Tuesday, October 09, 2018

Early European Australians: Footwear

Boots and shoes wore out quickly in the hard conditions of the penal colony. A fact recorded among the population of the first settlement. From 1790 convict shoemakers made large quantities of footwear from imported leathers. The problems of mass production were hampered due to lack of raw materials Kangaroo skins were used for uppers in 1805, but local cattle hide was not strong enough for soles. The convict shoe makers could not keep up with demand and made shoes for both private commissions as well as for other prisoners. In an outback census, in 1828, there was one shoe maker to every 236 inhabitants. A common custom was for country families to order their complete footwear for a year from England. This habit lasted well into the 1830s. Within a decade necessity meant outback bookmakers were making quality hardwearing boots for rural Australians. Working people according to contemporary official documents wore clothes fashioned in heavier materials whereas clothes for women were slightly softer. Working men and women wore readymade clothes of similar fabrics. Initially children wore either adult cast offs or adult style clothes made to smaller sizes. Going barefoot was common and a letter from Perth in 1830 contained the following reference" many respectable females with their children are going barefoot, not a shoe maker can be got to work." Bare footedness was a common practice among the early Scots and Irish immigrants; this was by choice and not borne through adversity. However by the 1830s, it had become a mark of deprivation.

Middle class Australian women were preoccupied with fashion. All the large shops in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane employed agents in Europe and Britain to conduct their import business. The bourgeois shopped at the new stores but the working class bought their shoes at the slop shops which catered for the cheap and cheerful. New comers to the colonies were often met with a stare because they sported the latest fashions from Europe. Top boots for example may have been all the fashion in London but had little practical use in rural Australia. Rural dress was more practical and governed by shortages. New arrivals immediately acquired the bush dress of rough clothes and equivalent manners. Australian men often wore something special on Sundays. Besides European influences the affect of American styles on colonial woman's fashion was profound. None more so than the high quality shoes available around about 1890. By 1894 the American shoes had replaced British footwear in the Australian Market. The mass production stateside made them cheaper but also the range of styles and leathers were much bigger. There was an American Shoe Company in George Street Sydney selling modish forms of footwear. Australian footwear industry in the mid nineteenth century faced similar problems to clothing manufacturing. Colonial made boots and shoes commanded the local market in New South Wales from 1840-1852. The period also recorded high productivity in South Australia and shoemakers were able to provide much of the footwear for the local market. Adelaide had four tanneries in full production in 1843, and colonial articles were reputedly preferred to import ones. The British shoes imported to Australia were not always suited to the climate. Often the leather would become mildewed on the outward journey. Local manufactures alleged the colonial boots were longer lasting. An Australian made working boot would last on average one calendar month whereas the English slops were doomed by two to three weeks. Homemade footwear were more expensive then the cheaper imports. By the end of the 1850s prices women's boots cost between 3/6 to 7/- for British boots ; whereas the colonial made equivalent cost 12/6.

The decade between 1850 & 1860 saw a decline in the footwear industry in New South Wales due to high wage claims caused by the gold rush. Bootmakers' wages had doubled between 1840 and 1860. The British manufacturers made deliberate attempt to capture Australian trade by flooding the market. Low manufacturing costs and mechanisation meant the UK could produce footwear at low prices even with high transport costs. By 1870 Sydney bootmakers were producing 15,000 pairs of boots each week. Once mechanisation was established bookmakers could cater for the neglected market of children's shoes. Shoes were made for men and children rather than women. Boot and shoemaking was one of the most successful of the garment industries. This has been explained because the product was produced to be profitable, hard wearing and practical not fashionable items. By 1890s the Melbourne manufacturers had converted to a modern system of mechanisation. Concentration of practical footwear meant the fashionable imports remained popular with consumers. A home grown fashion industry tried to establish itself.

MA Melbourne firm responded by producing shoes made from kangaroo skins. The Kangaratta was popular partly because kangaroo skin looks like superior glace kid. Unfortunately the US had captured the Australian market by the mid 1890s. Mending shoes fell mainly on women in Australian towns and country areas. Absence of cobblers and money to buy shoes meant many Australians went barefoot. Settlers in the more tropical climates started to dress for the conditions and men in Brisbane abandoned shoes for sandals. The middleclass wore plaited leather shoes for ventilation.

Maynard M 1994 Fashioned from penury: dress as cultural practice in colonial Australia Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Reviewed 9/10/2018

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