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Kimberly S. Alexander, Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era

Katerina Delikonstantinidou

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1Kimberly S. Alexander, Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era

2Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2018. Pp234. ISBN-10: 9781421425849

3Katerina Delikonstantinidou

4In the past few years, the number of scholarly works that seek to reveal or shed new light to aspects of American history through Material Culture Studies has grown exponentially. Fresh and often quite nuanced insights into the events, figures, and processes that have shaped American society and culture over the centuries are now to be found in historically situated cultural biographies of material objects, ranging from artworks to vernacular objects, and from monuments to items of personal and/or domestic use. Kimberly S. Alexander’s Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era can be best understood and appreciated within the context of this new current in American Studies scholarship.

5Treasures Afoot focuses attention on a material object that has been long viewed and treated—with good reason—as much more than a utilitarian object, complement to one’s apparel, or even eloquent accessory: the shoe. As Alexander notes early on in the Introduction, “Shoes have a creative, often playful expression of style that transforms craft into art and transports the seemingly mundane into the realm of the extraordinary” (3). Bearing the imprint of the wearer, as “it molds to the foot,” a shoe captures both a facet of his or her “physical characteristics,” and, “by extension, an element of his or her personal history” (5); but, as this study serves to prove, it can do much more than that.

6As the subtitle of the book indicates, the shoes Alexander discusses reveal a carefully selected sample of eighteenth-century hi/stories of shoe makers and shoe wearers, which the author has reconstructed via meticulous examination of surviving shoe related documentation (such as receipts, advertisements, orders, account books, almanacs, and correspondence), as well as—and most revealingly—extant examples of shoes. Yet, the real treat to be found within the pages of the book, and through the said hi/stories, is a rich understanding of everyday life in Early America; of practices of shoe re-fashioning that were also practices of self-fashioning on the part of British Americans during the Georgian decades; and of key moments in American history within a time span that begins in “the years predating the consumer revolution of the 1740s,” encompasses “the crisis of the Revolutionary War,” and extends to “the creation of the new nation” (9). And all this in no less than seven well-designed, concise, and seamlessly linked chapters—plus Conclusion and Epilogue, a clever, four-part Appendixes section, Glossary, Notes, Bibliography, and Index. It is worth noting that the visual material that accompanies Alexander’s analysis (whether pieces of documentation, images of the actual footwear under examination, images of shoes similar to the ones discussed, or other) is more than illuminating, indeed as eloquent as the author’s argumentation.

7Chapter One performs two main functions. On the one hand, it introduces readers to the “Atlantic journey” of shoes from the London shops of “renowned master craftsmen,” such as John Hose, to the feet of—mostly elite—American colonials, who, as we learn in the course of the book, donned fashionable British shoes as insignia of civility and gentility (8-10). On the other hand, it juxtaposes two different kinds of shoe stories: the stories told by the shoes of British professional cordwainers—shoes invested with high importance as “luxury commodities in American markets” (10), and the stories told by the shoes of colonial, rural, and often part-time shoemakers, such as Samuel Lane—dependable, albeit “more humble” shoes (39). The latter’s production in the eighteenth century marked the beginnings of the American shoe industry that was to thrive in the centuries following the revolution (38). The juxtaposition reveals differences as well as parallels in the way British and British American shoemakers went about the specifics of the shoemaking business, in the challenges and struggles facing metropolitan and provincial cordwainers respectively, in the system of apprenticeship at work in each case, as well as in the concerns of the two “categories” of Georgian cordwainers.

8Chapter Two lends weight to the argument that Americans were not only “avid consumers of the latest styles,” but also “careful recyclers of their used goods, imaginatively reinventing them for other purposes and for passage down the generations” (11). As we learn in the course of the second chapter, it was not only colonial cordwainers who took to reusing and repairing shoes, but, interestingly, though not unexpectedly, women too, especially American brides—some of them, such as Martha Curtis Washington ad Dorothy Quincy Hancock, quite well-known—but also grooms. Examination of ten bridal attires, particularly bridal footwear, reveals that, in addition to furnishing testimony to the bride’s abilities in embroidery and, in some cases, to the groom’s skilful handwork (44), the effort the betrothed couple put into choosing their attires reflects their socioeconomic standing, bespeaks their socioeconomic aspirations, and reveals their “political leanings” (44-45). In certain cases, bridal shoes, especially bolder ones, and the wedding related vignettes to which some of them are associated, provide rare glimpses at the bride’s or groom’s personality and even at the couple’s more personal hi/story.

9Chapter Three further reinforces the argument that Americans of the Georgian period, instead of passively imitating and reproducing metropolitan fads and fashions, and the “ideals of sophistication” that were attached to the former, engaged in a “process of creative re-adaption that drew on” these ideals, “but modified them to fit an American environment” and, as we move deeper into the eighteenth century, “a Yankee culture” (82). If purchasing fashionable British shoes evinces the desire to maintain imperial identification, purposefully re-fashioning them evinces attempts at inventing a viable British American identity. Not only shoes, but also shoe related ideas, such as the practice of labeling shoes as a marketing technique and sign of trade specialization and professionalism (10), were gradually adapted by American cordwainers and tradesmen from their British counterparts. The aim was to reinforce the local shoe trade which becomes more and more politically charged as we are approaching the American Revolution.

10Chapters Four and Five close up on two related developments. In the years preceding the outbreak of the Revolution and during its unfolding, the seemingly mundane question of what kind of shoes one should purchase acquires strong patriotic and moral overtones. As American resistance to the Stamp Act starts swelling and as the colonials start revolting against British authorities, purchasing shoes imported from Britain translates into “supporting the Crown and Parliament,” whereas purchasing locally produced shoes signifies investment into the new patriotic cause (107). In the fourth chapter, the author employs the production, trade, circulation, and use of calamanco shoes, a singular kind of footwear inasmuch as it “crossed socioeconomic boundaries” and “came to represent colonial economic independence” (110, 112), as a case study by which she illustrates the said development and the impact it had on the lives of British Americans, elites and medians.

11At approximately the same time, according to the fifth chapter, social and cultural critics start lamenting the vain, and thus morally detrimental, pursuits of (mostly) contemporary women as these are reflected in their penchant for fashionable shoes (whether British or American made), which, for them, operate as “agents of vice and corruption” (132). The warnings of those critics, the politicization of imported goods by Patriots, the latter’s efforts to boycott British products by implementing non-intercourse acts, and the promotion of “the virtue of homespun and local manufacture as a means of liberating America from Britain’s mercantilist hold” by propagandists (137), clashed with “personal taste and the desire to look fashionable and genteel” (112) in revolutionary America. The supply of British shoes available in the colonies wanes considerably during the revolutionary years (87), only to wax in post-revolutionary America. British as well as French made footwear now arrive at the shores of the former colonies in great numbers. This, however, does not entail disregard of American shoemakers. On the contrary, local cordwainers and “established Massachusetts shoe making areas,” aided by advancements in the mechanization of production (172), enjoy more and more widespread recognition and witness their shoe trade growing larger than expected.

12Chapters Six and Seven exemplify the aforementioned developments by tracing the evolution of George Washington’s (and his family’s) shoe purchasing habits in the years before, during, and after the American Revolution. Here, Alexander does not fail to touch subtly yet unmistakably upon aspects of American life, namely class, gender, and racial inequities, that the Revolution hardly sought to revolutionize—and one can only ask for more of this sort of commentary. Still, both the seventh chapter and the book’s Conclusion spell out an important outgrowth of the developments that took place (especially) since the middle of the eighteenth century, one that becomes more conspicuous in the years of the nascent republic. Not only the elites, but increasingly the “middling sorts,” or consumers of modest means, become active agents in selecting and taking advantage “of inexpensive surpluses that now trickled down to them” (179). At the dawn of the nineteenth century, “mechanization made it possible for individuals in most economic strata to have one or perhaps several pairs of shoes” (179). The world was changing and Americans kept pace with it their own favorite shoes.

13This is a book that will intrigue students and scholars of American and Material Culture Studies, as well as anyone interested in fashion, history, or—what else?—shoes! It is well researched, accessible, and it interweaves history, biography, and engaging shoe stories in a brilliant manner, doing justice to all the strands in draws to it. It would be a delight to see more endeavors like this one undertaken by and circulating among Americanists.

14Katerina Delikonstantinidou

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Katerina Delikonstantinidou, « Kimberly S. Alexander, Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era », European journal of American studies [Online], Reviews 2019-2, Online since 15 July 2019, connection on 30 November 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/14770

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Katerina Delikonstantinidou

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