Historical objects are one way for everyone to preserve and share unique stories; and museum collections in particular offer a treasure trove of such stories for interested researchers to tap into. Even the everyday objects that we don’t give much thought to are often of interest to someone, as turned out to be the case with our latest research visitor, Meaghan Reddick, a candidate for the Smithsonian Master’s Program in the History of Decorative Arts at George Mason University. Meaghan is doing research on eighteenth and nineteenth-century shoes and is looking at the role labels played in marketing and fashion retail. She contacted us to see if we had any shoes in our collection that had surviving original maker’s labels from the period.
At the time, this seemed to me quite a tall order, given that shoes were made to be worn (and worn out), but until you start looking, you never know what you are going to find and it turned out we had more than I expected. Our collection contains ten pairs of shoes and two single shoes that still have their original labels. This doesn’t sound like a lot, but on older shoes a label is a rare find, and our little group spans the late eighteenth up to the mid-nineteenth centuries, which was a boon for Meaghan.
Four of these pairs had Paris labels, which is not surprising since, then as now, France was one of the world’s fashion capitals. The rest were from Philadelphia and had labels from a nice range of makers and retailers, including Mrs. R. Smith, Ladies’ Boot and Shoe Manufacturer of 21 North 6th Street, Martin Rice of 10 Second Street, J. Neill, David Fuller, and Henry Wireman. Perhaps the most fascinating find of the day was two late 1700s shoes with Philadelphia labels, both of which have a Delaware story to tell.
One of these shoes has a label in excellent condition for “Ebenezer Breed, Philadelphia.” Breed, a Quaker born in the shoe-trade town of Lynn, MA, came to Philadelphia in 1786 and soon became one of the leading shoe dealers in the city. This white silk wedding shoe originally belonged to Dorcas Armitage Lewis, daughter of Frances Elizabeth Cooch and John Armitage, a biscuit baker. Dorcas was born on November 17, 1762 and married Phillip Lewis II of Kent County, DE on January 1, 1791. They lived on the east side of Academy Street in Newark DE on land now owned by the University of Delaware and were the parents of five children, only one of whom made it to adulthood. Dorcas herself died on February 24, 1800, probably as a result of childbirth. A sad story, but her shoe remained a family relic until it came here.
Our other shoe, a fancy gold-tone leather high-heeled shoe, originally belonged to Rachel McCleary, the adopted daughter of Governor Richard Bassett, a Revolutionary War veteran and delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. Unfortunately, only half of the label for this shoe has survived in legible condition so we cannot be 100% certain of its maker at this point, but we were still able to clearly read “Eben…Philadelphia” (it would be really exciting if the same label in better condition were to turn up elsewhere on another shoe and help us figure it out!) This shoe was part of Rachel’s 1767 wedding outfit when she married Dr. Joshua Clayton (1744-1798), an aide and surgeon to George Washington at the Battle of the Brandywine and later Governor of Delaware from 1793-1796. The shoe descended in her family until it was donated to us by her great, great, great granddaughter.
It was interesting to get a glimpse into the prominent role that Philadelphia played in serving the needs of the fashion-conscious here in the First State. Meaghan’s research is still in the early stages but it will be interesting to see how it progresses. We look forward to hearing more about what she discovers.