking industry into the era of mechanization.