Friday, July 30, 2021

Brown Shoe Company (1893 -1939), Buster Brown and Mary Jane shoes

( Hamilton, Brown Shoe Co. - Missouri 1900 Image via )

One of the biggest shoe companies in North America in the last century was the Brown Shoe Company , St Louis. The Bryan, Brown & Company was founded in 1878 by George Warren Brown and Alvin Bryan. When Bryan retired Jerome Desnoyers replaced him and the company became the Brown-Desnoyers Shoe Company, in 1886. The Brown Shoe Company finally emerged after Desnoyers retired in 1893, and their factory produced over five thousand pairs of shoes and boots a day. A committed non-union factory the wages were low and the company employed mainly women and children (14 – 19 years of age). In an effort to keep labour costs low the company moved production to neighbouring small towns in Missouri and Illinois but kept their headquarters in St. Louis. Brown’s shoes sold at lower prices to undercut competitors.

(Buster Brown Image via The Ofy)

John Bush was employed to promote the company's children’s shoes, and when the World’s Fair was held in St. Louis in 1904, he met Richard Fenton Outcault, selling licensing rights to his latest characters, Buster Brown, his sweetheart Mary Jane, and his dog Tige, an American Pit Bull Terrier. Bush recognised the marketing potential of using the Buster Brown characters and paid Outcault $200 for licensing rights to use the Buster Brown name and image on children’s shoes. Buster Brown had a sweetheart named Mary Jane, so the Brown Shoe Company also bought licensing rights for “Mary Jane” for their line of girls’ strap shoes. Soon the image of Buster Brown and his dog were appearing inside each pair of Brown’s children’s shoes. The comic strip was first published in the New York Herald in 1902.

( Vintage Buster Browns Image via pinterest )

According to Outcault, the character was not based on anyone in particular but the name "Buster" came from Buster Keaton, then a vaudeville child actor. He was dressed, typically in the style of Little Lord Fauntleroy with pageboy haircut, who lived in a city with his well-off parents. Despite his apparent angelic innocence he was a practical joker full of mischief, which often wrong and young Buster usually got spanked by his mother. Buster’s childhood sweetheart Mary Jane, was named after the artist’s wife, Mary Jane Martin, based on his daughter. Tige is thought to be the first talking pet to appear in the comics, and, like that of many of his successors, his speech goes unnoticed by adults. The Buster Brown comic strip was as well known in the US in the early 1900s, as Homer Simpson is today, and little boys and girls clambered to be dressed in Buster Brown suits and Mary Jane Shoes.

(Buster Brown Shoes Image via pinterest )

The Buster Brown name was used to promote the brand. Adult little people were hired to play the characters in shows that toured around the United States from 1904 until 1930. Buster Brown shows were held in department stores, theatres and shoe stores. In 1905, a Broadway production of a Buster Brown Musical Comedy starred a 21-year-old adult little person actor called Master Gabriel (Gabriel Weigel), and continued to play and tour the country for many years afterwards. Between 1825 – 1929 the Stern Bros. for Universal Pictures produced a series of live-action two-reelers (movies). In 1943. A Buster Brown radio series with new characters began with Smilin' Ed McConnell on the West Coast NBC Radio Network. Children played Buster Brown playground games, including skipping to Buster Brown rhymes

"Buster Brown | Went to town | With his pants | On upside down."

A seesaw game was also popular. One rider would stop the seesaw with the other rider in the air and chanted,
"Buster, Buster, Buster Brown, what will you give me if I let you down?"

The rider stuck in the air is brought back to the ground safely after offering an imaginary payment of grandiose proportions.

(Buster Brown comics Image via MyComicShop)

Shoe shop endorsed copies of Buster Brown comics (Custom Comics and Dell Comics) were used as promotions at shoe stores from 1945 to 1959. These comics featured the Buster Brown characters on the cover, but contained different adventure features, such as Robin Hood. Many of the drawings were completed by notable cartoonists including Reed Crandall. Richard Fenton Outcault focused on merchandising, and set up an advertising agency in Chicago. In the 1950s a television show was broadcast and ran under the titles Smilin' Ed's Gang and The Buster Brown Show for four years. The Brown Company used Buster Brown in their television adverts. The Brown Shoe Company become one of the most successful shoe companies in North America in no short measure to its association with the Buster Brown characters.

(Video Courtesy: tvdays by Youtube Channel)

The success of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s Little Lord Fauntleroy as a children’s novel in 1886 was immense, and the pen and ink illustrations by Reginald B. Birch set fashion trends for American middle-class children. Although Buster Brown came after it rode the same fashion trend for the Lord Fauntleroy suit. To the new generation, it was the Buster Brown Suit, and fashionable you boys (3-8 years of age) who wore their hair in ringlet curls (love locks), velvet sailor suits with a tailored jacket and bib, or lace collar or floppy blow. Tight bloomer-style pants and silk stockings, were the order of the day worn with single strap shoes, similar to Buster’s friend Mary Jane. Elements of the Buster Brown outfit became the fashion with boys dressed in a fancy blouse or floppy bow. Little girls wore pinafore dresses with petticoats.

(History of gender Image via pinterest )

Prior to this time, little boys had worn dresses in part to assist with toilet training as well as allowed them to reach the age where little fingers could ably manage complicated fastenings on breeches and trousers. The ‘breeching age’ was usually about seven. Many experts believe the popularity of the Buster Brown Suit encouraged mothers to breech their boys earlier. By the 1920s Buster Brown outfits were regarded by boys as sissy and effeminate. This might have been reinforced when the silent movie, Little Lord Fauntleroy (1921) starred a young curly-haired, Mary Pickford as both Cedric Errol and Widow Errol.

(Video Courtesy: AmA - Classics by Youtube Channel)

The shoe style worn by both Buster Brown and Mary Jane had been previously known as bar shoes or doll shoes, but subsequent to the popularity of the comic strip became known as Mary Jane Shoes.

(Mary Jane Image via Mme3bien )

The shoes describe a closed, low-cut shoe with one or more straps across the instep. These were typically made of black leather or patent leather, had a broad and rounded toe-box, low heels, with thin outsoles. The strap(s) were button fastened across the instep but small buckles became more popular in the early 20th century. Both little boys and girls wore them, with or without white socks. Families wanted to buy one pair of shoes per child per annum and a major part of the success of the Mary Jane shoe was they were durable and hard wearing.

( Mary Jane Shoes Image via Pinterest)

Styled to fit with a little room left for small feet to grow and tough enough to be passed down to siblings. Although they remained a popular choice of semi-formal or formal footwear up until the late 50s, they were perceived as mostly for girls.

( Vintage advertisements Image via pinterest )

As girls’ names go, throughout the 20th century, the most popular was Mary and because it was so common for so long it sprouted a whole family of spliced names, including Mary Jane. Popularity of the name peaked in 1923, when it became the 444th most popular girls’ name in the US. In 1914, Charles N. Miller named a popular bite-size candy made from peanut butter and molasses after his favourite aunt, Mary Jane. Mary Jane appeared wearing strap shoes. In England in 1924, Alan Alexander Milne (1882-1956), author of Winnie-the-Pooh (1926) and The House At Pooh Corner (1928), latched onto the name and published a set of poems in ‘When we were young’ and a rather mischievous girl called Mary Jane emerged in ‘Rice Pudding’.

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She isn’t sick and she hasn’t a pain
And it’s medication time again
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
We’ve asked her and asked her to try and explain,
But she wants to go home, we may have to restrain,
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She’s begging and pleading and crying again,
The poor girl’s deluded, completely insane,
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
We’ve given her therapy, shocks to the brain,
And more of that nice medication again,
What is the matter with Mary Jane?

What is the matter with Mary Jane?
She twitches and jerks like a doll on a chain,
And still no improvement, it all seems in vain,
What can be the matter with Mary Jane?

So that is the story of Mary Jane?
She wasn’t sick and she hadn’t a pain
But now she won’t ever be quite right again,
What have we done to you Mary Jane?

Milne’s better-known creation, Christopher Robin was based on his own son, and early photographs of him remains the best-known example of boys wearing strap shoes at the turn of the century.

( AA Miln Image via pinterest )

The decision to market "Mary Janes" as a girl’s shoe style was due to two factors; the popularity of the Oxford style shoes for boys (and men) as the fashionable English Style prevailed, and the emergence of Shirley Temple (1928 - 2014) wearing Mary Janes on screen with her dancing outfits.

( Shirley Temple Image via pinterest)

Not only did she make tap dancing popular with white populations she also reinforced Mary Janes as the shoe style for little girl shoes. Her management missed no commercial opportunity and Shirley Temple’s Mary Janes sold by the millions. The original tap shoes from Curley Top (1935) are exhibited in the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

(Video Courtesy: Kitty Brat by Youtube Channel)

The Brown Shoe Company was caught off guard in 1920, when the jazz age and the roaring twenties led to a major upheaval in women’s fashions. Hemlines rose and Brown Shoe Company’s staple high-top shoes were no longer popular. Sales in children’s’ shoes stayed strong but problems with costs and production meant a change of fortune for the company.

( 1920s fashions Image via pinterest)

For many women Mary Janes had been their first shoes and with new found freedoms and dancing on every flappers’ mind, adult Mary Janes became the new vogue. The bar shoes could be heeled, platformed, or flat and were now available in exotic materials of leather, cotton, or patent, worn with exotically coloured silks and satins. Brown Shoe Company failed to capitalise and paid the price.

(Video Courtesy: maynardcat by Youtube Channel)

The fashion for adult Mary Janes continued throughout the decades and the style has become an evergreen from pop to punk, to goth, Mary Janes are welcomed on the catwalk.

( Twiggy in Mary Janes Image via AFONSOFT )

Designers from Yves Saint Laurent to Manolo Blahnik have embraced them and the fashionista accent their look with all manner of socks, pantyhose and leggings.

(Video Courtesy: CHANEL by Youtube Channel)

The fortunes of the Brown Shoe company wavered as they continued to struggle with rising costs of manufacture. During the Great Depression , the anti-union company struggled to keep costs down, and workers' wages dropped to between $2.50 - $3 for a 60-hour working week. In 1935, union representative were almost tarred and feathered and the company faced charges of intimidation of employees using agents and officers, and unfair labour practices. The following year, Brown was cited by the National Labor Relations Board for violating the Wagner Act . Eventually the Fair Labor Standard Act of 1938 mandated remaining Brown workers received higher wages. The company went bankrupt in 1939.

Further Reading
Barker R (1907) Buster Brown and the Cowboy The Saalfield Publishing Co., Akron
Smith B 2010 Craig museum book tells story of the man behind Buster Brown

Reviewed 30/07/2021

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