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Local and Family History Lecture Series Continue with Exploration of Shoe Industry in Massachusetts

by awilliams

Inspired by her Digital Public Library of America (DPLA) exhibition, Anna Fahey-Flynn spoke to a crowded Commonwealth Salon at the Central Library in Copley Square last night, Wednesday, March 16, on the history of the shoe industry in Massachusetts. Fahey-Flynn took the audience through the beginning of shoe making in the colonial era to the decline of the industry in Massachusetts during the early 1900s, as part of the Boston Public Library’s Local Family and History Series.

Beginning in the Colonial era, Fahey-Flynn explained that shoe making was March 16 Shoe ad courtesy Digital Commonwealtha homemade type of business, and shoes were typically constructed with tools found in the kitchen. Inventors not only revolutionized the industry into one of mass production but made Massachusetts into a hotbed for making shoes. Elias Howe Jr., the inventor of the sewing machine that was tough enough to withstand heavier materials needed to make shoes, was born and resided in Massachusetts along with other shoe industry innovators, Gordon McKay, and Lyman Blake. These main players’ Massachusetts roots helped grow and keep the industry within the state. By 1869, about 60 percent of boots and shoes in the United States came from Massachusetts.

Fahey-Flynn provided an inside look into the industry by describing the factory workers’ lives. Factories employed both men and women (women making up about 30 percent of the workforce). Massachusetts’s shoe industry workers were at the forefront of establishing labor unions and fighting for laws such as prohibiting children under the age of fourteen from working in the factories.

A discussion of the decline in the shoe industry came at the tail-end of the lecture. Fahey-Flynn accounted for World War I’s demand for price-fixed military footwear (tempering factories’ revenue), and Europe reestablishing their footwear market as key factors to the closure of factories. Additionally, as women’s hemlines went up due to the availability of more attractive stockings, so did the need for, now visible, fashion forward footwear. Failure to adapt to this growing trend created a hardship for many local factories.

The lecture ended with questions and comments in which many audience members shared stories of how the shoe industry affected their family or town. Fahey-Flynn also provided great resources for future research on shoes or Massachusetts’ general history including the DPLA, Digital Commonwealth, Internet Archive, and Lynn Museum & Historical Society.

The Local and Family History Lecture Series runs through May and features lectures of interest to both amateur genealogists and local historians. See the full schedule via

One Response to “Local and Family History Lecture Series Continue with Exploration of Shoe Industry in Massachusetts”

  1. John Kirby says:

    Excellent blog article on a fascinating topic. The Series is very appealing and worthwhile.