One shape fits all?
Highlighting the state of play before mass produced mirrored lasts were designed.
Image © Old Salem Museum
The use of lasts of some form in shoemaking was referred to in ancient writings and, it is claimed, a distinction between left and right shoes had been recognised for thousands of years. Flat shoes made specifically for the left or right foot are said to have been commonplace until heels were introduced in around 1590. At that time, the population of Europe was growing, and the demand for goods unsurprisingly increased as well. However, the primitive machinery available to ‘mass produce’ for an expanding market was only capable of producing symmetrical lasts that did not differentiate between foot shapes.
Therefore, shoemakers decided that it was easier to work with ‘straights’ – virtually identical lasts – than to try to make a mirror-image pair of lasts that needed to make allowance for a high heel. While some flat and low-heeled footwear was still made in lefts and rights, such custom-made shoes and boots were only for wealthier patrons who could afford them. After around 1620, straights were used for virtually all footwear – a practice that continued for over 200 years.
Consumers of the day were expected to alternate their shoes on a regular basis to keep wear as even as possible. Comic playwright John Day’s 1608 production Humour out of Breath included the line: ‘a pair of upright shoes that gentlemen wear… now of one foot, now of another.’ Almost two centuries later, regimental orders published in 1800 required soldiers in the British Army’s King’s Shropshire Light Infantry ‘to wear their boots on alternative feet on alternative days’.
This situation inevitably produced some examples of uncomfortable shoes and boots. In fact, according to some historians, the richer people of the time often made their servants ‘break in’ their new shoes until they were fit to wear. Most people had to shape their new footwear by simply soaking it in water and wearing it.
Technology to the rescue
While history does not accurately record when ‘sided’ lasts were used once again, some historians point to the early 1800s, when bootmaker William Young of Philadelphia, USA, is said to have taken steps to differentiate his customers’ left and right feet.
It reportedly took the adaptation of a gun stock lathe at the beginning of the 19th century to begin the slow movement leading to left and right lasts. The machinery employed in producing these firearm components were capable of making a mirror copy of a model, and this was eventually adapted to manufacture left and right lasts. This finally allowed for the mass production of low-cost mirrored pairs of lasts.
Despite such equipment becoming available, shoes were still being made on straight lasts even as late as the 1890s. Apparently only two widths were available to each size – a basic last was used to produce a ‘slim’ shoe and, when it was necessary to make ‘fat’ or ‘stout’ footwear, the shoemaker placed a pad of leather over the cone of the last to create the additional foot room that was required.
Thankfully, the development of shoemaking technology led to the demise of the straight last for common use, and from the 1900s a ‘duplicator’ machine was able to make up to 1,000 identical lasts each day. The result of producing lasts for each foot shape was soon apparent. It provided greater comfort – and removed the need for servants to wear new shoes first…
This article was originally published on page 16 of the October 2019 issue of SATRA Bulletin.