A SHOE manufacturer was explaining to me the differences between the so-called handmade product of the custom bootmaker and the shoes turned out by the factory’s machines. Said he: —
“This term handmade calls up a little picture of a fine old craftsman who insists, for reasons best known to himself, on sewing a shoe together with a needle and thread instead of using a sewing machine.
“Now maybe some shoes are stitched all by hand, but I doubt it. There would be no advantage in doing it that way, either in quality or in appearance. So handmade isn’t really the right term. What the custom kind of shoe —■ at $50 or $75 a pair —■ ought to be called is hand-lasted.”
Assuming the same quality of materials in each case, the manufacturer continued, the great difference in the two methods is in the use of the last — the basic wooden form over which the upper part of the shoe is stretched, shaped, and dried out. The last is everything to the shoe, and the longer the shoe remains on the last the better. A custom bootmaker will leave a shoe on the last for as much as four weeks — sometimes six or seven — pulling and stretching it more tightly at intervals until all the moisture and stretch in the leather are removed.
The result is the great virtue of the hand-lasting method: the shoe fits when one first puts it on, and it retains its shape and size without further stretching even in some years of wear. The cheapest machinemade shoe, on the contrary, may remain on the last for as little as twentyfour hours, and a week is a sizable interval in most factories. Thus, if the machine-made shoe is comfortable when it is first tried on, it may stretch considerably in the course of wear.
“But all in all,” said the manufacturer, “if a man finds a last that is comfortable, he ought to stick with it, no matter whether the shoe is cheap or expensive, for either way he will be getting his money’s worth.”
The other main point in behalf of the custom-made shoe, he concluded, is that a man’s right foot is rarely the same size and shape as his left, and the ready-made shoe that fits one may be a sad misfit for the other.
Aside from its appearance and how it fits, the customer who finally buys the shoe has little or no way of judging what he is getting. Between seventy and a hundred individual operations of molding, reinforcing, and smoothing out wrinkles, the manufacturer explained, go into a good shoe. Many of these never meet the eye, and the producer who is out to cut corners can simply omit certain operations from the process. The structure underlying the outer, middle, and inner soles, for instance, may have undergone shaping and improvement in two or three expensive machines operated by highly skilled labor, but since there is no visible sign thereof, the shoe might look no better to a customer than its cheaper counterpart.
Even the quality of the outer sole can be faked or simulated — and is, because of the insistence by the public on having the soles of its new shoes entirely free from scars or scratches, however faint. This insistence causes the shoe industry to treat the soles with a dope which conceals everything and shows the customer only a seemingly flawless surface. Cattle and horses are forever damaging their hides with scratches from barbed wire and briars, and a deep enough scratch causes the sole to crack long before it is damaged by ordinary wear. If the public would accept light scratches, the manufacturer suggested, it would have a much better chance to judge the quality of sole leather, but the present process hides everything under a glossy layer of camouflage.
He estimated, in passing, that the composition sole has replaced leather on most of the work shoos produced in this country, but that leather is still used for about 70 per cent of what the trade calls dress shoes. The composition sole will last from two or three to as much as twenty times as long as leather, but he did not believe it would over replace leather altogether.
“Leather breathes,” he said. “The composition sole may seem too hot. It might not, if a leather inner sole were used, but it is a good deal like a nylon shirt — it’s just hotter than a cotton shirt. Too bad, for these composition soles are wonderful for people who have to work where gasoline and acids have been spilled, and they have now reached a point where it is almost impossible to wear them out.”
The cost of all materials in a pair of shoes in his own factory he estimated at $3.38. If all materials were of the maximum quality, about $2 would be added to the cost, while use of the very cheapest materials would reduce the cost by about $1. For each dollar added to what the pair of shoes costs to manufacture, the price to the consumer is increased by about $2.25.
The manufacturer who provided this information makes nothing but work shoes and so avoids the risks and complications of “style” which confront the producer of dress shoes. For each change in style there must be a new last; and if the shoe is to be offered in the ordinary range of sizes, this means lasts in half sizes from five to fourteen (nineteen in all), each in seven or eight widths. Since the last costs the manufacturer about $4, each change in style will tie up considerable money in new lasts, and the gamble becomes whether he can market ten pairs of shoes or five hundred from a last.
The quantity of custom-made shoes produced in this country is negligible, and the manufacturer placed it, by a rough guess, at around fifty thousand pairs a year. The production of ready-made shoes is upwards of a half billion.