Updated: Jan 30, 2022
It’s a well-known industry fact that designers of clothes and shoes alike look back through history for inspiration, and for good reason. Over and over we’ve seen medieval concepts revived yet also reimagined by modern designers, speaking to how fashion is, in many ways, both timeless and constantly changing.
Much in the same way that fashion evolves, so do shoe making processes and methods. New technologies are constantly emerging and changing the ways we think about and consume our shoes, clothes, and accessories alike. Mass production has taken careful and individual craftsmanship out of the process, replacing it with an overflow of replaceable products that we no longer cherish. But however convenient it may be, there will always be something magical about the tried and true tradition. That’s why at Medford Shoe Repair we like to remember the roots of our trade, and want to share some of our favorite historical facts that spark our passion!
There is no pair of shoes discovered that marks the beginning of footwear because
archeologists believe that shoes existed long before the oldest pair we’ve found, estimated to date back to 8000 BC. Even our ancient ancestors needed to protect their feet from the elements, but due to the perishability of the materials they had available, not much physical evidence remains.
The oldest leather shoes discovered, dating back to 3500 B.C., were those of Ötzi the iceman and were fashioned from cowhide and a leather cord laced along seams along their front and back. The earliest shoe making technique is thought to be stitching leather together into simple “bags” worn over the feet to keep dry and warm.
Oldest known pair of leather shoes dating to 3300 BC. Source: https://www.glamiva.com/2010/06/world-oldest-shoe-on-earth.html
As civilizations began to develop, so too did more complex shoe making techniques and varieties of footwear. Found and documented in numerous civilizations, thong sandals were weaved from a variety of different materials ranging from papyrus and palm leaves in Egypt, to rice straw in China and Japan.
Not all civilizations, however, wore footwear for protection. Egyptians and Hindus wore purely ornamental footwear, such as the soleless sandal called the “Cleopatra”, and the Greeks, who mainly saw footwear as a form of unnecessary self-indulgence, only wore shoes to the theater to increase stature. This changed when the Romans conquered the Greeks, and used footwear as a sign of power, where the more intricate the craftsmanship, the higher a soldier’s rank.
This indication of status through footwear found its way back into Greek culture around 4 BC, and Greeks saw decoration and color as symbols of class and marital status. With the newfound social importance of footwear, the profession of cobblery exploded in popularity, and Greek shoe makers became famed in the Roman empire, the original cobblers having made every shoe by hand one at a time.
Weaved sandals dated between 5200 and 4800 BC found in Spain. Source: https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/esparto
A common shoe worn in the 13th century by peasants in farming communities was the Espadrille, a sandal with soles braided from jute fibers, a protective fabric upper section, and fabric laces which tied around the ankle.
The most common medieval shoe making process was the turnshoe method, where the upper leather or fabric section was turned inside out, attached to the sole, and stitched to the edge along a seam before being turned right side out; a method still used to this day for some dance and specialty shoes. As medieval footwear needed to fit the foot closely to increase protection and functionality, many shoes also featured drawstrings or toggle flaps to tighten and adjust the shoe.
For the 15th century European upper class, patterns became popular among both men and women, and are considered the predecessor for the modern high heeled shoe, which became a fashion staple for royalty to look larger than life in the 16th century. By 1580, people of status and wealth were referred to as “well-heeled”, and even men wore them. In fact, heels were seen as such a status symbol that in the 17th century, Louis XIV of France outlawed everyone but himself and his royal court from wearing red high heeled shoes.
This was also the time when shoe makers began sewing soles directly onto leather shoes; a symbol of higher status at the time, and remaining a standard for fine-quality dress shoes to this day.
European heeled shoes, circa 1690. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-heeled_shoe#1700s
The profession of shoe making flourished in the beginning of the 18th century, with shops full of master cobblers and apprentices working together to make a personalized pair of shoes for every customer. Clients would be individually consulted and measured, and a custom pair of shoes, priced at about a day’s wages for an average journeyman, would be made and ready for pick up in as little as a day.
However, the art of such individualization and attention to quality started becoming a lost art upon the emergence of industrialization in the later 19th century. Large factories originally mechanized the handicraft with automated contraptions that fastened soles with pins and nails, making uniform products originally used by the military due to their cheapness and durability. As technologies such as leather stitching and cutting machines continuously emerged, the mechanization of shoe making was largely complete.
The industry shifted to factory production, rolling out greater quantities of shoes than ever before in the form of standardized footwear to be commercialized and sold in stores and warehouses. While mass production resulted in lower prices at the time, it lacked the careful and individual attention to style and sizing that a cobbler offered; a fact that remains true even in our modern world.
The bottoming room of the B.F. Spinney & Co. factory, 1872. Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shoe#History
While mass production originally made footwear cheaper and more widely available, today mass produced shoes can run thousands of dollars; yet even with such advanced technology, they still lack the kind of individual care and quality provided by cobblers. Even products with the option for customization only really take into account style, and aside from
offering a choice out of a list of standardized sizes, have a uniform, factory produced fit which can be uncomfortable or physically injurious to the wearer.
Worse still, modern mass production practices have also brought about globalization, where companies export production to foreign factories to make a product that costs the company pennies to make, and hundreds for us to buy. Among the ethical issues brought on by foreign production is also the treatment of workers in such factories, which has recently been brought to public attention through scandals surrounding popular and expensive shoe brands like Nike. The reason why it costs companies pennies to produce shoes in foreign factories? The workers, often children, are being paid even less than that; especially in countries where maintaining a safe and fair work environment is not mandated. From overpriced products to unethical practices, every aspect of modern day shoe making seems to beg the question: Is really it worth it? Do we buy expensive, uncomfortable shoes because they’re readily available, or because consumerism tells us to?
Traditional shoemakers do still exist today, but are mostly located in poorer or developing regions around the world. However, not all hope for industrialized countries has been lost. Cobblery has recently seen a small resurgence, particularly in the US, Australia, and the UK. The rising societal preference for ethical and sustainable consumption has led more people to restore and maintain their leather goods rather than simply trashing and replacing them.
While we still have a long journey ahead of us in bringing the lost art of shoemaking and repair back to its full glory, we at Medford Shoe Repair aim to play a part, even just a small one, in our community.