FEW persons know that the shoe and leather interest of the United States is next in value and importance to the agricultural, largely exceeding the iron, coal, woolen, or even cotton interests. The annual sales of shoes and leather approach two hundred and fifty millions of dollars. The production of shoes is chiefly centred in New England, Massachusetts having three quarters of the trade; and were it not for this industry, the State would have lost much of her trade, and the last twenty years would have seen New England distanced in the commercial race by the West.
Until twenty years ago, the entire work of manufacturing shoes was done by hand. Since then, machinery has superseded hand labor in almost every manipulation. The shoe manufacturer used to buy his stock, cut it up, and fit it in his own factory, and then send it out, a few cases here and there, to men who did the greater part of the work in groups of six or eight, or often in the family circle, and returned the finished article ready for sale. But to-day the whole work is assembled under one roof, where are conducted all the numerous processes which convert the rough hide into the salable shoe.
Some of the most notable inventions of the day are in machines for manufacturing shoes. Many millions of money have been spent in devising new means of cheapening their production. Comparatively few of the ingenious men whose toil has lain in this direction have benefited themselves, but the public has reaped the harvest. Taking the value of money to-day and twenty years ago, and allowing that much fancy work is now put on shoes that has nothing to do with their wearing qualities, we shall find that by means of inventions in tanning, leather dressing, and shoe machinery at least forty per cent, has been taken off the cost of an article similar in style and quality to the old hand-wrought shoe, and that, moreover, much has been added on the score of comfortable fit and skillful adaptation to specific wants.
Putting aside the preparation of the leather or cloth of which the shoe is made, let us follow the manufacture of a few cases in one of the factories making use of the best facilities.
The upper of a shoe is made of several pieces stitched together, though recently some ingenious man has cut out a low shoe, like an Oxford tie, of one flat piece, leaving a hole for the foot, which being properly crimped over a last is made to conform to the requisite shape, and forms a shoe absolutely without seam, — a costly process, which only novelty recommends. That part of the upper covering the instep is called the top; that from the instep to the toe, the vamp; the parts running around the heel, the quarters; that above the quarters, the back. In a long-legged boot, the vamp and quarters run up into the leg.
The vamp must be of the nicest piece of leather, to resist the cracking that would otherwise follow the bending of the foot. The quarters are less good. All these pieces are cut in the " cuttingroom,” by an experienced and high-paid hand, from the sides. The cobbler of old used a paper pattern, varied by his eye and judgment, and a knife. Our cutter of to-day uses preferably a die and mallet. The die is expensive, but in cutting in large quantities it vastly cheapens the labor, as one blow produces a perfect piece. The best mallet is made of rawhide. Some cutters use tin patterns, especially for exceptional styles; and there are wonderfully ingenious patterns adjustable for the various sizes. In cutting there is more chance for saving or extravagance than in any other manipulation; and strict calculation as to the quality of the different parts of the hide, and the number of pieces that can best be cut from it, is essential. A perfect cutter is rare.
The upper leather having been cut and a lining added, the pieces are sent to the stitehing-room, each size and kind in a separate pile. This room is usually the largest and lightest in the factory, and is filled with benches on which sewing-machines, operated by power, are running at a speed of from five hundred to two thousand revolutions a minute. Each machine is run by a girl, whose skill is often astonishing. She does not stop her machine when she reaches the edge of any piece, but runs one upper in as the other comes out, thus producing a string of finished uppers, which she cuts apart whenever a straight seam gives her hands an instant’s freedom.
The mechanical history of the sewingmachine is curious enough. An ingenious old mechanic in England patented there in 1790 a sewing-machine, coupled with a number of other devices. It was an odd contrivance, this sewing-machine of Thomas Saint’s, and it anticipated Howe’s by many years ; but it was as far ahead of his times as a flying-machine is of ours. It had a crutch needle that shoved the thread through a previously punctured hole, and a looper that caught the thread and held it until a new piece was engaged with it to form a loop. In studying over the drawings and specifications of this patent, I have never seen how the machine could make the third, although it would interlock the first with the second stitch. Either it fell short of the requirements of a good machine, or else the necessities of the time gave the inventor no inducement to go ahead with it. But Howe fell upon times when his sewing-machine was demanded by the lack of labor at reasonable rates, and the result revolutionizes one great branch of the hand-work of the world.
After Saint came, in 1804, one Duncan, with a crocheting-machine, which was capable of making stitches continuously. The next machine I know of was Howe’s.
When machines arc employed upon leather work, they use a barbed instead of an eye needle, and a waxed thread. No machine has yet been made to sew successfully with an eye needle and a waxed thread, as this will not run freely through the eye.
There may be several kinds of sewing on the uppers of shoes, useful and ornamental. There are new ways constantly devised of making seams in awkward places or where strength is needed. The goring in a congress gaiter has to be handled expertly to be put in smoothly, and is often pasted in before sewing, to insure this result. The zigzag stitch often seen on uppers is made by the automatic feed of the machine, and not by the operator.
From the stitching - room the uppers are sent down in piles to the bottomingroom, where the soles are put on. These are prepared and operated on while “ in temper,” that is, thoroughly soaked, so as to be perfectly pliable. They are cut in some factories by a large machine from the whole hide, which has been rolled under heavy pressure to compact the grain, and not without a shrewd eye to the fact that much is thereby added to the superficies. In others the hide is first “ stripped,” or cut into strips the breadth of which is the length of the sole; the strip is then “ blocked,” or cut out into pieces like a large, square-cornered sole; and the block is then cut by a die into the proper-shaped sole, each operation being performed by appropriate machines. Sole-leather often has to be split, and sometimes upper-leather; and splitting-machines are made so true that they will split a hide into two sheets without a variation of the hundredth part of an inch.
If the soles are to be sewed upon the uppers, they are channeled to receive the stitches, so that these may be sunk out of sight. This channel is usually a flap cut from the edge and turned back, with a groove cut below it. in which the row of stitch loops lies. The channel is afterwards pasted down. The “ English channel” that has been so extensively advertised is cut like the path of a plow, from the surface, without a flap. A tapsole may now be tacked on if the shoe is to be double-soled, and shape is given to the whole by molding in a machine, which compresses each sole in a mere fraction of the time it used to take with lapstone and hammer; after which it, too. goes to the bottoming-room.
Here, in a circle, around shelves containing implements, lasts, uppers, and soles, sit the lasters. If the work is cloth or light leather, the lasters are generally women; if heavy leather, men. This is the one operation of shoe manufacturing still done entirely by hand. No satisfactory lasting-machine has yet been made, though several have nearly enough succeeded to keep the lasters moderate in their demands for pay. The laster first selects his last and upper of corresponding size, — an easy thing, as the same sizes he contiguous in the piles of uppers; then, after inserting a heel stiffening between the lining and upper, he lays the last into the upper, with its iron face up, draws the heel of the upper into position, and fastens it with a large-headed tack, to be afterwards withdrawn. He next lays upon the last an inner-sole, which has been prepared like the sole, but of commoner material and a size Smaller. He then uses his pincers, beginning at the toe, and draws the upper over the in-sole, stretching it as tightly as he can, with more or less nicety, according to the quality of the shoe, so as to make it conform accurately to the shape of the last; for this has been made with great care to fit the average well-shaped human foot of similar size, and of the style desired by the manufacturer. As the laster stretches each part over the last and brings its edge upon the in-sole, he confines it there by a tack which he seizes quickly from the reservoir held, for convenience of delivery, in his mouth, and drives with his hammer-headed pincers through upper and in-sole, and clinches, upon the iron face of the last. It is these tacks that are afterwards apt to vex the wearer of the shoe.
Having fastened the upper securely down upon the in-sole, the laster now finds the out-sole of proper size, and places both ready for the “ sole-layer,” who stands in the pen made by the circle of eight or ten lasters. This workman picks up shoes in rotation, and carefully centring the out-sole holds the shoe up to a nail-driving machine called a “ lacker,” and inserts half a dozen nails in the corner of the channel, to keep the outsole in place while it is being permanently sewed to the upper; having done which he lays the shoe back, and the laster completes the operation by drawing out tlie last, leaving the shoe all tacked together, ready for its final fastening, and possessing the accurate form of the last.
A laster can do from ten to one hundred pairs a day, according to the kind, the heavier or nicer, the fewer.
The old-fashioned method of hand sewing is as follows: the upper having been drawn over the last and properly secured upon the in-sole, a welt, which is an inch-wide strip of leather, thick at one edge and tapering to a thin edge at the other, is also temporarily secured by tacks around the shoe from heel to heel, so that its thick edge shall he about even with the proposed edge of the outer-sole when the shoe is sewed. The stitcher then takes a curved awl and a waxed end, — this being a waxed thread with a stiff bristle in each end, — and makes a curved hole which dips into the surface of the in-sole and goes through the upper and welt. Through this hole the waxed end is thrust, and an equal amount of thread left in either side. Then another similar awl hole is made, and, each bristle being thrust through from opposite sides, the waxed end is drawn through with that jerk peculiar to eordwainers. A series of stitches is thus made with infinite toil, the shoe being held on the operator’s knee by a strap passing over it and under his foot. The welt and upper having been secured to the in-sole, the out-sole is sewed to the welt, where it projects beyond the upper, by another series of stitches. Of shoes with these two seams, from two to six pairs can be sewed in a day. The occupation is very unhealthy from the cramped position it necessitates.
The first shoe-sewing machine ever attempted in New England made its appearance about 1850, and, though having no outward similarity, was in effect nothing but a cast-iron cobbler, even to the jerk. The invention was wonderful enough, but as it needed a machineshop and master-machinist to keep it going, it amounted to nothing. Its failure is attributable to the cause that renders many ingenious contrivances of no avail, to wit, trying to perform a mechanical operation in the same manner as it is done by hand. No sewing-machine would ever have existed if the problem had been to draw tlie end of the thread through the parts and seize it again, as in hand sewing. But when it was narrowed down to so arranging one or two threads that mechanical devices could lay them, and that they would hold together pieces of fabric, then the problem was solved.
This applies to the machine for sewing the soles to the uppers of shoes that is to-day used on some forty million pairs a year. Lyman R. Blake, the inventor, had never seen shoes sewed by hand, but had seen them pegged, and had seen sewing-machines; and by constructing the shoe like a pegged shoe, and putting a seam in the place of the pegs, he accomplished a vast result. Had he made ever so good a machine for sewing shoes on the old welted plan, his success would have been quite small.
The machine in question, now called the McKay sewing-machine, stands about head-high, with the sewing mechanism at the top, and a swinging horn at the height of the breast. This horn has a tip small enough to go into the toe of the smallest size of shoe, and carries a waxed thread, which is kept flexible by a gas or alcohol flame heating the horn. The shoe is opened by the operator and thrust upon the horn so as to be supported by it. As the machine is started, a hooked needle descends through the sole, upper, and in-sole, tacked together as above explained, and into a hole in the tip of the horn. Here a little whirl throws the thread across the hook, so that in ascending the needle will carry up a loop. This loop is retained in the hook by a little slide covering it and called the “cast-off;” and after the needle is fairly out of the work, the shoe is fed forward so that the needle will go down again in a new place. As it goes down, the loop, which has been released from the hook by the cast-off, is so held by it that the needle must pass through it; and when it again ascends, the second loop is drawn through the first, and so on as the sewing proceeds, — the tension being drawn tight by the ascent of the needle, and the work being held in place by a suitable presser-foot and fed forward by a feed-point, each acting in its proper time. The only thing the operator has to do is to guide the seam in the channel, so that it will he in the groove prepared for its reception, and to swing the horn so as most readily to turn the corners at toe and heel. From three hundred to a thousand pairs can be sewed in a day, a single shoe in ten or twelve seconds. The saving of labor averages about twenty-five cents a pair, or on the present production some ten million dollars a year.
The shoe being sewed passes into the hands of a man who pastes down the lip of the channel and closes it so as to conceal the stitches. The shoe is then “beaten out.” This used to be done with the hammer, but is now done by a machine, which compresses the shoe, still in temper, and gives it the final shape that, after drying, it is intended to retain.
The edge of the sole is then trimmed by hand, a sufficiently easy operation to make machinery of no great aid, though there are such machines used.
The heel is next attached by a ponderous contrivance which nails it on and trims it at the rate of several hundred pairs a day. Lately atmospheric pressure has been used as its motive power, the receiver being kept charged by a little pump worked by a belt from any convenient shaft. Boys are employed to pile up the heels from lifts “died” out of scraps left from sole-cutting, and to fasten them together with one or two nails. A pricking-machine then punctures the heel, and the holes are loaded with nails. The heel and shoe are then centred in the heeling - machine, the operator opens a valve, and a blow from the four or five atmospheres in the receiver nails the heel securely on, clinching each nail; and another valve being opened, a knife, guided in suitable ways, travels instantly about the heel, and shaves it so clean and smooth that it requires only a little sand-papering on a revolving wheel to fit it for blacking and burnishing. The atmospheric pressure is very rapid in action, and withal so elastic that in this very heavy work it is less liable to break the machinery than cam motions.
The heel is now blacked and subjected to the friction of a gas-heated steel tool in a rapidly-working machine, which quickly imparts to it a mirror-like brightness, as the tool passes to and fro over its surface, after which there remains but to “ buff ” the face of the sole, burnish the shank and edge of the sole by hand, and generally furbish up the shoe, when it is ready to be put in a case for sale.
In lieu of the sewing the sole may be. either pegged or nailed on. One of the earliest machines in the manufacture of shoes was the pegger, and many hundred million pairs have been bottomed upon it. A strip of peg wood, like a ribbon, is fed into the machine, the grain of the wood running across the strip, which is cut from the log like veneering. The shoe, lasted as for sewing, being presented to the pegging mechanism on a “jack” or holder, sole uppermost, an awl punctures a hole, and moves the shoe forward so that this hole shall come under a driver. A peg, severed from the ribbon, is fed into a tube over this hole, and the driver descends and thrusts it through the punctured parts. Pegs are driven at the rate of nearly a thousand a minute; for it requires the momentum of great speed to drive the peg without breaking it. A nailing - machine is a pegger so modified as to cut successive nails from a wire that is fed into the machine. The “cable screw wire” machine is thus organized, the wire being twisted into screw form, and turning as it goes into the sole. Machines for thus nailing are destined to do a great deal of work in the future; hut the perfect nailer is not yet in the market.
All these operations, and many minor ones, are conducted under one roof, at the rate of from one case of sixty pairs to five thousand pairs a day, each factory making, as a rule, but one class of shoes, but each class having many subdivisions.
There is hut one class of shoes now manufactured outside of the factories, excepting, of course, the comparatively few that are made to order. These are turned shoes, so called because they arc sewed wrong side out and then turned. Even these are now largely made by machines, but most of them are sewed by hand in New England farmers’ and fishermen’s families during the long winter months, when there is little to do; and to earn a couple of dollars a week for each working member of a family is to pay expenses till the busier season arrives. These shoes have hut a single sole, are lasted wrong side out, and sewed by a dip stitch that goes through the upper and a shoulder or flap cut around the inside of the sole near the edge; and the shoe being turned right side out is finished in the usual manner. Manufacturers buy the stock, cut it up and fit it, and then send it “ down country ” by the few cases to men who distribute the work to the families who sew and finish the shoes, often for less than ten cents a pair.
Women’s shoes used always to he made as turns before Blake’s machine sewed double-soled shoes at cheap rates, and the much - commended fashion of wearing thicker shoes followed immediately upon its introduction; a doublesoled shoe can be made on it with less labor than the turn can he sewed by hand, whereas the old hand-sewed welted shoe was costly.
The eost. of shoes is much less than is generally supposed; though when the jobber and retailer add their considerable profit to the very modest one of the manufacturer (often only one or two cents a pair), the consumer pays a considerable price. Many women’s gaiters, of fair quality and excellent style, cost not more than eighty-five or ninety cents a pair. Good slippers are produced for from thirty-five to fifty cents; but when we come to the better class of women’s shoes, or to the heavier men’s wear, the cost rapidly advances.
There are over one hundred million pairs of boots and shoes made annually in this country. There is some exportation to South America, — not much, — and no importation of consequence. Of these one hundred millions, about forty millions are machine sewed; as many pegged and nailed; some twenty million pairs are turns; and a few hand-made ones, for those who have exceptionally peculiar feet or are exceptionally particular. By the introduction of machinery the manufacture of this article has been so improved that almost every one buys where before he ordered his foot gear; and there is no room for doubt that the average manufactured shoe is of much better quality, style, and fit than the one made to order. Any fault to be found with it is referable more to the necessary cheapening which always follows easy production and consequent coin petition.
T. A. D.