Fashion on the Foot in Old Manhattan

“Only a shoe! How small a matter, and yet how important!
 The Human Foot by William Beneke, 1888
Fashion chronicler extraordinaire, Bill Cunningham, highlighted the appearance of some dazzling shoes on the streets of Manhattan in a September 2012 “On the Street” column and accompanying slide show for the New York Times. The idea of the “shoe on the street”–the display of fashion on the foot in Manhattan–is something that traces its origins back to the earliest days of the city itself.

In 1818, a ship loaded with shoes sailed from Boston bound for New York harbor.  The ship’s name foreshadowed the shoe’s future impact on the city: “Delight.”


Women’s shoes, 1750-1769. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

In the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, shoe making was a fledgling industry. Tanners busied themselves with the work of turning animal skins into leather, which would then be sold to shoe makers. Shoes were then sold to the buyer–some shoe makers visited the homes of their clients to crafts shoes according to individual specifications. A pair of shoes would last about two years, if cared for.

When the British took over the colony, tanners were relegated beyond the city walls, since their occupation was considered, literally, foul. The area where they worked came to be called “Shoemakers’ Pasture,” a 16 acre area east of Broadway.

Ladies Shoes, 1790-1810, Metropolitan Museum of Art

In those early days, the leather produced in the colony was said to be inferior to leather from Europe; and most all sole leather was imported from the continent. But after the Revolution, Americans began to refine and perfect– as well as industrialize– the manufacture of shoes.

Ladies Evening Boots, 1850-1855, FIDM Museum

Anthony Boyer, a French citizen who fled the revolution in France, came to New York and established a name for himself in the shoe business by being the first to manufacture “fancy colored leather” to adorn the feet of the citizens of the young republic.

A taste for fashion on the feet was clearly evident in the early years of the new nation. Of the women in New York City, a visitor observed in 1834:

“For the mass of the women, as far as satin slippers, hats, dresses, and gloves could go, a Frenchman might have fancied himself in the midst of a transplantation from the Boulevards. . . .The slight figure and small feet of the race rather favour the resemblance, and a French milliner, who would probably come to America expecting to see bears and buffaloes prowling about the landing-place, would rub her eyes in New York, and imagine she was still in France, and had crossed perhaps only the broad part of the Seine. (“Incidents on the Hudson,” The New Monthly Magazine and Literary Journal, 1834.)
Slippers in the Winter,  from Trollope’s book.

Writing in 1832, Frances Trollope observed American women’s penchant for wearing fashionable shoes, no matter the weather. “They walk in the middle of winter with their poor little toes pinched into a miniature slipper,” Trollope wrote, “incapable of excluding as much moisture as might bedew a primrose. I must say in their excuse, however, that they have, almost universally, extremely pretty feet.” (Francis Trollope, Domestic Manners of the Americans, 1832. )

Satin slippers were feminine and fashionable, but the shoe was also a utilitarian item. Ladies’ feet, adorned in pretty slippers, were spied everywhere, but the work-a-day world of the city streets was a difficult place for the fragile, dainty shoe. New York, when navigated on foot, was neither clean nor dry most of the time. Still, form (along with a little bit of function) was the primary concern for the owner of footwear. 

Catherine Elizabeth Havens, who grew up in the city in the 1840s, recalled how muddy 5th Avenue was above 18th Street and she lamented how, on a recent outing: “I spoiled my new light cloth gaiter boots.” (Diary of a Little Girl in Old New York in Valentine’s Manual of Old New York, 1920, p 5-6.)

Catherine’s experience was repeated over and over on the streets of New York.  

“It is a pity,” observed the New York Mirror, “that a promenade so thronged as Broadway, with foot-passengers, omnibuses, carriages, carts, and other vehicles, should be rendered almost a nuisance by feeble and misdirected endeavours to cleanse it. As the city cannot be at once supplied with water, would it not be well to have hose attached to the hydrants, so that the streets may be washed as well as swept— sidewalks, kennels and all? This should be done two or three times a week, till it washed out the stigma, which begins to be deemed indelible on the fame of New York, of its being irretrievably “a filthy city.”  (“Washing the Streets.” New York Mirror, April 6, 1833.)

The dirty streets did produce an industry unto itself: that of the shoe shiner or boot black. 

“Boot Black” in NYC, 1896, NYPL Collection

Horatio Alger’s series of rags-to-riches books included several about boot blacks who made their fortunes, such as Ragged Dick, or Street Life in New York with the Book Blacks, although the reality of the shoe shiner was far different from Alger’s mythic hero.

By 1850, the city’s shoe business was centered in Pearl Street. The actual creation of shoes, as well as the selling of shoes, was now becoming a viable and respectable business. 

By the time Edwin C. Burt (1818-1884) opened his Fine Shoe Store in 1848, he had already been in the shoe business for a decade. Moving from Hartford, CT to Manhattan, Burt opened his shoe parlor doors to men, women, and children. Burt not only sold shoes, but like most of the early shoe merchants in New York, he also manufactured them.  

Advertisement for Burt’s Store

Shoe seller J.T. Cousins opened his shoe store in Manhattan in 1851, selling the wares he made in his Brooklyn shoe factory. That same year, Charles Bigelow opened a New York shoe factory and later established a modern “division of labor” system in shoe making. Shoe making and selling in New York was now a “metropolitan industry.”

Shoe stores abounded now in New York; Imported shoes from France could be purchased at J. and J. Slater’s store at 1185 Broadway, the business having been established in 1854; 

Crawford Shoe Store, 177 Broadway, c. 1890

Located at 176 Bowery, the emporium of Morris Jacobs, “Dealer in Gent’s Fine Shoes,” attracted, according to Mr. Jacobs himself, a “liberal and influential patronage.” For ladies, why not visit Wm. O. Oehler at 236 4th avenue? There, all the “leading styles” were available, and “the store occupied,” according to an advertisement, “is very commodious and admirably equipped and furnished with every appliance and facility for the comfort and convenience of ladies.”
Even non- New Yorkers could have their shoes made in the city by simply drawing an outline of their feet and sending it to “shoe sewer” Ben Moral, who had been in business since 1874 at 71 Broadway (Richard Edwards, New York’s Great Industries, 1884).

Instructions for the Shoe Shopper 1896

Gaiters, moccasins, cork soled boots, morning slippers, pumps (for men),  satin slippers–the types of shoes available were as numerous as the materials they were made from: sealskin, beaver, kid or calfskin, snakeskin, deerskin, cork, rubber, et al.

By the late 19th century, the plethora of shoe stores was accompanied by the shoe buying guide in various forms and the consumer was deluged by instructions concerning all things shoe related. Advertisements, manuals, and articles provided information from proper care of the feet to the thoughtful selection of shoes.

“Cheap shoes are like cheap gloves, alluring but delusive,” read one manual. “By cheap shoes is meant a high kid boot that sells for less than five dollars. Those sold for less than this are not only apt to be made of poor or unequal leather, but are also shaped on a last that has little conformity to the shape of the foot.” “Dress from a Practical Standpoint,”The Woman’s Book Dealing Practically with the Modern Conditions of Home Life, Self Support, Education, Opportunities and Every Day Problems Volume 1, 1894.
1907, Shoe Ad

Meanwhile, the presentation of the shoe to the potential consumer would evolve into something quite dazzling: part art and part science. The shoe parlors became more elaborate; the sales pitch more pointed, and the windows, displaying the dazzling footwear, larger and more prominent.

“The young woman of today is ever on the alert for something new,” observed a shoe industry insider, “she wants class, even if the style lasts only a few weeks.” (The Merchandising Possibilities of Buckles,The Boot and Shoe Recorder. August 7, 1920, 63.)

Indeed, the days of the colonial shoe pasture were long gone. Shoes had long been seen as making a fashion statement as well as helping one navigate the city; but now new styles beckoned the passer by along the very street itself. New York’s delight in shoes was a part of the very city itself.

~Jenny Thompson

Bonwit Teller Window: Shoe Display

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