Saturday, February 21, 2015

A Personal Touch: Wedding Shoes of A New England Groom, c. 1819

These low-heeled men’s shoes were likely made in Haverhill, Massachusetts by the wearer, Leonard Phillips, in the early years of the 19th century.  They are in the Buttonwoods Museum collection (Haverhill, MA. There is no question that these are a rare survival as well as a very personal response to the shoemaker’s impending nuptials. The charming shoes are leather, embellished with leather appliques of animals, fish, peacocks & other birds, and trees. They convey a “folk” art feel. 

Although now faded, it is evident that the shoes were once colorful, and featured touches of green and red dyes, such as in the house applique on the vamp.  With low heels and squared-off toes, the shoes were fastened with buckles. The shape of the shoe was conservative, as wedding apparel often was (and still is today.)

Given the attention paid to the soles, one wonders about the religious background of the couple – were the soles visible while kneeling for wedding rites or communion?  The soles are incised with a man and a woman between two houses and there is a peacock incised on the heel. The clarity of the image on the sole and the condition of the heel suggests very little wear – perhaps worn just on this single occasion. We are given a vision of the literal joining of the homes of the bride and groom in matrimony. 

Whether the ornament included on the shoes was part of a European tradition familiar to the maker, or his bride-to-be is not known at present. There are examples, such as these 19th century French wedding clogs (from the Musee rural des Arts populaires de Laduz, Yonne) which hold some similarity of purpose and motif, scattered in world-wide collections.

 Leonard Phillips married Sarah Head of Bradford, Massachusetts on January 20th 1819. The groom was 27 and the bride was 23. Oh, to be able to see the couple in their wedding clothes!

The wedding shoes are currently on view in “Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850” at the Portsmouth Athenaeum, Portsmouth, NH. through 5 June 2015. MORE:

The hand-written label which accompanied the shoes reads:
"Leonard Phillips/ April 1792 - July 1832/Married Sally Head 1796 - 1881/Children/John Henry - 1820-1831/Sarah Almira 1823-1913/ Sarah married Charles Henry Brown - lived at 111 Keeley Street. Their son John Henry - our grandfather - hence Leonard Phillips maker of the shoes - our great, great grandfather - Beatrice & Rosalie Keene, Kathleen K. Babb"

Thank you to Jan Williams, Director of the Buttonwoods Museum, for her assistance.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

"A Great Storm of Snow" in Samuel Lane's New Hampshire, 1748

Transcribed from Lane almanac, February 1748
Courtesy, New Hampshire Historical Society
Cordwaining or shoe making in eighteenth-century rural New England was an intriguing episode, frequently an entrepreneurial activity, and almost always one which involved diversification to make a suitable living. Where were shoes were made? Who made them and for whom? How were they sold?  The shoe making family of the Lanes in Stratham & Hampton, New Hampshire are the most probably the best documented in the 18th century. Samuel Lane (1716-1806) kept an “almanack” over a 60 year period. His almanack or day book follows his life from his time as an apprentice to his father through old age. Contemporary accounts reveal that Lane-made shoes were a popular purchase in Portsmouth on Market Days. However, his success lay not only in the successful shoe trade, but also relied on his training as a surveyor, his ability to accumulate land for pasturing animals and growing grains. The success of the family was an effort which involved every member.

Courtesy, New Hampshire Historical Society
Winters were incredibly long – continuing what is known as “the little ice age”.  A few extracts from Lane’s diary make for interesting reading on these snowy days, especially as I sit in my studio only a few miles distant from the Lane homestead.

The sense of being snow bound is palpable in his writing: Lane and his family and friends frequently spent weeks unable to get much further than the mill pond on his property or waiting for men driving oxen to open the road between Greenland and Portsmouth. Snow shoes were essential.

These hand-hewn snow shoes were once owned by Major General Artemas Ward. They are in the collection of Harvard University.  Made by 1768, similar ones were used throughout New England. 1

For more on Samuel Lane, see

1. These hand-hewn snow shoes were once owned by Major General Artemas Ward. They are in the collection of Harvard University.  Made by 1768, of rawhide webbing, wood, leather and early iron nails, they are believed to be Native American made, although the tribe undetermined. Noted in the "Ward Homestead Album", they belonged to General Ward. An early paper label reads: "Maj. Gen. Artemas Ward his [rackets?] bought of David Wheelock of Shrewsbury for [2 6? Feb 20, 1768?]”
Location - General Artemas Ward House Museum; HU1574

Friday, January 23, 2015

A Frosty, Fashionable January, circa 1790s

Winterthur Museum Object Number:
1959.0756 A

I recently came across this image of “January” in the Winterthur Museum Collection (More). It is a delightful example of a genre painting -- winter ice skating, with three fashionably attired young women placed prominently in the foreground right with their oversized muffs, hats and elaborate plumes. A seated young gentleman in crimson coat has his back to the viewer and appears to be donning (or removing) his skates, while conversing. A dog stands by. The young men skating in the distance are clad in drab common wear – no bright red coats –which look well-worn. The painting is reverse (oil) painted on glass – an oft-encountered example of the skilled artisans and artists of the Asian Export trade. Made in Canton, China, it was intended for a Western audience. The date of 1789-1810 for its execution corresponds perfectly with the taste and style of the era. Another example of the monthly series is one of a group fishing - here a neatly dressed young lady disengages a fish from her hook.

Fashion Plate, December 1797

Sunday, January 18, 2015

If These Shoes Could Talk….New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850

I greet you with excitement on this wintery morning: Presenting the invitation for "Cosmopolitan Consumption: New England Shoe Stories, 1750-1850," co-curated with Sandra Rux, curator emerita of the Portsmouth Historical Society and independent museum professional.  We have selected over 35 pairs of historic shoes from over a dozen museums and private lenders. The exhibit will display wedding shoes, dancing slippers, boots, everyday and remade shoes, as well as some rare garments and accessories. Visitors will see dazzling brocades and damasks, silks, leather, and calamancoes—from New England, Great Britain, and France. Many of the pieces in the exhibition have never before been viewed by the public.

Through the lives and letters of clever apprentices, skilled cordwainers, wealthy merchants and elegant brides, Cosmopolitan Consumption will take us on a journey from bustling London streets, to ship cargo holds, to New England shops and, ultimately, to the feet of eager consumers throughout the region. The “shoe stories” recount a young bride dancing with George Washington during his visit to Portsmouth or a pair of shoes remade from a 1730s wedding dress to a pair of 1773 wedding shoes. They trace the fortunes and misfortunes of wearers as shoes were altered to accommodate poor health and changing styles, and finally, they provide glimpse into the shoemaking business of artisans like Sam Lane of Stratham, who sold his shoes at Market Square in Portsmouth. This rich shoemaking heritage continues today. We ask our viewers to consider how these fashionable shoes reveal the hopes and dreams of New Englanders.
Invitation design by Phineas Graphics
Visitors will also be treated to lectures, gallery talks, a workshop, and a unique shoe-shopping event! Of particular interest, we will hold a mini-shoe symposium 29th-30th May. Susan Holloway Scott, bestselling novelist of historical fiction and well-known history blogger (, will present a talk entitled "For the Love of Shoes." The symposium will be held at the Discover Portsmouth Center. (More information to follow.)

So, mark your calendars: February 14-June 5 2015 at the Portsmouth Athenaeum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire!

For updates, you can follow us at twitter using #Shoes2015, at or Portsmouth Athenaeum on Facebook

We extend our appreciation to the many lenders and sponsors who have made this endeavor possible.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Byron Greenough and His Tall Hats, 1820+

Hats were a crucial element of a man’s ensemble, revealing to a passerby at a glance some identifier –usually socio-economic status -- of the wearer. Hats changed styles throughout the 18th and 19th centuries with regularity, although often with subtleties lost on a modern audience. Height, width, depth of brim, colors, fabrics and even types of trim, could place a hat at a certain time and place. Hats of beaver fur, wool, straw or felt were among the most common. [1]

There were a number of opportunities for hatters in the early Republic, such as twenty-three year old Byron Greenough, who apparently learned the trade in Haverhill, Massachusetts. He may have apprenticed to the town’s best known hatter, Jonathan Webster, before striking out on his own. He settled in Portland, Maine in 1821.

From the textile collection at Historic Deerfield, this especially handsome, striking bleached beaver fur tall hat, with matching grosgrain ribbon, dates to1825-1835. Completed after he arrived in Portland, the condition is excellent. Greenough labeled his hats. His business grew rapidly to include not only retail hats, but also boots and shoes. A successful businessman, he was able to erect a brick flatiron building at the head of Free Street in Portland.

Last year (2013/14) Historic Deerfield had on exhibit this fabulous woman’s bleached beaver fur riding hat, early 19th century.

1. Styles for men’s hats, c. 1700-95

2. For more on Byron Greenough, see