While many of us consider shoe manufacturers in Italy as the ultimate in style and fashion, the United States has a rich history of shoemaking that begain with European craftspersons. Originally, shoe making in the U.S. began as a specialized trade for cobblers who came here from Europe. Many of these boot-makers and shoemakers set up shops in their homes, purchasing leather from local tanneries and using their hand tools to make shoes.
Back in the 1930s and ‘40s, my uncle worked for the Endicott Johnson Shoe Company in Endicott, New York. Approximately 20,000 people worked in the company’s factories in the 1920s, with even more during the mid ‘40s because of the footwear produced for the military during World War II. At that time, Endicott-Johnson was producing 52 million pairs of shoes a year.
However, in earlier days, shoes were sewn by hand over a wooden last, which gave the shoe its form. All shoes were custom made back in the day, since cobblers would make shoes for customers on order. Although each town had its cobbler, the Northeast, including upstate New York and eastern Massachusetts, became the center of shoemaking in the United States.
The nature of shoemaking in the U.S. changed right after the Revolutionary War. When the U.S. became a country in its own right, its newfound nationhood resulted in an increase in population, thereby increasing the demand for shoes and making it necessary to mass produce shoes. That was the beginning of the division of labor in shoe manufacturing. Instead of cobblers, shoemakers became craftspersons and began to specialize in making only one part of the shoe, such as making the sole or attaching the sole to the upper part of the shoe.
At this point, merchants entered the shoe making process. Instead of buying shoes from a cobbler, people would buy them from a merchant who sold a collection of shoes made by a number of different cobblers.
With time, the improvements in nationwide transportation changed the logistics of the American footwear market. Materials used to make the shoes, such as the leather, were now purchased from different parts of the U.S. and from abroad. On the other end of the shoe manufacturing process, shoes were sold to a wider market, with shoes made in the East being sold to consumers in the South.
The gradual specialization of shoemaking increased as we entered the 19th century. Factories appeared that were dedicated to only one step of the shoe manufacturing process. Then, machines were used to stitch uppers to the soles rather than stitching the shoes by hand.
The advent of the Civil War increased the demand for shoes to be manufactured quickly and cheaply. The War also resulted in the first widespread standardizing of shoe sizes. Standardized sizes made it easier for soldiers to receive the correct size of army boots.
By the end of the 19th century, shoes could be made in a fraction of the time it took to make a pair of shoes by hand. By the 20th century, the shoe manufacturing process was divided into 150 distinct steps. The photo above shows the Endicott-Johnson stitching room, circa 1917.
While shoe manufacturing flourished in the U.S. in the ‘40s and ‘50s, most of the shoes available in America today are made in China. Italian shoes still have the best craftsmanship, style and quality as Italian designers are the most acclaimed footwear designers in the world. However, shoe manufacturers in the Far East also offer hand-crafted shoes and compete with the Italians on price, if not quality.