Wednesday, June 13, 2012

A Female Shoe Maker in Boston

Working on a pair of shoes at Eastfield Village.
Photo by Rebecca of A Fashionable Frolic
Behold, a female shoe maker!
I love finding evidence of women in "non-traditional" trades. Shoe making in the 18th century, like many trades, was typically a trade for men. However, if one looks hard enough there is primary documentation for women working not only as shoemakers, but as stay makers, silversmiths, tinsmiths, and even blacksmiths. Some women even owned and ran their own shops. (See CW's article on women's trades here.)

Often times a master shoemaker would employee women to sew the uppers (the fabric portions) of shoes. This type of sewing didn't require any real knowledge of shoe making and could be done quickly and easily by anyone skilled with a needle and thread. In the case of Elizabeth Shaw, it would appear that that she was doing more then simple piece work.

Originally from Europe, Elizabeth is announcing to the public that she is setting up shop to make and mend men's and women's shoes "in the neatest Manner. ... at her Shop in Long Lane" The advertisement for Elizabeth's shop is dated July 20, 1767.

The Boston Post Boy & Advertiser, July 20, 1767
In all likely hood, I'm sure her rates for shoes are very reasonable given that "Callimanco, Russell and Leather" were some of the most common - and cheapest - materials for making women's shoes. It's the pretty silk and brocade shoes that show up most often in museums and at auction. These "everyday" shoes are hard to find today but fortunately there are a few examples in museums.

Red-pink glazed wool shoes, c. 1765 - Historic Deerfield
Shoes, 1780-1790, Leather, linen, wool. These would have been "everyday" shoes for many English women. Snowshill Manor © National Trust / Richard Blakey
I thought it would be interesting to find an old map of Boston to see if I could find exactly where Elizabeth Shaw' shop was located. A search for early maps of Boston led me to the Massachusetts Historical Society. They have over 100 manuscript and printed maps of Boston as well as other towns and counties in Massachusetts. The closest map I could find was an 1835 re-issued map by George G. Smith of a map originally engraved and printed by Francis Dewing of Boston in 1722. I can't post an image of the map here but if you follow this link you can view the map online. Click on the zoom feature to find Long Lane. What is neat about this map is that it shows alterations that occurred in Boston between 1722 and 1769. Only a handful of building appear on the Long Lane. Could one of those have been Elizabeth's shop?

Below is another map of Boston dated 1743. You can clearly see Long Lane (marked Long L.) in the lower left of the map.

Detail of 1743 map of Boston by William Price, showing the Financial District and vicinity
This is what Long Lane looks like today.

Long Lane, now Federal Street in Boston's Financial District
Random history facts of the day - Revolutionary War hero Henry Knox was born in a house on Long Lane in 1750. And, in 1788, Long Lane was renamed Federal Street.


  1. Thanks! I've had that newspaper article saved for awhile now and finally got around to doing something with it.

  2. That's you in the photo, right? LOVE the mix of patterns, fantastic outfit...and I think it's so neat that you get to re-enact some actual kind of work! I usually take some needlework to events but I don't think it's nearly as interesting to the public as watching an actual tradesman/woman.

  3. Hi Annabelle,
    Thanks! Yes that's me in the photo. It was taken last summer during the shoe making workshop I attended. The site wasn't open to the public but a couple of us that normally attend living history events decided to wear period attire. It was fun and really added to the experience.
    I usually try to bring some kind of project with me to events. It's amazing to see how many people will stop and ask what you're working on. It's a great way to get the public engaged.

  4. Between you and MantuaDiary, shoemaking is starting to look like a fun new hobby to take up!

  5. Wonderful post! I was led here by the two nerdy history girls and I look forward to exploring your blog!

  6. Thank you ladies for your wonderful comments.


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