At the onset of the Fraser River Gold rush, most people were still making their own shoes and boots to save money.
In 1856, a popular book was published, “Every Lady Her Own Shoemaker” which showed how to make a shoe that would cost half as much as a store-bought shoe. All that was needed was a pre-cut sole, fabric for the upper, thread and needle.
There were two main methods of making shoes by hand – ‘turned’ and ‘welt’.
The turned method was for shoes with a lightweight upper and flexible sole. Women’s slippers or light dress boots would be made using the turned method. A popular style of shoe for women in the 1850s was the gaitor or Congress boot, either laced or with elastic sides.
The welt method used an insole, outsole, uppers, and a leather strip called a welt. The shoemaker positioned the welt between the upper and insole and sewed them together with one seam along the inner edge of the welt. A thin narrow shank and wood shavings filled the space between the insole and the outsole to add stability to the shoe. A heel was added.
Heavy boots and cheaper shoes, such as brogan, were held together with either pegs or nails. Pegged shoes did not have stitch indentations on the bottom of the outsole since each had its own peg. It is interesting to note that the nails used for constructing shoes left round holes while the pegs were square and left square holes that often skewed to a diamond shape over time. Pegged brogans were often made with a midsole which was a full layer of leather. These made the shoes durable but heavy. Brogans were almost heelless so they were hardly made for walking. Wellington boots had heels but weren’t meant for hiking either.
When the gold rush miners had to walk vast distances every day just to get to the Fraser River gold diggings, they soon started making their own footwear, including moccasins. Here is an excerpt from Herman Reinhart’s diary:
“I never suffered so much in my life as on that trip to the Fraser River. My ankles…would swell up so that I could hardly get along, but I had to drag on anyway. I made me moccosins of carpet from a saddlecloth I had, and I would have to put on a new sole every night after I got into camp. How glad many of us were when we…could sit down and rest our sore feet.”
In February 1858, the Mechanics Magazine published “Certain improvements in the construction of heels for boots and shoes,” by W. Westley.
“These consist of forming an entire or partial rim of metal the shape and height of the heel and the inside of which is filled up with gutta percha, scrap leather, or wood, through which holes may be made for attaching the heel to the boot or shoe. The metallic rim may be be japanned, or covered with steel around the bottom edge; or the rim itself will be made of cast iron, chilled on the under edge, to prevent rapid wearing away.”
A breakthrough in technology came in 1862 when the McKay Stitcher was invented. This machine, based on an earlier invention by shoemaker Lyman Blake, sewed the soles of shoes to the uppers without a welt. A lining then covered the seam that went through to the inside of the shoe. This prevented wear of the stitching thread. The shoes made on this machine came to be called “McKays.”
Here is a page from my upcoming graphic novel on the Fraser River gold rush. In the first panel I drew a Wellington boot which was commonly worn in the 1850s.