Today’s post is all about the shoes, and since I have what might be known as “bad feet” and “bad knees”, the result of long ago injuries that are too boring to mention, I have done lots of experimentation with real and reproduction shoes in all centuries. Don’t even ask to see my closet full of modern shoes and boots! Ok, maybe just ONE pic of some groovy boots and some high heeled shoes…
So let’s get started, shall we? I’ll go backward, starting in the recent past and ending with a focus on the 18th-century. The first thing to know is that in addition to being a clothes-horse, Molly is also a shoe-horse (or perhaps it is shoe-whore?) and her favourite pair are these black satin beauties from the 1960s. Oh so painful, but worth it for a few hours in a killer dress. Like this one from 1962. This is Mum, and I’m told this dress was green, not aqua. Gotta love old Kodachrome. I have this vintage fabric (yep it’s green) and a pattern so if I ever get skinny enough I’ll make the dress (waits for hell to freeze over…). I tend to wear these shoes on holidays.
Jumping backward to the early 20th-century, seeking a pair of shoes or boots for an event set in 1912, I came across a pair of original boots from the early 1900s and they were actually my size, which is just about unheard of for those of us with modern gunboats for feet, as my petite grandmother used to say. They weren’t terribly expensive, so I bought them. They were rather beat up and the leather was a little cracked, but I set to work with some saddle soap, mink oil, and black polish. To my surprise, and with some help from American Duchess‘s video they turned out to be rather nice. Lauren talks about a particular brand of the product she used, but I can tell you that I just used what I had around whilst caring for my riding boots. Here they are. And yes, yes I actually wore them. Carefully, and indoors, but I wore them, and they were surprisingly comfortable. Who says our ancestors didn’t know what they were doing? Before:
And after, on my gunboats: (the pic from my phone is a bit grainy)
Another pair I found was from the 1880s with side buttons! They were so cute but teeny tiny and despite the fact that they were supposed to be a size 7.5, they turned out to be not much bigger than a 5 (US sizes). They were old enough that I hadn’t really planned to wear them even if they did fit, and my goal was simply to restore them. I worked them over with saddle soap and mink oil, kept them on display for a time, and then donated them to a local museum for their collection. I don’t think there is a before photo, but here’s how they turned out. It was worth a little work and a little love to restore these original boots to a fraction of their former glory and to preserve them for the future.
Our next stop is the 1860s or the American Civil War period. This is far enough back that the originals are likely to be more fragile, so I was more concerned about documenting the style and finding appropriate repros to wear than about finding extant shoes to own. Examples of extant shoes from the 1860s demonstrated that side-lacing boots with low heels, square toes, and leather “foxing” at the toe and heel were very popular (there are examples of original mid-19th-century shoes all over Pinterest if you are interested). Generally, Mr. Robert Land in Canada is considered to be the best repro shoemaker for the 1860s period. He’s notoriously difficult to reach, and the latest word is that he is no longer in business. Another good option is NJ Sekela, who also seem to have larger women’s sizes. I have 3 pair of Robert Land’s, which I purchased at a shop in Gettysburg several years ago (at different times), unfortunately at full price, but I felt like somewhat of a desperado when I heard he was going out of business. I’ve also heard that Fugawee is decent, and they certainly are for the 18th-century, though I don’t have any of their Civil War boots (we’ll get to the 18th century soon). These are my Robert Land boots, based on originals. One pair has elastic on both sides (yep, they had it then), one pair laces up the front like traditional boots, and the other pair laces up the inside.
I don’t typically participate in living history from the 1830s-50s, but if I did, I might get away with using the black front-lacing boots, the side-lacing boots (even though the heel is slightly higher than earlier in the century, where the style was completely flat), or even the boots from the earlier 1800s. These are from American Duchess, who has reproduction shoes from many different time periods, and were used for the Regency time period, War of 1812, etc. I have difficulty with completely flat shoes, but sometimes one has to suffer for the sake of history.
Now my favorite…the 18th-century! Be prepared, there are tons of shoes. The 18th-century is really what it’s all about for me, and in my quest for increasingly greater accuracy (and at a time when I had a really “good” soul-sucking job to fund said quest) I’ve tried just about every shoe that is out there. I started with Fugawee, because they weren’t TOO expensive. Ok, that’s not exactly true…I started out with a couple pair of modern shoes that kinda sorta looked somewhat like colonial shoes, and that I modified to hold buckles. Yikes, watch out, the Farb word is coming at you. It’s not insulting if I call myself that, right? Thank goodness I’m sparing you the wicked bright pink linen outfit, though I spy a little peek there, and shower cap. BEHOLD, I give you THE SHOES OF SHAME!
See, I’m perfectly willing to embarrass myself in the interest of education. Clearly, this arrangement wasn’t going to work, so I set out trying to get myself some comfortable, appropriate shoes. The first ones I tried were the “Martha” from Fugawee because I thought that pleated tongue was way cool. Never mind that I’ve never seen that on any extant museum shoes, this was a step up in the world.
These proved to be uncomfortable, as the toe box was sloped and not roomy enough, so I sold them after a few wearings. My poor friend who bought them soon dispensed with them for much the same reason. On to the RED ONES, thought I!!!!
I purchased the next pair, along with a pair of “mules” or slip-ons for camp from Burnley and Trowbridge. These were quite a bit better and I wore them for a while, but I felt that the heels were a compromise…they were too high to be square like the heels on men’s shoes, and I always felt like maybe the heels should have been better shaped. But, they’re billed as walking shoes, and they do work for a number of people. I found them to be decently comfortable.
Mules…work nicely for “slippers” when slogging to the blue plastic necessary in the middle of the night.
B&T red walking shoes with brass basket-weave buckles. Cute, but the heel shape didn’t look like 18th-century women’s shoes to me.
I liked the red leather, and could document it to extant shoes in the Kyoto museum (check out the book on Taschen’s website here. It can also be ordered through Amazon.)
The only vendor who had shoes even remotely like these, was American Duchess. So I tried them. They are nice, but they are decidedly modern in construction and so, although they look the part pretty well, they are a compromise. Perfect for costumers, but slightly less than perfect for living historians who will be outdoors in the mud, gravel roads, uneven ground, and all sorts of weather conditions. The first pair are “Georgianas” painted red, and the second pair are the “Kensingtons” in red leather. I sold the first pair because the paint started flaking. I still have the second pair (shown with my original paste buckles which ended up not fitting on the shoes) but I saved them for wearing indoors with nicer gowns because I didn’t find them to be really sturdy for camp use.
Once I had red shoes, I needed a better pair of black ones, so trolling Ebay, I happened to find a reasonably priced pair of handmade shoes. They were from Michigan, or somewhere out in the great white north, and made by a guy that is clearly out of business, since I couldn’t find any reference to him at all online. These look like elephant skin or something but are rather cool. For some reason, they seem to fit a variety of sizes from 7.5 to 9 US regular width, and for handmade shoes with no insole they are pretty comfortable. I wear them occasionally but they’ve essentially become the lending shoes.
My next experiment was to get a pair of white satin Georgianas from American Duchess and have them dyed green by a professional, to match my green sack back gown.
Well, as they say, the best-laid plans often go awry. When I got them back from the dyer (specializing in wedding shoes), they were all blotchy and awful, and the lady complained that they were “the cheapest material” she’d ever worked with. Um, no, they’re real silk and she was used to working with synthetic satin for wedding shoes. Sigh. They ended up being dyed black, but at least they fit my original buckles.
I still wasn’t completely happy with the rounded toe, and I wanted a slightly higher heel, and a “calimanco-look” shoe, so I sold these and went with the “Dunmores”, again from American Duchess. These were a perfect fit for my extant buckles and I happily wear them, very carefully, to indoor events. As a knowledgeable friend once advised…those buckles were made for a lady to wear, right? I’d also love to try the AD “Frasers”, because they have a white rand and a thicker heel for mid-century, but alas…not in the budget right now, and as one can no doubt see, I probably have enough shoes!
In between all of this, I went back to Fugawee looking for sturdy leather shoes with medium chunky heels and ended up with the “Debbie” as well as the “Cheri” because I wanted something that tied instead of buckled. Again, these are decent shoes, with a fairly good early to mid-18th-century shape and I wear them in camp as long as the weather isn’t going to be wet or muddy. Then there’s AD’s fancy “Pompadours” just because they look nice with a fancier gown and there are no buckles to get caught on one’s petticoat hem whilst cavorting about with a fyne gentleman-of-fortune.
But I wasn’t done with red quite yet. I really wanted some red shoes that were hand made and truly authentic, even if I had to save them for better events and wear them outdoors sparingly. Enter Gossville Shoes. I met Bruce at an event in the colony of Connecticut. Bruce observes the Sabbath on Saturday, so he was only displaying and not selling shoes on the day I was there. But I HAD to have the red ones, as they were a pretty good copy of the above calimanco shoes (owned by Mary Flint Spofford in 1765) from the Deerfield museum, only in rough-out red leather. I wasn’t coming back to the event on Sunday, but he allowed me to quickly slip my foot inside the sample to see if it would fit, and indeed it did! I told him that I would email him my order and would pick up the shoes at a later event. Several months later, he was at an event at the Col. Paul Wentworth house in Rollinsford NH, and I stopped by on a Sunday to pay for my shoes and have him install my buckles, as I didn’t dare. These shoes are more expensive than most but really worth it. After all this experimentation, please take my word for it!
So by now, you think I’m really done, right? WRONG!!!! What about shoes for muddy events in camp, Molly? Well, how about a pair of men’s flat shoes from Flying Canoe Traders? Flying Canoe has a website, but they don’t have a place to order shoes from there. They were originally based in Canada, but now have US representatives based in Ohio. John and his assistant whose name, unfortunately, escapes me at the moment, are extremely friendly and customer service oriented. Shoes have to be purchased at an event because they will fit you there, and allow you to walk around in their shoes for a while to make sure they are comfortable before installing the buckles and taking your money. They are a modern shoe, with a modern sole and a rubber heel with a metal shank for support, but they’re comfortable, you won’t slip and fall on yer arse on cobblestones or wet grass, and though purists may object, they look reasonably like 18th-century men’s shoes. The toe box is rather square for my liking and, they ain’t cheap. But they ARE comfortable and supportive, especially for people with foot, ankle, knee, or hip issues clomping around on the uneven ground in camp. Both my husband and I have been wearing these for a while, and I own both a smooth-out and a rough-out pair. The rough-outs from Flying Canoe may be going up for sale after what I discovered this weekend, but bear with me just a bit longer.
I have a friend who is a sutler (Big Bear Trading Company– check them out on Facebook) and a few years ago, a re-enactor was deaccessioning her collection of “stuff” and Bear had it on consignment. It was mostly Civil War stuff that my friend bought, but suddenly, I spotted the Holy Grail. It was a pair of beat up, men’s style, rough out shoes from the late 1970s or early 1980s, complete with some cool cut-brass oval buckles and nailed, stacked heels. I don’t know who made them, but they are well made and may be from G. Gedney Godwin, who still makes and sells shoes. “Bear! How much are these?” “Twenty bucks Mum”. “Twenty bucks?! Including buckles?!!!” “Yes Mum”. “I’ll take them!!!!” “Dontcha wanna know what size they be, Mum?” Oh yeah. Turns out they were my size, though about a half size smaller than I take in repro shoes in order to have room in the toe box. But for 20 bucks I took them and put some of those cedar expandable shoe trees in them to stretch them out. and there they sat for a couple of years because I couldn’t fit insoles or heavy socks in them. That is, they sat until this past weekend, when I broke them out and wore them with thin silk stockings because it was rainy and muddy out. I figured who cared about the 20 buck shoes, and if I wrecked them I wrecked them, no great loss, right? WRONG! These shoes were incredibly comfortable (all stretched out by now) and I had none of the achy ankles, knees, and hips that I tend to get after an event, even wearing the men’s Flying Canoe shoes. In fact, I am so in love with these little shoes that after hearing from a shoemaker (Bruce Graham of Gossville Shoes) that in fact rough-out shoes in the 18th-century frequently were polished or “blacked” I brought them home, cleaned off all the dried mud, and polished them up with black shoe polish, followed by a coat of mink oil. I’m planning on purchasing some “black ball“, 18th-century shoe polish made with tallow and ground animal bones, to keep them nice. Finally, after all the experimentation, sometimes the “cheap” second-hand shoes (well, cheap to me but decidedly not cheaply made) are indeed “the ones”.
Rough out shoes “before”
Rough out shoes “after blacking”. I used modern polishing materials. For now…
And lest you think I forgot the 17th-century? Oh no indeed. Two pair from American Duchess for your viewing pleasure. It is obviously quick and easy to order from AD, and their shoes are good. They are just mass produced and somewhat “modern” in construction- perfect for costumers (and I mean no disrespect there. Costumers rock!) but a compromise for the progressive living history enthusiast. For those folks wanting a really, really good 17th-century shoe, there is Sarah Juniper in the U.K. There you have it…if just one person learns from my sometimes expensive mistakes, it will have been worth it.