Lasting Impressions

An ancient craft's surprising legacy in Harvard's museums--and laboratories

Harvard does not care about shoes. Once it did. Male footwear, at least, had an almost military propriety and ritual. While a Norton Lecturer in 1932, T.S. Eliot '10 had his shoes not shined but boned, polished with the downy side of the femur of an elk or deer, a tool of atavistic refinement. As late as the 1970s, President Nathan M. Pusey wore gleaming black wingtips to a Society of Fellows dinner, their crisp laces tied in impeccably symmetrical bows.

Only a remnant of that culture survives around the Yard. The repairman at Felix's Shoe Repair reports that business has declined by 85 percent over the years. He still has a professional clientele, including Harvard faculty members and administrators, but undergraduates take their shoes far less seriously. Caille Millner '01 recently reported here that the footwear of the unofficial Harvard uniform alternates between sneakers and outdoor boots. Harvard students do buy expensive "technical" shoes at the local Adidas outlet, another undergraduate reports, but the staff insists it's a matter of athletic performance, not fashion. Memorabilia don't extend to footwear: Harvard University did license a Japanese line of men's shoes in the 1990s, but the name was visible in the lining only, and the brand seems to have vanished in the crash of 1998.

Harvard's indifference reflects not just style, but values. In the American academic tension between theory and practical instruction, the Ivy way is abstraction. Everyday shoes are irredeemably concrete, empirical, and earthbound; Martin Heidegger once rhapsodized over what he took to be a peasant woman's shoes in a Van Gogh painting. The old-time shoemaker's bench combines a seat and a work surface, rather than separating the body analytically from the task like the chest-level benches of most other skilled artisans, or of laboratory scientists. The dressing, the buffing, is but a brief victory for order amid decay--as vegetarians remind us, leather shoes are dead-animal parts--unlike the cabinetmaker's work that can last with care for a thousand years. While good shoes are vital for health, few M.D.s have paid much attention to their design. Even Harvard's leading biomechanics specialist didn't. The late Thomas McMahon, professor of engineering and applied science and probably the world's leading expert on the design of running tracks, once replied to an e-mail query that he didn't think much about athletic shoes; he just liked to go barefoot.

High-fashion shoes challenge the Puritan strain that remains part of Harvard's heritage. Women's high heels are expensive, failure-prone, defiantly unhealthy, often hazardous to foot and flooring alike. Industry promotion celebrates their links with the sensuality and theatrical extravagance of baroque southern and east-central Europe. The heritage of the Ferragamos, Guccis, Pradas, and Manolo Blahniks remains exotic even in the more cosmopolitan Boston, and Harvard, of today. For the Harvard community, New Balance and Timberland are the happy medium. The platform shoes now worn by many undergraduate women, a chunky interpretation of the genre, are as high as shoe fashion goes. As for Third World traditions, don't look for Harvard's splendid ethnographic specimens on public display at the Peabody Museum; they're in the reserve collection.

The industry of shoemaking puzzles academics. Although some companies prospered for generations, even at its height the U.S. shoe manufacturing business had an exceptionally high failure rate. In 1940, the leftist economist Horace B. Davis '20 declared it "irrational and contradictory." During the postwar boom, Harry L. Hansen, M.B.A. '35, a professor in the Graduate School of Business Administration, observed in a 1959 study sponsored by the National Shoe Manufacturers Association that the prevalence of intuitive entrepreneur-managers made the industry "wasteful of its energies." Yet Hansen had to acknowledge a self-sufficient mastery in the all-around shoe entrepreneur that was missing in the academically trained corporate footwear executive. Shoemaking was a way of life, not a science.

The fabrication of shoes, however, is of even less interest to Harvard (and other universities) than their style. Although there are a few remaining academic programs in shoemaking and an advanced technology consortium (SATRA), shoe manufacture has always been a realm of tacit, imperfectly documented knowledge. The most recent edition of the standard English-language textbook of shoe production was published in 1964. Machinery continues to evolve, but shoe-industry skills and lore pass mainly by apprenticeship, rather than classroom instruction. In the global world of shoemaking, the lingua franca is not the published manual but the lucid sketch made by an industry veteran for a neophyte operative. And the higher the technology of footwear--for example, the gases and gels used in high-performance sneaker midsoles--the less information is published about it.

No, Harvard is not interested in shoes. But shoes, to paraphrase Leon Trotsky's reported quip about war, have been interested in Harvard. Footwear and higher education were two New England specialties. They could not avoid each other. While Harvard was becoming a national and international university after the Civil War, the Boston shoe industry was flourishing as a technological showpiece of American industry. Independently, they rose together. Even in 1865, before widespread mechanization, Brockton alone was producing more than a million pairs of shoes annually; by 1900, Boston shipped more than 100 million pairs. Although Cambridge itself never became one of the major shoe towns, some of Harvard's administrators and faculty members inevitably came to know the executives of the footwear industry.

One of these Harvard men, Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, dean of the Lawrence School of Science, was a close friend of the industrialist Gordon McKay (1821-1903), a Pittsfield, Massachusetts, native who had become one of America's most successful technical entrepreneurs. McKay, a self-taught specialist in the maintenance of mill equipment, learned of an invention for sewing the uppers of shoes to the soles, bought it for only $8,000 in cash and a $62,000 share of future profits, and developed it with the help of the master mechanic and original inventor, Lyman Reed Blake. He received his own patent for the improved version in 1862. During the Civil War he set up a company to produce his machines, helping meet the great demand of Union footwear contracts.

McKay's most original idea was to lease the machinery rather than sell it outright, collecting a small royalty on each pair of shoes made with his equipment. Leases encouraged would-be manufacturers and reassured customers afraid of obsolescence, making it in McKay's interest to maximize customers' output. His company made constant improvements, and Blake sold the machinery and taught workers how to use it. McKay was earning $500,000 a year by 1876, and had collected royalties on more than 177 million pairs of shoes. By 1895, 120 million pairs of shoes a year were produced on McKay machines, more than half of U.S. production. Meanwhile a forceful businessman named Sidney Winslow had bought the rights to the lasting machine developed by the Suriname-born, African-American inventor (and former McKay machine operator) Jan Matzeliger, which brilliantly complemented the McKay process, and refined McKay's leasing and training strategy. It was Winslow who combined McKay's interests with those of Charles Goodyear Jr. (son of the inventor of vulcanized rubber), whose company produced equipment for sewing higher-grade welted shoes, and with dozens of large and small vendors of equipment and supplies and their patent portfolios. The resulting United Shoe Machinery Company, incorporated in 1899, had a virtual monopoly of the technology for the leading types of American shoe production. Winslow ran the company, and the retired McKay's interest in it was one of America's great fortunes.

Reformers soon assailed the Shoe Trust. A shoe manufacturer might still, with some difficulty, get every necessary machine from some other supplier, but few independent domestic makers were left. United's leases forbade the use of most competitors' equipment and mandated the use of high-priced United supplies like wire and eyelets. The monopoly's only serious rival, a self- made French-Canadian shoe manufacturer named Tom Plant, introduced a competing line of machines, only to sell out to United in the end. To its supporters, including most New England shoe manufacturers, United earned its high profits with excellent equipment and service. To its foes, especially the Western shoe industry that was growing as producers sought lower costs outside New England, United suppressed innovation as well as competition, discontinuing superior machines after absorbing their makers and sitting on patents that could have lowered costs. The muckraking journalist Judson Welliver even attacked Winslow and United for virtually forcing the use of inferior materials that endangered the health of working-class shoe consumers. When McKay died in 1903 and the decades-long transfer of his bequest to Harvard began with a million dollars in 1909, Harvard thus almost certainly became a part owner of one of the most controversial companies in America, and definitely was a beneficiary. (Life trusts delayed the full transfer of the principal of the estate to Harvard until 1949. By then the total amounted to $16 million, the largest single gift received by the University until then and still one of the most generous so far when adjusted for inflation.)

McKay and Shaler wanted to revive Harvard's flagging Lawrence School of Science. McKay, who lived a block from Harvard Yard, had given most of his fortune to Harvard rather than to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology because he hoped not only to improve engineering education, but to increase its appeal to the New England elite. MIT officials did not give up; they persuaded Harvard to accept a form of merger in which a new science and engineering campus would rise across the Charles River, where the business school is today. The plan, opposed vociferously by MIT alumni, was rejected by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court in 1905, leading Harvard to establish a Graduate School of Applied Science--forerunner of today's Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences--in 1906.

While the Corporation and faculty were studying uses for McKay's bounty, a number of Harvard alumni were busy engineering the hegemony of United, also called The Shoe. Through directorships they helped connect it with the First National Bank of Boston and with Lee, Higginson and Co., two of New England's greatest financial powers, and at least indirectly with J.P. Morgan, A.B. 1889, LL.D. '23. Some of the University's cleverest sons helped rivet its redoubtable boilerplate. Before Louis D. Brandeis, LL.B. 1877, brought an antitrust lawsuit on behalf of a group of Western shoe manufacturers against United, he had helped draft its leases. Among its directors were both shoe men and leading Harvard-educated attorneys like Robert Treat Paine, A.B. 1882, and James J. Storrow, A.B. 1885, LL.B. '88. Robert F. Herrick, A.B. 1890, was chief legal adviser. United's treasurer from 1909 to
1924, the former journalist and political publicist Louis
Coolidge, A.B. 1883, helped to make the vast United plant such a model of enlightened safety, health, and recreation programs that Horace D. Arnold, A.B. 1885, M.D. '89, dean of Harvard Medical School, proclaimed that it provided the best industrial working conditions he had ever seen. Sidney Winslow Jr. '05 succeeded his father as head of United. Under his presidency, in 1930, the company built the 24-story art deco downtown headquarters, its lobby adorned with sumptuous tableaux of shoemaking, that for decades was Boston's tallest building.

United affected Harvard's building, too. As a young architect, Walter Gropius was impressed with a postcard of Ernest L. Ransome's extensively glazed United factory in Beverly, Massachusetts, possibly the world's most advanced industrial plant on its completion in 1906. The building influenced the design Gropius completed for the Fagus shoe-last company in Alfeld, Germany, in 1913, a progressive firm coincidentally backed by United. This celebrated commission helped him become director of the state architecture and design school reorganized as the Bauhaus, and, after emigration, chairman of the architecture department at Harvard's Graduate School of Design. The lineage of Gropius's Graduate Center (1948-50) thus goes back to the quest for more efficient shoe-machinery plants.

After profiting from the rise of the American shoe industry before the first world war, Harvard people helped shape its course after the second. As a Junior Fellow, Carl Kaysen, Ph.D. '54, acted as law clerk to U.S. District Court Judge Charles E. Wyzanski Jr. '28, LL.B. '30, writing an incisive economic analysis of the federal government's antitrust suit against United. Kaysen's dissertation helped persuade Wyzanski to reject a breakup and impose a more limited reform of the leasing system in 1952, initially upheld by the Supreme Court in 1954. The stellar reviews of the version published by Harvard University Press helped launch Kaysen's career--and the lucrative industry of economic antitrust-litigation consulting--but the academic purists had their revenge on the empiricism of footwear. During Kaysen's later directorship of the Institute for Advanced Study, restive members of the School of Mathematics opposing his plans joked that he had written his thesis about a shoe factory.

Kaysen, who had honed his knowledge of manufacturing technology as a wartime intelligence officer helping to choose German bombing targets, toured the Beverly plant with Wyzanski and found the staff there technically impressive yet (as he recently recalled) "unimaginative." In the 1950s and 1960s the European machinery industry was beginning to nibble at United's markets. Meanwhile, most of the established New England shoe factories, as the 1959 Hansen study had underscored, could not compete with more efficient single-floor layouts. With the fitness boom of the 1960s, sneakers--increasingly marketed from Europe and the Pacific Northwest--began to replace leather shoes, devastating the remaining makers. When the Supreme Court in 1968 accepted the government's assertion that the conduct remedies prescribed by Wyzanski had not worked and ordered the breakup of United, it was the worst possible time to tear the company apart: electronics were starting to displace mechanical control. United, led by a 1959 graduate of Harvard's Advanced Management Program, William S. Brewster, responded by diversifying into other machine-tool systems, but became a takeover target and was ultimately absorbed by a British machinery company. United is still a world-famous brand and has been technologically rejuvenated, but it is no longer a Boston institution.

In the 1970s and 1980s, American shoe production moved rapidly offshore. Between 1965 and 1987, the production of men's welted shoes dropped from 600 million pairs to 1.5 million. As U.S. costs grew, the economies of production in Asia made New England competitive only for higher-priced footwear. By the 1990s even Stride Rite, then run by Arnold Hiatt '48, began closing the Boston-area plants that had been models of paid day care and other progressive policies just as United's Beverly plant had been. Hiatt is still a celebrated philanthropist, but welfare capitalism is largely a memory in American manufacturing. United headquarters is now an office condominium called the Landmark, and the rehabilitated main Beverly plant has a new life as the Cummings Center, an office complex with 32 acres of space. Just as scrappy footwear entrepreneurs once set up shop in mills that the textile industry had closed in its move south, a new generation of businesses has occupied United's abandoned nests.

Harvard Business School may no longer produce guides to retail shoe-stocking systems, but the industry has still left its footprint on the University. In the 1999-2000 academic year, 45 of 63 faculty members of the Division of Engineering and Applied Sciences, including the computer science department, held positions named for Gordon McKay. (So did the barefooting Thomas McMahon, a delightful polymath who even conjured up a new, improved Gordon McKay in his 1979 novel, McKay's Bees.) The McKay bequest--a model of legal prose, rigorous yet literate--stipulated that the salaries he endowed "be kept liberal, generation after generation, according to the standards of each successive generation." What more can a professor ask from a benefactor?

And Harvard has repaid the shoe industry's largesse. The Boston shoe wholesaler Joseph Goldstein '18, once the University's oldest alumnus, who died at 101 in 1997, put his college chemistry degree to good use. He invented Nite-Glow slippers, with luminescent patches--homely, practical, and supremely transitory, as even the best of shoes must be.


Harvard may not embrace shoes as theoretical abstractions, but many superb examples of them may be discovered among the spears, rugs, hats, luggage, fish hooks, bracelets, masks, and other items at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. Assistant collections manager Nynke Dorhout Jolly guided Harvard Magazine in selecting the shoes shown here and has annotated them. The museum's Hillel Burger made the photographs.  

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