Mountain Men and Life in the Rocky

Subject Guide


Mountain West

Malachite’s Big Hole

Early 1800's Shoes:

Shoes, both mens and womens, were sent to the mountains in small quantities starting at least by 1809.  Surviving records show that the St. Louis Missouri Fur Company sent 44 pair of womens shoes at $2.50 each and six pair of mens shoes at $2.00 in 1809.  William Ashley took twelve pair of womens shoes at $3.00 each and six pair of mens shoes at $4.00 each to the 1825 Rendezvous.  Prices shown are almost certainly St. Louis prices.  In 1835 the Upper Missouri Outfit shipped to Fort Union twelve pair of kip shoes and to Fort Pierre ½ dozen Ladies Morocco Heel Pumps, ½ dozen ladies walking shoes, twelve pair of mens kip brogans and twelve pair of mens thick brogans.  (Kip is the hide of a small or young animal, i.e. calfskin.  So kip brogans might be brogan style shoes made from calfskin.)  The womens shoes were obviously intended for Indian women, most probably the wives of company men stationed or living in the wilderness. 

Until the 1830's, the average person wore straight last shoes- that is shoes that were symmetrical and didn’t have a right or left.  Such shoes, if consistently worn on one foot or the other would gradually shape themselves to the foot on which they were predominantly worn. 

A last is a three dimensional form shaped like a foot over which the leather upper was stretched to the shape of the foot and tacked into place while the rest of the shoe was constructed.  The lasts had a very limited useful life because tack holes made during shoe-making with repeated use destroyed the last.  Straight lasts were used for shoes because the complexities of carving compound curves into the last and then making a mirror image for the other foot were too costly for a form with such a limited useful life.  Although right and left shoes were known in the early 1800’s, ownership of such shoes was limited to the very rich.  

In 1828 a foreman by the name of Blanchard at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts  developed a duplicating lathe for the manufacture of gun stocks. A Philadelphia shoemaker who saw the lathe was able to apply the same machinery and techniques to making shoe lasts and discovered that, by reversing the cam which guided the cutter, a mirror image last could be produced. Since a wooden last gets chewed up by tack holes in a few hundred uses, there was a constant demand for new lasts and soon all new lasts were made in left and right mirror images.

By 1841 the U.S. military was using left/right shoes and by 1851 left/rights were officially specified.  Thus shoes available prior to 1830 are almost all straight last. Through the 1830’s either straight last, or left-right shoes were available, and by the 1840’s probably a majority of shoes being made were right-left.  Some slippers and light women's shoes continued to be made on straight lasts until approximately 1880.  Lasts for these styles of shoe had a much longer useful life because they did not suffer wear and tear from tack holes used in welt construction.  

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