Putting Your Best Foot Forward

A lot of people have been discussing 18th century shoes recently and I couldn't help but jump into the fun. Following is a little humorous little review of the shoes listed in the Virginia Runaway Advertisements, one of my favorite on-line sources for clothing among the common class in the 18th century. If you have ever wondered how to describe the clothing we wear at reenactments, look no further.

Of 547 listings for “Shoes” in the Virginia Runaway archive

Quantity of Shoes:
A single pair shows up most often, but there are several individuals who needed a spare so they took two pair of shoes (13 people listed between 1768 & 1776 took two pairs), or three pair of shoes (1737 & 1773) and one greedy fellow even took with him 4 pair of shoes (1771)! There was also a man who apparently couldn't decide what kind of footwear he wanted, so he took “both a pair of pumps and a pair of shoes” (1772). Not to mention the man who stole at least 6 pairs of children's shoes.

Gender is rarely mentioned when referring to shoes, presumably because men would be wearing and taking men's shoes and vice versa. The few times gender is mentioned however are a “pair of men's shoes” (1738), “country made women's shoes” (1746), “three Pair of Boys Shoes, three Girls ditto” (1755) which was also mentioned above and “two Pair of Women's Shoes” (1771).

The majority of shoes mentioned do not list material. However, of the materials that are mentioned, leather is the most common. There are shoes made of “leather” (1738 & 1752), “Leather pumps or shoes” (1739), “the other [pair] red Leather” (1755), shoes of “stiff leather“ (1771), “English made Leather” (1773), “new Leather Shoes, with wooden Heels” (1773), “a pair of leather shoes, with wooden heals” (1775) which were apparently not so new anymore, and a pair of “high-heeled leather shoes” (1776). There were also “Leather-heel'd sharp-toed Shoes” (1752) and just plain “Leather heeled“ (1773) shoes.

Only a few examples of non-leather shoes are listed in the runaway advertisements, which makes sense considering the generally lower class status of the runaways. What good are pretty silk shoes going to do when you are either working, or escaping from your master? There are listings for “one Damask, [and] one Callimanco” (1755), “blue calimanco shoes” (1767), “black calimanco shoes” (1770) and "old black calimanco shoes with plain silver buckles” (1772).

Not much is said about the color of shoes worn by runaways. The few listings include a “pair of black shoes” (1768), “country made shoes not blacked “(1771 & 1775) and a pair of “white Shoes” (1774), hopefully not worn after Labor Day.

Buckles show up the most often when closures are mentioned. If you couldn't afford buckles or had sold them for gin money though, don't worry! An “old Pair of Shoes tied with Rope Yarn” (1755), “shoes tied with leather strings” (1768 twice), “tied with strings” (1768, 1772 thrice) when leather strings weren't available, will work. There are shoes listed with “strings” (1768, 1775) or “having stings in his shoes” (1769, 1772), tied, or even “to tie” (1771) for those times when you haven't gotten around to actually tying them.

Can You Describe Them?
Are they a Pair of “neat stitched Pumps” (1771), “new or almost new” (1763), good, neat, plain shoes or old, poor, “coarse” (1772) or “coarse store shoes” (1770), only “pretty good” (1752), just “bad shoes” (1776) or worse, “very bad shoes” (1768). They could be a “little worn” (1775), “part worn” (1770), “half worn” (1763) or “pretty much wore” (1767).

Would you call them “thin” (1770) or are they “solid or strong thick, shoes” (1770), with “uncommonly thick soles” (1769)? They could be “handsome square toe'd Shoes” (1738) or “old square-toe'd Shoes” (1739) and not so handsome a year later. They could even be “peaked” (1768) or “half soled” (1772) if that's the way you like them.

Speaking of soles, shoes could be “hobb nailed” (1738), with “hobnails in their shoes” (1775), “nailed round with hob nails” (1769), “nailed all round both heels and soles” (1775) or just “with the heels nailed” (1767). You could have the “Soals (sic.) thick set with Hobnails” (1773) and the “bottoms very broad and nailed” (1771) or they could be just “small old shoes, with nails in the heels” (1774).

Who Made Them & Where?
Negro or “negro made” (1775 twice), Country-made, Common made or just common? “Store shoes” (1770, 1774) “such as are usually sold in Stores” (1772), “stout imported Shoes” (1773), English or English-made, “British made” (1774), “London made” (1775). They could be Virginia, “London Fall Shoes” (1745), “Glasgow coarse made Shoes” (1773), “Scotch Shoes new soled” (1750-1) and later just “Scotch shoes” (1771) once the soles break in a little.

What To Wear With Them?
The majority of folks mentioned wear shoes and stockings, while some unfortunate souls have neither shoes nor stockings, poor fellows. A few people have shoes without stockings but no one is mentioned wearing stockings and without shoes. How logical of them!

What About Bob?
One fellow named Bob (1774), “can make shoes, play on the fiddle and is fond of singing with it”, presumably not all at the same time though, while another fellow by the same name only “pretends to make shoes” (1767). Wonder if it is really the same guy and he got better at making shoes and picked up a hobby in the seven years between the ads?

Say What?
Sometimes you just can' describe them! There is a listing which includes “old shoes, turned pumps” (1775) and another for “either shoes or boots” (1774) in case you like a little more variety in your footwear. The “new black grain dogskin shoes” (1775), should be counted under leather, right? Meanwhile the “stitch down shoes “(1768), “sand shoes with uncommon thick soles” (1769) and “light Pair of Shoes with Straps” (1773), defy my ability to describe them. Suffice it to say, these guys weren't barefoot!

One listing even includes a horse with his “hind shoes feathered” (1774). After all, we wouldn't want to leave our four legged friends out.
Works Cited:

Virginia Center for Digital History. “Virginia Runaways,”
http://www2.uvawise.edu/runaways/ (April, 2011).

Shoe, leather, wood and linen thread, 1700. (Victoria and Albert Museum, London). http://collections.vam.ac.uk/

Childrens Shoes, leather, late 18th century. (Brooklyn Museum Costume Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). http://www.metmuseum.org/

Shoe, Silk damask, linen and leather, 1760-1770. (Colonial Williamsburg Collection, Williamsburg). http://www.history.org/History/museums/index.cfm


  1. John Wilson's (Norfolk Va) 1771 ad in the Va Gazette for Shoes mentions "Ladies and Gentlemen may depend on being supplied with as neat shoes, either Leather or Calimanco, as any from London;...I have on Hand London, Philadelphia and New York Calf Skins, red, green and blue Morocco Leather, Calmincoes of all Colours, and of the best kinds..."

  2. I love this entry! 18th Century ads have some of the most random information in them. Using them to research shoes is something I'd never thought of before.


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