The Clements Library website includes events, exhibits, subject guides, newsletter issues, library staff, and more.

Sole Work

Between 1830 and 1913, the comparatively small state of Massachusetts became the beating heart of American shoe production. Home to numerous engineers and machinists devoted to mechanizing the artisanal shoemaking process, antebellum Massachusetts fostered an environment of invention and unprecedented industrialization. The real turning point came in 1859, when Massachusetts-born engineer Lyman Blake refined a sole-sewing machine that could knit soles to leather uppers at a breathtakingly quick pace while still maintaining the high quality of hand-stitching. In a familiar 19th-century tale, Blake’s machine tolled the death knell for centuries of skilled handiwork. 

By 1869, approximately 60 percent of shoes and boots made in the United States came from increasingly industrialized hotspots in Massachusetts. When it came to urban growth, shoe production enabled massive expansion for cities like Haverhill, once a tiny cluster of settlements on the serpentine Merrimack River. Fueled by the proliferation of puffing shoe factories, Haverhill blossomed from a population of 3,000 (1820) to 30,000 (1892). By 1893, Haverhill’s Board of Trade proclaimed itself “The Largest Shoe and Boot Town In the World.” And by 1913, Haverhill was nicknamed “Queen Slipper City,” in recognition of its production of 1/10th of the nation’s shoes. According to the maps and statistics, Haverhill’s ascent to shoe stardom seems like a straightforward narrative.

A birds-eye view map, Haverhill, Massachusetts, (Boston, 1893) was folded into pocket-size boards and distributed, “Compliments of the Board of Trade.” The crowded promotional item proudly announces Haverhill’s growth by the numbers, proclaiming that in the last year, population had increased by 48% and 205 additional residences and buildings had been erected, some depicted on the map’s border. Digitized copy courtesy of the Leventhal Map Center, Boston Public Library.
In my role as the Librarian for Instruction at the Clements, I spend lots of time thinking about how to utilize our collections to remind students of the messiness, complication, and human cost of powerful change. In reality, Haverhill’s seemingly benign expansion relied upon the eventual “de-skilling” of an entire trade. Shoemakers once trained in careful, slow production for specific clients transitioned to participation in the mass production of factory-made shoes. How did that transition affect the day-to-day lives of those shoemakers? What role did nostalgia, routine, and resistance play in industrial progress?

The Clements Library is lucky to hold answers to some of these questions in the rich diaries of Albert Brown Hale (1869-1947). Hale, a shoemaker from the small town of West Newbury, Massachusetts (population 1,300 in 1890), six miles away from Haverhill, was the son of shoemaker Samuel Hale, and went on to join the family business himself. In his 1894 journal, Hale wrote in exquisite detail about the hands-on practices at the family shoe shop. Each day, Hale recorded precisely how many shoes he made (rarely less than four, never more than eight), of what material (often luxurious textiles like lavender satin or white kid leather), and whom they were for (the customer always identified by name). He tracked the weather with the studied devotion of an amateur meteorologist, particularly when the days were rainy and thus muddy (a true concern for someone invested in the durability of delicate satin shoes). The pace of his work was almost comically relaxed, and the intricate details of this labor-intensive work were noted:

January 4, 1894: Got to work at 8, and didn’t hurry much.

January 15, 1894: Got to work at 8:45, and didn’t hurry much.

January 17, 1894: I went to work about 8:45, and was fooling most of the time with father.

March 27, 1894: 4 prs lavender satin sandals…came fine and looked great. The dongola [a leather made by tanning goatskin, calfskin, or sheepskin to resemble kid leather] had to be worked on 4 & 4 ½ up a size and worked very rough. The linings were sewed to the outside and eyelet holes were worked through the vamp in the form of a diamond.

March 30, 1894: Didn’t hurry but took things very comfortable and the shoes came very fine.

 Diary entries from March 27 and 28, 1894, recorded Albert Hale’s exquisite attention to detail in hand-crafting his shoes, presenting an image of “eyelet holes . . . worked in the vamp in the form of a diamond.”
Diary entries from March 27 and 28, 1894, recorded Albert Hale’s exquisite attention to detail in hand-crafting his shoes, presenting an image of “eyelet holes . . . worked in the vamp in the form of a diamond.”
These early entries evoke a pre-industrial zeitgeist. Rather than describing any awareness of deadlines or attempts to meet a production quota, Hale prioritized an unhurried pace and the creation of handsewn, sumptuously outfitted footwear. To operate this way in 1894, when mechanized shoe assembly had usurped the role of the journeyman and Blake’s sole-sewing machine was doing the work of 80 laborers in one hour, is striking. Hale’s entries give us a glimpse into the life of a family business that clearly resisted the abandonment of a treasured craft, instead clinging to older forms of production and defying the imperative to sew faster, produce more, and use automation to create a standard product. Hale knew his customers in West Newbury by name, indicating that a market still existed for more expensive, handcrafted shoes. Somehow, the Hales had managed to avoid forced modernization for nearly 25 years after the invention of industry-changing machines.

After 1894, Hale’s diaries disappeared for 16 years, not resuming until 1912. If Hale wrote entries during these in-between years, the volumes are not held at the Clements and so far remain untraceable elsewhere. From context in the existing diaries, we know that Hale’s life changed tremendously between 1894 and 1912. He married Minnie May Drew (1877–1970) and they had a son (Hazen, b. 1904). And Hale was at last swept up in the tidal wave of industrialization. Around 1900, he moved to Haverhill, a burgeoning city nearly 23 times the size of West Newbury, where he climbed the ladder to the position of supervising foreman at one of the city’s many bustling shoe factories. This transition meant that Hale no longer made shoes by hand, and the previous lists of shoe numbers and types disappeared from his pages. Instead, he oversaw factory teams and created shoe samples for his teams to replicate en masse. The entries in his 1912-1931 diaries provide a firsthand account of the deskilling wrought by industrialization:

December 6, 1923: Made sample Arthur Moore stitch.

February 1, 1924: I got up 5:30…teams worked. Wood had Chicago Fair shoes to work on. Pike sorry he didn’t get in to clean stitcher.
April 8, 1924: Teams worked; I got right up to the floor and was Johnnie-on-the-spot all day.

May 9, 1924: Got up at 6:15am; teams worked, I got right on the job.

Gone were the days of relaxed conversation and family banter from his small-town shoe shop, replaced by a preoccupation with work ethic, staffing, and productivity required by the factory position. In the larger city of Haverhill, Hale no longer knew his customers. His social sphere consisted of other factory workers, and he spent time rereading his diaries from previous years. His skillset transformed from artisanal handicraft to corporate management.

In The Book of the Feet (New York, 1847), Joseph Hall Sparkes reminisces fondly about the ancient art of shoemaking, tracing its “fascinating history” from the handicraft of ancient Romans to the United States in the 1840s.
For teaching purposes, this sharp contrast between Hale’s life in 1894 and 1912 is invaluable for many reasons. Practically speaking, the diaries enliven the story of Haverhill’s urbanization, represented in government maps and reports, with the first-person voice of someone making the leap from small-town shoemaker to big-city factory supervisor. Hale’s life illustrates that the timeline of mechanization was by no means uniform, cohesive, or linear, and that the appearance of automation did not instantly dispel the demand for luxury craftsmanship. Hale’s journals present exhaustive, mundane, and monotonous detail. But when compiled, those minutiae reveal the staggering socioeconomic shifts and fierce grapplings with modernity at stake in the urbanization of turn-of-the-century America.

What I really love about teaching these diaries, though, is this: students are instantly fascinated not only by what Hale wrote, but by what he left out. Thirteen years of diaries reveal exhaustive data about what Hale did, yet very little about what he felt. As one history student wrote, Hale’s entries left him frustrated with questions about how Hale (whom the student affectionately designated a “total shoe nerd”) actually experienced the seismic cultural change which occurred between 1894 to 1912. “Was factory work truly a miserable, hopeless career?” the student asked. “Did workers and their families ever look back and reminisce on better days before working in factories? Was there anything that brought everyday people sustainable happiness?” Powerful questions, to be sure, but ones that Hale’s diaries do not explicitly answer. Students wrestled with the lack of information about Hale’s feelings, and were particularly concerned about the extent to which his transition to deskilled labor affected his happiness.

The more I think through the Hale diaries, the more I feel that preparing students for the possibility of textual resistance (“There’s no answer!” or, “It’s not the answer I want!”) is a crucial step in teaching them to do research on how an absence or silence exists in any historical text. Hale’s diaries function in the classroom not only as practical historical studies of the jaggedness of industrial progress in turn-of-the-century Massachusetts, but also as evidence for the ability of “exhaustive dailiness” to communicate macro-narratives. They can offer students the opportunity to practice thinking through complicated texts that refuse to confirm pre-established conclusions, and instead teach us what questions to ask. For most University of Michigan students for whom an urban environment is already familiar, Hale’s voice offers the chance to share, in a small way, a pre-industrial mode of living, and to reflect upon the professional and personal experiences of past generations during periods of great change. And for those students undergoing the transition from a small, rural high school to the teeming Ann Arbor metropolis, history reminds them that they are not alone.

Maggie Vanderford
   Librarian for Instruction and Engagement