Monday, October 30, 2017

History of Shoe Making : The Ten footers

During the mid nineteenth century in the United States shoes were made in small workshops called ten footers, (i.e. 10-feet-by-10-feet constructions). Between five to 10 people worked in a ten-footer and usually sat around a table. In the absence of automation shoe making was done by hand. Division of labour was the rule in the Ten Footers. One workman would cut the leather which was tanned on the premises; another sewed the uppers together; while another sewed on the soles.

Some work was outsourced and women would hand sew uppers to soles at home but come the invention of the sole sewing machine the practice of "putting out" work gradually declined. Shoe making dominated the small towns of Massachusetts like Natick with 75 percent of the work force involved in shoe making. Core business during the mid 19th century prior to the Civil War (1861–1865), was supply of shoes for the slaves in the South. A spike in business came with the Gold Rush of (1848- 1855) when diggers needed boots.

Manufacture of shoes was complex with over a hundred separate operations involved; the greatest stride took place when the sole sowing machine was invented. The first patented machine was invented in 1858 by Lyman Blake. The machinery was designed to stitch the sole and upper together.

A year later Lyman sold his patent to Gordon McKay and together they developed the McKay sole-sewing machine which became the stalwart of shoe manufacture industry. Many other innovations followed but at first increased production brought an overproduction of product which required to be sold off cheaply. Mass produced footwear was poor quality and got the name ‘12 day shoes’ because on average that is as long as they would last.

Mechanisation severely impacted upon the shoemakers working in ten footers. Workshops were now given specialties such as one would cut the leather; another would form it; and another would stitch them together. Workers were put on piece work which resulted in massive pay cuts for much of the workforce. Gradually the ten-footers were closed and the workforce rehoused in central shops, where they could use the new machines.

It was not long before manufacturers hired semi-skilled labourers to operate the new machines. Known as “green hands” to the older shoemakers there was much resentment towards them from the men raised in the apprentice-journeyman system. Manufacturers also hired women, because they would work for lower wages.

As dissatisfaction grew workers formed a labour union called the Knights of St. Crispin. They argued for a return to the Ten footers and not forced to move into city factories. Eventually in 1860 things came to ahead with more than 500 shoemakers voting to strike in Natick Massachusetts. Support from other shoe workers in 25 towns followed and a massive strike of over 20,000 workers ensued. The manufacturers refused to recognise the union and eventually the strike came to an end in April 1860. Subsequently many men left the industry and were either caught up in the Civil War or went west to the western frontier. The Knights of St. Crispin, remained active as a national shoe workers union, and actively supported equal pay for equal work. The union also helped form the Daughters of St. Crispin which is recognized as the first national union of women in the US. After the strike the cost of shoes increased.


During the Civil War many if the Confederate soldiers eventually ended up bare foot because most of the shoe factories were in the North. The Battle of Gettysberg was fought over a shoe factory.

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