Purchasing Patriotism: Politicization of Shoes, 1760s-1770s

“Revolutionary Material Culture Series”

This series examines the Age of Revolutions through its material markers, reminding us that materials themselves reflected and shaped political cultures around the revolutionary Atlantic and World.

By Kimberly S. Alexander

In January 1765, Philadelphia shoemaker Alexander Rutherford alerted his female customers “as are resolved to distinguish themselves by their patriotism and encouragement of American manufactures, that he makes and sells all sorts of worsted or wool shoes, of all sizes, as neat and cheap as any imported from England.”[1] Rutherford’s advertisement was an opening salvo that foreshadowed the War for Independence. The enemy, however, was not British regulars, but England’s shoemakers; their mercenary allies were not Hessians, but those British American consumers who sought out English footwear; and their antagonist was not King George III, but an obscure cordwainer named John Hose.

In the wake of the Sugar and Stamp Acts, Whig leaders like Samuel Adams railed against the importation of English goods, especially luxury items.  They feared that the consumer revolution, underway at least since the 1740s, would undermine fundamental virtues such as frugality and simplicity and could vitiate a colonial economy that should favor homespun goods over imported gewgaws.  London merchants and artisans became targets for Whig propagandists who promoted the virtues of homespun and local manufacture as a means of liberating Americans from Britain’s mercantilist hold.  In colonial newspapers and pamphlets, British artisans were vilified as purveyors of the “frippery” and “finery” that American consumers should boycott in favor of products made in the colonies. By 1765, newspaper accounts were naming one of the chief culprits who they saw as subverting American virtue—a London cordwainer or shoemaker, John Hose (c. 1699-1769).  From his shop “at the Rose, Cheapside,” Hose packed thousands of pairs of shoes for the markets of North America .  Among dozens of advertisements, readers of the New York Mercury on 13 July 1761 learned that “TRUNKS of Women’s Shoes, made by John Hose and Son” were available at James McEver’s Store, along with chests of bohea tea and boxes of china “well sorted.” For Hose   non-importation threatened burgeoning new markets, robust sales, and an exalted reputation.

Newspaper featuring advertisement  for women's shoes.

For colonial shoemakers, Great Britain’s seemingly unlimited merchandizing resources posed a particular threat. John Hose’s 300-person workforce gave him the ability to send not just dozens, but trunks of luxury shoes to fill the shelves of British American shops. And, Hose was abetted by colonial merchants. Their  advertisements in the New York Journal or Boston Post-boy or Charleston Gazette boasted “imported in the last ships from London,” “Just Imported from London,” and “suitable for the Season,” and meant that their customers’ purses would be emptied for one of Hose’s silk damask slippers or   (a glazed worsted wool) shoes.

Five women's shoes from the 1780s.
Left to Right – Silk satin shoes, made by London cordwainer Chamberlain & Sons, c. 1780s; probably worn by Martha (Patty) Rogers. Collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society, Acc #593. Single brocade silk shoe, maker unknown; probably worn by Sally Brewster Gerrish of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Collection of the Portsmouth Historical Society, Acc #847
Late 18th century silk shoes with embroidery, made in Boston. Collection of the author. Andrew Davis, photographer. Photographed at the John Paul Jones House, Portsmouth, NH.

For many, in the decade leading up to the American Revolution, one’s selection of shoes was representative of Colonial economic independence and symbolized a break from the tether to the yoke of Great Britain’s trade  .  As T.H. Breen observes, “during the 1760s and 1770s something unprecedented occurred in Britain’s mainland colonies. Americans managed to politicize common consumer goods and, by so doing, suddenly invested manufactured items with radically new symbolic.”[2]

While English-made silk, satin, leather and wool shoes were highly coveted, much of the colonial American market was satisfied by local shoemakers, and was viewed as supporting non-importation agreements, as well as one’s neighbor.  For example, in the Newport Mercury, 20 August 1764, one opponent who criticized the London cordwainer John Hose, observed, “great Virtue may even be exerted by the Ladies in ….preferring the well-turn’d Shoes of Hall and others in Newport, to those of John Hose of London, only made for Lump sale, or as the Tradesmen phrase it, for the Plantations.”

Benjamin Franklin’s testimony before Parliament on 13 February 1766 concerning the sentiments of the American colonists regarding the Stamp Act is one of the more famous moments leading up to the Revolution. But, it is likely that the testimony from the man who followed Franklin–the sixty-six year old cordwainer John Hose–carried even greater weight in Parliament. Hose, with his extensive workforce, represented both employment in the trades and revenue for the British coffers. Hose, as well as the other British merchants and tradespeople who testified, contributed substantially to the repeal of the tax in the following month. Hose told the committee that he had sold shoes to America for thirty-seven years, and in recent years, he had sent £2200 worth of shoes to New York alone. Through his trade with American merchants, such as New York merchant Allen Trecothick, brother of London Alderman, Barlow Trecothick, he was able to employ over three hundred workers. [3]

However, with the Stamp Act boycotts that followed, Hose “employed only forty- .” hands. When asked, “To what is this owing?” Hose’s retort was clear: “To the Stamp Act for no Body never made better Shoes. Hopes and bets he   Employ his Men if the Stamp Act was Repealed.”[4]  His testimony reveals that he was fully cognizant of his importance as an employer, as a master craftsman who trained others up in the trade, and as a source of revenue for the Crown.[5]  Now, his once-prized shoes were reviled in some quarters by Patriots who called for non-importation agreements.

It is something of a paradox, then, that the John Hose who shared a stage with Benjamin Franklin in opposing the Stamp Act had become a focal point for the Patriots’ anger and the object of British American disdain. In colonial newspapers, his name became synonymous with the ongoing internal turmoil regarding local production of both necessities and luxury goods. Ironically, then, by February 1766, John Hose had become an incidental ally and an inducement to British American interests to increase the production of shoes. In challenging the increasing regulation that Parliament sought to impose on colonial trade, Hose would complain that since the promulgation of the Stamp Act, his transatlantic business had withered, and his future was bleak. American shoemakers were all too happy to fill the void.  John Hose died in 1769 just three years after he followed Benjamin Franklin in his testimony before Parliament. Although he may not be remembered for this significant appearance, many a curator, costume historian and scholar will come into contact with his “fashionable fripperies” which began their long journey from his shop “at the Rose, Cheapside.”

A pair of women's shoes from the 1770s, with heels and flower embroidery.
Brocaded silk buckle shoes (the shoes affixed to the foot with buckles), from London cordwainer, John Hose & Son, c. 1770. Collection of Historic New England, Acc #1919.140AB

Kimberly Alexander teaches in the History Department of the University of New Hampshire, and has held curatorial positions at several New England Museums, including the MIT Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum and Strawbery Banke.  Her most recent book, Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era, traces the history of early Anglo-American footwear from the 1740s through the 1790s [Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018].  Alexander is Guest Curator of “Fashioning the New England Family,” on view at the Massachusetts Historical Society through 6 April 2019, and author of the companion volume by the same name.

Title image: A treasure trove of shoe stories – from the collection of the Warner House, Portsmouth New Hampshire. Andrew Davis, photographer.

Further Readings:

Baumgarten, Linda. What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal        America. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

Brown, Jerald E., ed. The Years of the Life of Samuel Lane, 1718-1806: A New Hampshire Man and His World. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000.

Johnston, Lucy. Shoes: A Brief History. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 2015.

Mackenzie, Althea. Shoes and Slippers. London: National Trust, 2004.

Rexford, Nancy. Women’s Shoes in America, 1795-1930. Kent, OH: Kent State University Press, 2000.

Riello, Giorgio. A Foot in the Past: Consumers, Producers, and Footwear in the Long Eighteenth Century.        New York: Oxford University Press, 2006.

Saguto, D. A. M. de Garsault’s 1767 Art of the Shoemaker: An Annotated Translation. Lubbock, TX:     Texas Tech University Press, 2009.

Swann, June. Shoes. London: B.T. Batsford, 1983.

***This article is adapted from the author’s Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018).***

[1] Pennsylvania Journal (Philadelphia, PA). 20 January 1765.

[2] T. H. Breen, The Marketplace of Revolution: How Consumer Politics Shaped American Independence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 23.

The proposed Stamp Tax may have incited another, unexpected effect in the colonies–an increase in marriages before November 1765. The tax included a ten-shilling liability on “certificates of intent” to marry, and historian J. L. Bell has found evidence that suggests that couples in Marblehead, Newton, and Springfield, Massachusetts wed early in order to avoid the tax. See Bell’s blog pieces, “The Stamp Act as a Marriage Tax,” Boston 1775, 20 December 2015, http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2015/12/the-stamp-act-as-marriage-tax.html, and “Massachusetts Marriages in 1765,” 22 December 2015,

http://boston1775.blogspot.com/2015/12/massachusetts-marriages-in-1765.html.  Accessed 1 January 2015.

[3] This on-line article for the Journal of the American Revolution by Bob Rupert is enlightening: https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/01/barlow-trecothicks-role-in-the-repeal-of-the-stamp-act/

[4] Stuart A. Green, “Repeal of the Stamp Act: The Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Testimonies,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 128, no. 2 (April 2004), 197.

[5] See Bob Rupert: https://allthingsliberty.com/2016/01/barlow-trecothicks-role-in-the-repeal-of-the-stamp-act/

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