Jewelry and Shoe Lovers Unite: What Our Accessories Represent with Dr. Kimberly Alexander, University of New Hampshire Faculty
What you’ll learn in this episode:
- What material culture is, and how we can understand history through its lens
- Why people tend to save their shoes even if they don’t wear them
- How high heels relate to women’s sense of power—or powerlessness
- Why Colonial-era shoe and breeches buckles are still a popular jewelry material
- How the Colonial shoe industry can help us understand northern complicity in the slave trade
About Kimberly Alexander
Dr. Kimberly Alexander teaches museum studies, material culture, American history and New Hampshire history in the History Department of the University of New Hampshire. She has held curatorial positions at several New England museums, including the MIT Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum and Strawbery Banke. Her most recent book, entitled “Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era” traces the history of early Anglo-American footwear from the 1740s through the 1790s (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018). Dr. Alexander was Andrew Oliver Research Fellow at the Massachusetts Historical Society (2016-2017) and is guest curator of “Fashioning the New England Family,” (October 2018- April 2019) at MHS. Her companion book, “Fashioning the New England Family,” was published in 2019.
Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era
Fashioning the New England Family
Treasures Afoot – book stack with c. 1780s silk satin shoe, made in Boston, MA
Silver and paste stone shoe buckles, c. mid-18th century, French or English; in original 3shagreen, silk lined case. Collection of the author.
Silver thread embroidery with spangles. Collection of the author.
Advertisement for gold lace, 1734
James Davis, shoemaker, near Aldgate, London, c. 1760s, Courtesy Metropolitan Museum, public domain. https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/112645
As an architectural historian with a relatively small shoe collection, Professor Kimberly Alexander didn’t anticipate becoming an expert on Georgian shoes. But when she encountered a pair of mid-18th century shoes with a curious label, she quickly realized the potential that shoes have to help us understand history and material culture. She joined the Jewelry Journey Podcast to talk about the commonalities between shoes and jewelry, why shoes are a powerful way for women to express themselves, and how the historical shoe industry can help us understand the Colonia era in America. Read the episode transcript below.
Sharon: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Jewelry Journey Podcast. Today, while we’re still talking about jewelry, we’re looking at it from a different angle. My guest is Kimberly Alexander, author of “Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era.” Kimberly is a historian and Professor of Material and Museum Culture at the University of New Hampshire. We’ll hear all about her own journey as well as some of the history she tells of shoes in early America. Kimberly, welcome to the program.
Kimberly: Thank you so much for inviting me, Sharon. I’m very excited to talk to you today about something that’s been a fairly consuming interest and passion for quite some time, so thank you.
Sharon: I’m so glad to have you, and it has been. I was just rereading your introduction and acknowledgements. You say you’ve been doing this for the past eight years, so that’s quite a journey. Can you tell us what material culture is and how you got into this study? It’s so interesting that you’re a professor.
Kimberly: I’d be happy to do that. Material culture, in its broadest terms, is any item, artifact, object that is created by human endeavor, by human hands. It covers a broad swath of materials, from the work of indigenous peoples with beads and ceramics to shoemakers, which is where I’ve spent a tremendous amount of my interest and time, but also those who produce textiles, glass, furniture, paintings. All of those would be examples of a human endeavor to create an object. If you think about the early cave paintings and petroglyphs, that’s also part of a creative process which involves a human endeavor to create an object or a story. As we continue to explore these ideas of material culture, what I’m particularly interested in is the ability of material artifacts and objects to tell stories that are wrapped up in these elements of human endeavor. I think stories stay with us in ways that other types of information don’t always, because we can relate to it; we can put a hook on it. We can understand something more about someone else’s perspective or point of view from the study of material culture. I teach material culture and museum studies and these very much go hand-in-hand throughout public history.
My own journey was an interesting one. I completed my master’s and my Ph.D. in art history with a focus in architectural history. Some people who’ve known me for a long time are curious as to how I got from being an architectural historian to writing a book about Georgian shoes, and it’s actually not as surprising as you might think. I worked as a curator at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, where I was curator of architecture and design. From there I went to the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, and then to the Strawbery Museum in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. It was at Strawbery that I worked not only with buildings, but also archeological finds and what they would tell us about the buildings themselves and human habitations. I worked with a wide of variety of different types of collections, and I found that it was more of a way that you envision the world around you. For me, if you think of a shoe as needing to support someone in their daily activities for a special event, it’s not that much different to think about how a skyscraper works. We need to have a good foundation on which to build. For me, it’s been a natural evolution.
The shoe that got me started on this sojourn, if you will, is the one that’s on the front cover of my book. It’s in the collection at the Strawbery Banke Museum. It is a mid-18th century Georgian shoe that’s been quite well worn, seen a lot of damage through time and wear, but inside was pasted a simple paper label and it read, “Rideout and Davis Shoemakers near Aldgate in London.” That made me immediately wonder, “How did this shoe end up in this collection in Portsmouth, New Hampshire? What was its journey?” That’s really what sent me on this eight-year—and I’m still working on it even though the book’s published, so now I’m up to 10 or 11 years on this topic, but that was the question that I started with. How did people acquire shoes and why were they saved? How was this shoe saved for all this time? I found over the course of my research there’s a lot more relevance even to how we organize today’s lives. You might keep a pair of shoes that you wore to run a marathon or that you wore to get married or for your first job interview. You may never wear them again, but they’re small, they’re portable and they are infused with some fiber of you and your experience. That’s what makes shoes so exciting.
Sharon: That’s really interesting. I’m thinking about the parallels between that and antique jewelry. As I’ve been culling my own collection, I look and say, “I may never wear that again, but I bought it here and I want to keep it as a keepsake.” I was looking at a piece I bought in Cuba and thought, “I may never wear it again, but it’s the only thing I’ve really bought from Cuba.”
Sharon: Why do people keep shoes? They’re small, they’re portable and they have memories, but why do they love shoes so much?
Kimberly: That is an interesting question. I had the chance to do some work with the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire, about five or six years ago. They were hosting an exhibition that originated in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. “On Killer Heels” was the name of the exhibition—a fabulous show—but one of the things they did at the Currier was put out notebooks for women to write about their experiences with shoes. One notebook was “What were your best experiences?” or “What shoes do you remember?” and the other one was about shoes and feminism and wearing high heels. I went through them and eventually I hope, with the help of the Currier, to publish an article about it, because it’s really quite interesting.
Women who wrote about high heels in many cases wrote about them as being part of how they perceive themselves in power. Some women did see them this way as well as something that was uncomfortable that they were forced to wear at a certain time in their lives. Other women saw them as something that was part of their role as a professional in a male-dominated world. One woman, for example, wrote that she loved her three-inch heels with her business suits because everybody could hear her coming; they knew she was on her way and people scampered to find something to do. She also said, “It put me on this eye level with men in a way that, if I wasn’t wearing heels, I wouldn’t be.” That was one example that I thought was really interesting. Another example from a woman of roughly the same age talked about the fact that she had foot problems and had to turn in her high heels for flats because they were uncomfortable. This is all paraphrasing, but she said, “The change-over to flats made me feel invisible, like I’d given something up. I was wearing shoes like my mother or grandmother would wear.”
I don’t know if I really answered your question with these few examples, but I think shoes mean a lot of different things to a lot of different people. As we’re moving through this Covid year-and-a-half pandemic, I think shoes have taken on an even different role again, as has fashion. People are used to their soft clothes. I was reading something recently on Instagram where somebody said, “Oh, I can’t believe I have to go to a meeting in person and put on hard pants.” I think the issue of levels of comfort has changed. They were already changed; I think they changed even more in this pandemic era. But, why do women love shoes? Any number of different reasons, and I’ve spoken to hundreds of women because I find it a fascinating topic.
By nature, you might not know this, but I’m actually a somewhat shy person; I have a lot of social anxiety. Once I started working on shoes, I found I could always ask a question about shoes, and everybody piles on and I don’t need to continue saying much more. I guess everybody has something, and in these notebooks from the Currier, there were these incredibly detailed responses to people responding to their worst experience in shoes. There was one young woman who wrote about going to this college party in her Candies, which were these wooden shoes, terribly uncomfortable, but they were all the rage as I recall. She had hot pink Candies with open toes. She just loved them and she knew she looked like a million bucks, but she ended up with the biggest blisters on her feet. I was an “I didn’t care because I knew I looked great” kind of thing. There’s a lot of self-image, for some people, wrapped up in something that seems as mundane as shoes.
The pair of shoes that I’ve kept out of my own collection and that I’ve carried with me—I grew up in Maryland; I’m now in New Hampshire—is a pair of Nikes from when I was on the cross-country team. I started at a private school, St. James, for my last two years of high school. I couldn’t even run the length of a football field. By the end of the semester, I was running five-milers and competing competitively. Those Nikes were symbolic of something really important, and I still have them. They are falling apart, but I still have them. What people decide to collect is also really interesting in terms of what people collect and save and the stories that go with those.
Sharon: That’s interesting. I’m not sure I have any shoes that I’ve saved. I’ve tossed them out and I might have had a sentimental pang, but I don’t think I have anything I’ve saved. I especially did not save from decades ago my three-inch heels, which I can’t even imagine. When I see women walking on those now, I’m like, “Oh, my god, how did I ever do that?” The shoes you focus on, you focus on the Colonial Era in America. Why is that, especially because you’re talking about shoes that came from London?
Kimberly: What it brought up for me, when I first started looking at the labels in women’s shoes from London, is that British Americans, in the time before the Revolution, there was a huge consumer culture revolution. You still conceived of yourself as British, so you wanted to be stylish as you would have been back home, not out on the periphery somewhere. So, you have these shoemakers in London who are exporting thousands and thousands of pairs of shoes to the colonies of all different types, from very, very high-end, some of which I show in my book, to examples for those who are not as—pardon the pun—well-heeled. The idea of this reliance on the market also meant there were shoes being made for everyday people and everyday wearers.
In the book, I talk a good bit about the growth of the shoe industry starting particularly in Lynn, Massachusetts, and the switch during the Revolution. There’s this pivotal decade from 1760 to the 1770s where Americans start saying, “Look, don’t be buying your shoes from Britain. Why are you going to be sending your money to the Crown and to British merchants and shoemakers? Why aren’t you supporting your local shoemaker and local businesses and putting money in the coffers of your neighbors?” It becomes a huge political issue, and we even seen Ben Franklin talking about that during the Stamp Act controversy, where he says that Americans are going to hold onto their clothes until they can make themselves new ones. Even something that might seem as straightforward as shoes becomes highly politicized during this time period.
All of this was of tremendous interest to me, but part of the reason I selected this time period and these shoes is that they are handmade—this is all obviously before the advent of machine sewing—and it also gave me a chance to talk about women’s voices, women’s perspectives that had previously been unheard. We read so much about the founding fathers and a few elite women, but what about the everyday person, the everywoman, everyman? Using shoes was a way I could talk about women who we otherwise would never have heard of. We would just know when they were born and when they died and possibly that they had a child, because that’s how the shoes came to us. It was sort of a reverse creating a genealogy or a biography and trying to give women a voice they didn’t have, because I had an object I could work with.
Sharon: Whatever you said brought to mind the fact that the pictures, the photos in here are just beautiful. I want to say the name of the book again, “Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era” and tell everybody listening that it’s a beautiful book and an easy read. It’s history, but it’s a very easy, interesting read, especially if you have any interest in shoes. We also talked about the fact that with jewelry, taking something like antique shoe buckles and transforming them into bracelets or other pieces of jewelry has become so popular. Why do you think that is?
Kimberly: First, I do want to give a plug to my publisher. It’s Johns Hopkins University Press, if any of you are interested in the book. There are over a hundred illustrations in the book, most of which have never been seen before, that were taken specifically for this project. I have a huge debt of gratitude to 30 different museum collections around the world, so thank you for bringing up the visual qualities. It was a really exciting opportunity to be able to have that many color illustrations.
Back to your question about shoe buckles, for one thing, you didn’t have to have a pair of buckles for every pair of shoes; you could interchange some. Again, it goes back to things that you can save easily. You get a lot of pavé stone buckles more so than gemstones, although very, very rich people—the Victoria & Albert has a pair of shoe buckles, I think they were Russian in origin, that have actual sapphires and diamonds and rubies. I mean, wow. But what most people had would have been pavé stones that would have been set in silver or some other metal. Then they move onto leather.
One of the biggest things that happens is that there were so many buckles because you had shoe buckles for men and women. You also had breeches buckles for men, which would go at their knees for their breeches. You actually have a pretty large number of buckles which can be reused. By looking at the size, you can generally determine whether they were breeches buckles or shoe buckles, but that’s often a cataloguing error that you find about what the pieces were. A small breeches buckle, for example, can be wonderfully remade into a pin if you’ve got the pair. They’re very small. I’m sorry. We’re doing this over the phone and I’m doing hand gestures—
Sharon: No, no.
Kimberly: At any rate, they are smaller, so they’re very easy to convert into jewelry. They’re easy to save. You can pick them up online everywhere from eBay to Etsy. Now, the other thing is that there was a huge Georgian revival of shoes, of course, in the 1910s and 1920s, and you start having shoes that either have attached shoe buckles or occasionally are using shoe buckles again. So, you have a wide expanse of this sort of shoe jewelry, if you will, and it’s not just buckles; there were also shoe roses and flowers, things you could attach to your slippers to spiff them up. The idea of reusing these objects, the way people do with silk ribbon flowers, which appear on so many 18th century and early 20th century gowns, makes a tremendous amount of sense. I would say there are certainly as many pieces of jewelry that have been made from buckles as buckles that actually survived.
Sharon: I never realized there were breeches buckles. I guess it’s all lumped together in a sense.
Kimberly: The breeches buckles were smaller, and they would have attached to the knee tabs for men’s breeches. A man could have both breeches buckles and shoe buckles, and then occasionally you’ll see trends in the 19th and 20th centuries of buckles being used as hat ornaments and things like that. The versatility, I think, is probably what has kept them around. Plus, anytime you’re dealing with shoes, you’re dealing with the fragility of textiles and that’s a big thing.
Sharon: I’ll have to look more closely next time I look at what I think is a shoe buckle and say, “Oh, it’s possible it’s a breeches buckle.” It’s interesting when you talk about the trends, because in the past few years it’s been pearls. You’ve seen pearls in heels, and I think you have a couple of pairs of shoes where there are lots of rhinestones.
Kimberly: Yeah, if you want to take the idea of jewelry as it connects to footwear, many of the 18th century—well, 17th and 18th century—shoes were embroidered with metallic threads. You actually have real gold spun around a linen thread, which is then woven into the fabric of the shoes. You end up with this amazing amount of gold on your foot. You’ve got the shine—and again, this is largely elite wearers—but you have brocaded metallic threads in a shoe. Then you’ve got a shoe buckle. Hose and stockings often will have down the side of the leg what was known as a clock, which might be done in metallic threads. So, you also have precious metals being used as part of the textile process.
Sharon: It’s interesting to me that when you describe material culture, it’s such a broad subject and you homed in on shoes, and then even more specifically a certain period, the Georgian Era, the Colonial Era. Are you working on something now? What else is on your mind?
Kimberly: I have a book coming out this fall based on an exhibition I was very fortunate to curate at the Massachusetts Historical Society which is called “Fashioning the New England Family.” It looks at a wide variety of textiles from the 17th century, from what is known as a buff coat, a lightweight military—well, relatively speaking—coat from the 1630s, up through pieces in the early 20th century based on their collection. What I’m really interested in is this idea of storytelling, of reading textiles like text. What can you discern? Everything from why they were maintained to how they were made, and it’s astonishing the things we’ve been able to uncover.
As far as shoes go, I’ve been looking at issues of northern complicity in the shoe trade. Around the time of the Revolution, a number of shoe manufacturers in New England basically blossom from doing several hundred pairs of shoes to doing thousands of pairs of shoes. There’s one company in particular that I found during my research—I think I talk about it in the very end of my book—that started shipping thousands and thousands of shoes and I thought, “Well, that’s odd in this three-year time.” As it turned out, they were selling—the coded language was “for the southern trade” or “the Indies trade”—but essentially, they were selling shoes to enslaved field workers in the South. The coded language was “coarse, sturdy, cheap,” and so on.
When I started researching where the shoes were shipped, they were being shipped to Baltimore, to Norfolk, to Charleston, in this case from Salem and Boston. There are entire towns in New England that owe their existence and their lucrative businesses to being part of the slave trade. These things are true in the textile mills as well, but I’ve been focusing on shoes. This is very coded language, and I’ve been able to locate a few pairs of shoes that were actually made for enslaved workers, and we have letters from enslaved workers who talk about how uncomfortable those northern shoes were. They preferred in some cases to go barefoot; they were that uncomfortable. So, I’m working on that now as well as another publication.
Sharon: Wow! I look forward to seeing that. It sounds very interesting, and it really makes you think in terms of how they were supporting abolition and at the same time shipping the shoes down, right?
Kimberly: Right. You realize just how much these are no longer separate economies. It’s a national economy. They’re sending cotton up from the South to the North where it’s being processed into clothing and then being sent back down to the South or being sent to customers. It’s really complicated and some amazing scholarship is being done in this area.
Sharon: As you’re talking about the shoes and how you’re telling history through shoes, it makes me think about how hard it is to describe to people when you say you really love jewelry. They think you love big diamonds, but there’s so much history attached to jewelry, why it was done in a certain metal and at a certain time. There’s a whole journey behind it.
Kimberly: Yes, exactly. People assume I have a big shoe collection myself. I don’t. I have a few pairs of shoes that I really like, and people give me shoes now. For my classes, I’ve gotten some really fancy designer shoes that people picked up at yard sales. I use the textiles I have and the shoes I have in my classes so that students can actually hold things, touch things, examine them and learn from them, because you can’t walk into a museum and say, “Hey, let me hold onto that 1785 pair of silk pumps.”
Sharon: Right. I look forward to seeing your book when it comes out. That’s around the corner, and hopefully you’ll come back on and tell us more about that. Thank you so much for being here today.
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