Monday, October 21, 2013

Waterproof Shoes in 1835

Monday, October 21, 2013
Loretta reports:

Long before Gore-Tex® existed, people needed ways to protect from wet their clothing or packets containing valuable items. From an early time, oils, grease, and wax were applied to fabrics like linen or cotton.  One of my favorite items, years ago, was a waxed cotton raincoat.  It was lightweight and it kept me completely dry.  Alas, after years and years of use, it began to crack and crumble.  One of these days I’ll invest in another one.

Even today, though, waterproofing leather shoes and boots can be iffy. My wonderful waterproof L.L. Bean boots use rubber and high tech insulating material to keep my feet dry.  But rubber-coated clothing was just getting started in the early 19th century—and would any self-respecting dandy wear clunky rubber anything, anyway?

We know that our well-dressed gentlemen's shoes and boots were usually polished to an extreme shine.  How effective this was against rain and snow is an interesting question.  This is one of many areas I haven’t researched extensively, so our historical dress experts are welcome to weigh in.

Meanwhile, here’s a recommendation from 1835, lifted, as so much was, from another source, although this time credit is given.
The following method of preparing water-proof leather at a very small expense will be found invariably to succeed:—Take one pint of drying oil, two ounces of yellow wax, two ounces of spirit of turpentine, and one ounce of Burgundy pitch, melted carefully over a slow fire; with this composition new shoes and boots are to be rubbed in the sun, or at a distance from the fire, with a sponge as often as they become dry, until they are fully saturated; the leather then is impervious to wet, the shoes and boots last much longer, acquire softness and pliability, and thus prepared, are the most effectual preservatives against cold and chilblains.—London Paper
The Museum of Foreign Literature, Science, and Art, Volume 27, 1835

Illustrations:  Detail from Dighton's caricature of Beau Brummell (above left).  Men's footwear from The Whole Art of Dress! By a Cavalry Officer, 1830


Marti said...

I'm getting ready to leave for London and realized that I lost my waxed jacket that is older than my kids! Luckily I heard that there is an outlet in Kittery Maine and left from work as soon as my husband got to the office to purchase another. I can't imagine how I lost it. The store told me that they have a new line that comes pre-cracked and wrinkled because customers want to pretend that they have had theirs for a long time.

nightsmusic said...

I had a waxed coat and hat when I was a child, a gift from my aunt. I always felt ridiculous in it but then would be so happy after my long walk home from school because I was nice and dry and my neighbor kids were soaked.

Haven't thought about that coat in years. Thanks for the memory :)

Anonymous said...

I used to wax my walking outdoor shoes with home-made old-fashioned mixture. It worked much better than any of the modern-time waterproof liquids. Trouble is, you can only wax shoes from smooth leather, not velvet or rough one, because you would ruin it.
If the shoes are properly oiled and waxed, it is recomended to polish them, because it rubs the wax deeper into the leather and creates an even surface, which helps the shoes to last longer waterproof. And, of course, the look is excellent. Any uneven or less polished place means a danger of soaking through.
Today we use ready-made polishs for shoes, which have practically no else function but to make the shoes shiny, but the properly waxed and shined boots have many advantages. It is only quite a hard work...

Stella said...

I love this 19th century leather impregnation method. Good for all of us, there is such a wide variety of leather impregnation and conditioning products today. I still think that the method you described sounds quite sensible too though. Thank you for posting!

Michael said...

The method you describe sounds really interesting. I will give it a try too! Thanks for this article, its amazing how new materials and technologies are changing our world and our lives, footwear included! Great work!

Robyn Pearce said...

Great site - thanks for such useful information. Do you have information on what lower-class working people used to keep the rain off in the 1830s in America? I see that Macintosh didn't start selling his invention until the 1840s, and once they were on the market, poor people wouldn't have been able to afford them.

Loretta Chase said...

Robyn, my U.S. social history is pretty weak. I would recommend you get in touch with the historians at Old Sturbridge Village, which focuses on ordinary Americans in the early 1800s. Though the village is 1830s, the historians are knowledgeable about more than this narrow time period.

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