The Saco Museum has a variety of costumes in its collection, ranging from the late 18th through the mid-20th centuries. We have a nice assortment of accessories as well–plenty of hats, fans, parasols, purses, and some shoes. However, most of our shoes date from the 19th century and later. This is a sad fact for me, since I will confess that 18th-century fashion has always been my favorite and I have a fondness for 18th-century footwear. This pair of shoes is probably the earliest in the museum’s collection and dates from the very end of the century.
It is unclear when this pair entered the collection, or who the original donor was, but they did come with a very interesting handwritten note glued to one of the soles. The note reads:
Shoes brought from Paris at the time of the French Revolution. The uppers are of colored kid.
But is the note correct? Many objects enter museum collections accompanied by what museum curators and antique collectors often refer to as “granny notes”–notes made by a previous owner about what they believe to be true about an object’s origin or history. Sometimes these notes are accurate and provide important information about the item. Other times, they are quite incorrect about the date of manufacture or the original owner. (There are a number of examples of misidentified objects in the Saco Museum costume collection–you’ll be hearing their stories in the future!) And sometimes the notes are partially right and partially wrong, but provide enough clues so that with additional research we can approximate something of the real story.
First, a very brief summary of 18th-century fashionable ladies’s shoes. There were shifts in the style from one decade to another: the heel height went up and down, the tongue shape changed from square to pointed, and the toes went from pointy to rounded to pointy again. For most of the century women wore heeled shoes with fabric uppers, often of silk or silk brocade. Early in the century shoes were closed with ties, while by mid-century metal buckles were used to secure the shoe over the instep. Both men’s and women’s shoes were made as “straights”, which means that there was no right or left shoe–each was exactly the same. “Crooked” shoes, those with right and left soles, were not produced in large quantities until after the Civil War. Although there were many shoemakers working in the colonies, most fashionable ladies’ footwear was imported from England.
The last decade of the 18th century saw many changes women’s shoe styles. By 1800, most footwear was made of leather and silk was only used for trims and laces. Heels had almost vanished by that date as well, although occasionally a wedge or tiny heel still appeared, and the toes tended to be quite pointed. The most popular colors of the day were borrowed from the excavations at Pompeii or inspired by Napoleon’s campaigns in Egypt and Italy. The colors of the classical world were revived: white, tan, pastels, rich Pompeiian reds, and exotic Nile greens were all the rage. And new and inexpensive techniques for applying color and pattern to plain leather surfaces were introduced with the use of roller-printing on kid and other fine leathers.
So where do our “Revolutionary” shoes fit in? This pair of shoes are indeed made of kid leather which has been dyed a pale blue and roller-printed in black with an abstract scroll pattern. They have no heels; the thin leather soles are completely flat and straight–no right or left. The uppers are made in two parts, butted and sewn together at the sides, and are lined with a plain linen fabric. The toes are quite pointy. All of these features are indicative of shoes made between 1795 and 1805.
But are these shoes from France? It’s hard to tell. They have no maker’s label inside, which is not uncommon for the period. Most shoemakers did not mark their wares until later in the 19th century. I have searched other museum collections online for comparable examples, and while I have found similar shoes, those which have a known country of origin seem to have been made in England. So our “granny note” would seem to be at least partly correct, even if it doesn’t tell the whole story. If only we knew who originally wore these shoes, and how they came to reside in a museum collection on the Saco River in Maine…
Tara Raiselis, Museum Director