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copper-toed shoes

Metal shoe protector to keep toes from becoming scuffed.

Copper toes went out of style about fifteen or twenty years ago. They had a run of ten or fifteen years. That is longer than most details of fashion survive. But other styles come back again. Will the copper toe return to gladden the heart of the youngster and lengthen the life of his footwear? – Dry Goods Register, 1905

According to Little House in the Big Woods, the strips of copper across the toes of Clarence’s shoes were so glittering that Laura wished she were a boy. And Laura was sad because little girls didn’t wear copper-toes. Except of course, little girls did wear copper-toes.

Nobody really knows who invented the copper toe plate as protection for scuffs and wear on that vulnerable part of a child’s shoe, but there are stories about a father saying he was going to have “iron shoes” made for his young sons because they wore them out so quickly. His wife suggested that perhaps just the toe needed to be made of iron, since that was the first part of the shoe to show wear-and-tear. And then when he tried to mold iron to do just such a thing, she suggested copper because it was more flexible and wouldn’t rust. (Uh huh, and Laura taught school at age fifteen…)

At any rate, shoemakers began inserting a strip of copper in the front part of the sole. The strip projected forwards and turned up above the sole and in front of the toe end of the “upper,” to it formed an upright curved plate about one-third of an inch high and two inches wide, thoroughly protecting the soft leather upper just behind the plate and just in front of the toes. The plate also made the shoes special, and something to be desired. Or so Laura Ingalls thought, anyway.

The trouble was that the copper toe also signaled the wearer out as a “bad boy,” or someone who scuffed his shoes (good little boys never scuffed their shoes) and it hinted that the wearer’s father had a problem with buying new shoes. Shoe manufacturers came up with a solution: they began making shoes with boxed toes that were of heavier leather than the rest of the upper, and could be polished separately and more frequently in order to keep them looking nice. They could also be another color entirely.

There were quite the lawsuits going on in the late 1850s, before events in Little House in the Big Woods took place, between rival “inventors” of metal toe protectors for shoes: the National Shoe Protector Company and the American Shoe Tip Company.

Patent documents state: “In providing the upper on the toes of boots and shoes with fenders of copper, brass, India-rubber, gutta-percha, or any other substance, for the purpose of protecting against grasses, etc., cutting or wearing out the uppers on the toes of boots and shoes, which fencer is required to be made so as to fit upon the toe, previous to putting on the outsole, and to extend beneath the outsole far enough to receive the pegs, which are to fasten it on, etc.”

In addition to Clarence Huleatt’s copper toe protector, his shoes probably had wire-quilted soles.

In September, 1863, the American Shoe Tip Company reported the following “Improvements in the manufacture of boot and shoe toe pieces or tips and in the machinery or apparatus employed therein.” The framework consists of a platform and two uprights thereon united near or at their tops by a cross-piece. A block secured to the uprights supports a die holder, which is a quadrangular cast-iron casing open at top and having through each side an adjusting screw. A plunger slides freely up and down on ways along the uprights, and to it is adjusted by means of a dovetail joint and ledge a follower, whose lower end is shaped in accordance with the interior of the tip to be made. The die is a solid metal casting; its cavity is shaped to conform with the outside of the tip and is so disposed that both sides correspond to the underside thereof. The top of the die should be bevelled forming an angle with the plane of motion of the follower of about 40 degrees. Upon the face of the die is fixed by screws a gauge to hold the metal blank in position. The gauge is “a plate having a slot cut through it of such a shape as to fit nicely the convex side of the tip blank; it is so adjusted that the part which is to form the portion of the tip that extends over the toe of the shoe or boot shall lap over and extend beyond the cavity in the die. If the machine is worked by hand, a handle is connected to the plunger. When the plunger is raised to a convenient height, the handle is held wedged in a tapering slot while the blank is being fitted into the gauge.


copper-toed shoes (BW 10; PG)