Friday, October 31, 2014

Ebenezer Breed and the Emergence of a Modern American Shoe Industry

Guest blogger
Meaghan Reddick
Independent Scholar and recent M.A. graduate, George Mason University
Courtesy, Delaware Historical Society
More information…

On a search for American shoemakers labels from the eighteenth to early nineteenth century, the label “Ebenezer Breed, Philadelphia” turned up three times as I scoured collections from Virginia to New England. It is remarkable to find more than one example of any given early American shoemaker’s labeled craft, yet Breed’s shoes are found in the Delaware Historical Society, the Maryland Historical Society, and the private collection of the Lady’s Repository Museum. The existence of three pairs hinted of a wide circulation, which required a deeper look into who Breed was and how his shoes had been saved.

Wedding shoes of Dorcas Armitage Lewis, made by Ebenezer Breed. Worn c.1790. 
Courtesy, Delaware Historical Society


Courtesy, Lady's  Repository Museum
Ebenezer Breed (1766-1839), shoemaker and merchant capitalist, has been credited with the expansion of the American shoe market as a major promoter of American manufactures.  He was born in Lynn as the son of a wealthy, Quaker family which had strong ties to shoe business as decedents of the first settlers in the town. At the age of 20, Breed moved to Philadelphia to begin a shoe business which capitalized on work of Lynn shoemakers. He operated out of a retail establishment on Third Street below Market, near the bustling city market at the intersection of Second and Market. He purchased the storefront in 1790 and sold it just two years later to travel abroad.

Painted Waiter depicting Ebenezer Breed (far right) being introduced to a British Merchant, 
painted by Benjamin West, 1792.  
Courtesy, Lynn Museum
Lynn shoes from the mid to late eighteenth century were not considered particularly prestigious.  In fact, they had a reputation of being rather cheaply made. It was Breed who challenged the traditional preference for British styles and products, and he promoted not only the small shoemaking town of Lynn, but the newly formed nation through his craft and business.  In an effort to improve shoe manufacture in Lynn, Breed spent a fair amount of time in Europe in order to understand trade secrets (including the use of Moroccan leather) and secure business connections through which he could ship fine quality materials back to Lynn. Breed’s Lynn-made shoes were being shipped as far as Savannah, Georgia.

Soon after the American Revolution had ended, French and English shoes were being sold at a cheap rate which was discouraging for American shoemakers. With the support of other Philadelphia merchants, Breed played the role of lobbyist and proposed to Congress for a protective tariff to be placed on imported shoes and boots. Congress was at the time holding their sessions in Philadelphia. At various dinner parties hosted by his Quaker allies who offered up their large homes, Breed was able to demonstrate his passion for the protective tariff. The most successful dinner party was held in honor of James Madison. “Charming ladies”, including Miss Dolly Payne, insured the attendance of certain Congressmen and other government officials. That evening, shoes were discussed between every course and by the end Breed had persuaded Madison to place a high duty on shoes and boots.

The demand for American-made shoes rose significantly in the 1790s, with the help of protective tariffs and the events of European wars. The increased demand for American-made shoes is illustrated by the proliferation of labels and branding found in women’s shoes that began during this period and expanded throughout the nineteenth century.  With help from Breed, these developments made America a global leader in shoe manufacture. 


Sample American shoe label
Courtesy, The Connecticut Historical Society
About Meaghan Reddick
Meaghan recently earned her M.A. in History of Decorative Arts from George Mason University. Her thesis focused on early American shoemakers, their labels, and their links to American economic independence. Her advisor was Professor Mary Doering and I was honored to be a reader for her thesis. This post offers a window into her important research. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

"Well, if ever I do go to court again.." Horace Walpole Opines on Fashion


Taste A La Mode 1735

A letter from a reader got me thinking about anachronisms and clothing and I remebembered some engravings and a letter from Horace Wallploe that I came across for another blog that addresses this idea from a different angle--not invented anachronisms, but generational ones.  Here goes....

When we think of taste in fashion, we imply a sense of the moment. Timeliness is implicit in the notion of the correctness of fashion. The person who is out of fashion is out of place. Yet also implicit in this conceit is the notion that some players can step out of bounds, actually should step out of bounds and not play the game so hard.  With age comes the ability to refrain from the novelties of fashion and to sometimes embrace qualities that once reigned supreme. It is always a balancing act, but this maybe what is meant by sticking to the classics of fashion taste. Of course, the classics evolve; they just do so at a pace that allows several generations of players to mount the stage without anyone appearing too non-courant.

Taste A La Mode 1745

The illustrations from 1745 illustrate the differences between 1735 and 1745 as a form of satire, but the snippet of a longer a letter from Horace Walpole, the Earl of Orford, to Sir Horace Mann speaks to the at once mocking and yet enjoyable moment of fashion past invading fashion present at a court levee of George II in the autumn of 1742.


        "I have not felt so pleasantly these three months as I do at present, though I have a great cold with coming into an unaired house, and have been forced to carry that cold to the King's levee and the draw­ing-room. There were so many new faces that I scarce knew where I was; I should have taken it for Carlton House, or my Lady Mayoress's visiting-day, only the people did not seem enough at home, but rather as admitted to see the King dine in public. Tis quite ridiculous to see the numbers of old ladies, who, from having been wives of patriots, have not been dressed these twenty years; out they come in all the accoutrements that were in use in Queen Anne's days. Then the joy and awkward jollity of them is inex­pressible! They titter, and wherever you meet them, are always going to court, and looking at their watches an hour before the time. I met several on the birth-day, (for I did not arrive time enough to make clothes,) and they were dressed in all the colours of the rain­bow: they seem to have said to themselves twenty-years ago, "Well, if ever I do go to court again, I will have a pink and silver, or a blue and silver," and they keep their resolutions."

 Note:  In 1742 Carlton House was the residence of Frederick Prince of Wales.

 (Peter Cunningham . ed.,The Letters of Horace Walpole, The Earl of Orford, Richard Bentley, London, 1857. Volume 1, page 212.)

Perhaps it’s me, but too often I forget that the notion of historic fashion covers several generations at once. What seems quite plausible in real life and literature sometimes disappears in the quest for historic accuracy, but fashion lingers for decades and generations before exiting.  Perhaps I have lingered too long in the descriptions of the haute mode and have forgotten that beloved clothing lives on and on, altered as the body shifts a reflection of an image of ourselves caught at just that moment and captured so aptly in Walpole’s phrase, “well if I ever go to court again…” 

Jeff Hopper is a Consultant, Historic House Steward and Social Historian