Who Were They?

Lost and forgotten photos from the past

The Sepia Saturday prompt this week is shoes. I love shoes – every shape, style and fashion of them. From 3″ platforms to plain Keds and everywhere in between, shoes have long been a love of mine. For my pocket book’s sake, I have forced myself to give up the shoe shopping, besides the fact that I can’t wear high heels any longer due to a couple foot injuries – non shoe related, btw.

Shoes have always been an influence on fashion and vice versa. Whether they were the 4″ platform shoes women in Elizabethan England wore to avoid the refuse in the streets or the dainty little skimmers popular with Jane Austin, when a shoe style became popular, fashion adapted. When hemlines changed, shoes adapted. Today, in addition to a couple photos of cute kids, prepare yourself for a brief history lesson on high button boots.

A beautiful girl posing in Detroit for her First Communion or Confirmation portrait. She is wearing a floral garland in her hair along with a veil, has a lovely white lace dress that stops just below her knees and she is holding something in her left hand, maybe a prayer book? Below the dress we see her black stockings and black high button boots. High button boots became a fashion in the 1870s when hemlines were fashionable at the ankle, rather than dusting the top of the shoe. Previous to the high button boot was the ankle bootie favored by Queen Victoria, and in America they were called “The Balmoral” or “Bal” style. They laced up and gave no support to the ankle. But, when the dress hemline inched up a bit, more of the ankle was exposed. Heaven help us, we can’t have that! So, industrious shoe designers came up with a taller shaft of the boot, fastened with buttons rather than laces.

A young man in his first short pants and double breasted coat holds a prayer book close to his side and sports a boutonniere on his lapel, all on top of his high button boots. High button boots were the dominant boot style for men and women through the end of the century. In the 1880s, James Morley began production of high button boots with a new sewing machine attachment that more securely stitched the buttons. The making of one pair of boots from start to finish could be accomplished in 15 minutes. Boots featured between 12-20 buttons depending on individual style and taste, and either a scalloped design around the button hole or a simple and plain lap. As the style continued into the 1890s, actresses and dashing women favored the high button boot for it’s fashionable method of hiding the ankle while hinting at the leg. The iconic Gibson Girl is shown wearing high button boots in the Edwardian style after 1900.

Because so many tiny buttons were on the boots, the button hook was invented. At first, they were a luxury item, but as they became more common they were viewed as a regular dressing accessory, much like a hairbrush and mirror. Button boots were considered more secure than laced boots because they didn’t come unlaced or loosen with wear through the day. Certainly there were many other styles of boots available for men and women, but just a quick browse through an antique ladies’ magazine will reveal that the high button boot was considered the most fashionable, the most modest, and the most necessary type of boot for ladies to wear. Men were encouraged to own a pair of laced shoes for bad weather, a pair of Oxfords for the summer and a pair of button up boots for all other occasions.

After the turn of the century, the high button boot lingered until World War 1. In 1914, rationing of leather and other goods necessary pushed the boots to the side and frugality took hold. The rise of hemlines and the flapper fashion demanded new shoe styles and the Mary Jane and T-strap styles took hold. In America, President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933 announced that high button shoes would no longer be indexed on the Bureau of Labor Statistics charts. While they had waned for many years, the high button boot was officially “over” after a good 30+ year run of dominating shoe fashions.

These days, you can custom order high button boots if you are interested. They run a little on the pricey side, but I can tell you, custom boots will fit you and only you forever.

Step on over to Sepia Saturday for more great posts about shoes!

Make tracks!

Photographers featured are Emhuff in Detroit, Michigan and Hebbel in Baltimore, Maryland.

21 thoughts on “Button, button

  1. Christine H. says:

    The high button boots don’t look very comfortable. They often don’t look very pretty either, but I wonder if we just don’t see the different colors of leather and colored buttons because the photos are black and white.


  2. 15 minutes to make a whole pair of boots?? Or just to sew the buttons on? That is really amazing.


  3. Bob Scotney says:

    They would need to be well organised to make a pair of boots in 15 minutes. I would like to see it done. I wonder when the first pair of coloured boots were made.


  4. Little Nell says:

    Delightful pictures. I’m sure I have a bone-handled button hook handed down from the great grandparents.


  5. Karen S. says:

    Forget about comfort in those days right? But oh how those boots were always so black….and they just stood out ….no matter what they wore! Great shoe post!


  6. postcardy says:

    It was interesting to learn that there were some practical reasons behind the high button boot fashion.


  7. Nancy says:

    What if you were late for an appointment and were faced with all those buttons?


  8. robstevens says:

    Those high button boots may look nice but they don’t seem to be very handy to me …


  9. Just looking at these shoes makes me love my Uggs even more.

    I’m trying to imagine how much of a bother it was when older with arthritis having to do up your shoes, all the buttons on clothes, and then pile your long hair on your head.


  10. Alan Burnett says:

    Wonderful post. And not just some great old images but also some wise words as well. I have wasted a fortune during my life on cheap shoes, you are right. a good pair of hand-made shoes are well worth it.


  11. Linda says:

    I just posted some buttons that might have been intended for these kinds of boots. I really like the boots that lace up just above the ankles, they come back into fashion periodically.


  12. Velvet Sacks says:

    I love the looks of the high button boots but am glad I didn’t have to wear them. Beautiful images!


  13. Thanks for the shoe History lesson! I really enjoyed all the info! :)


  14. Wendy says:

    I enjoyed the history lesson too. I didn’t realize high top shoes were indexed.


  15. Lovely photos and history, I like the boy’s gloves too. The cobblers shoe lasts sometimes survive in antique shops and I’ve wondered how many shoes might have been made before the last was discarded into the shoemakers shop stove.


    1. Andy says:

      I am attempting to either make or find lasts in a size twelve for less than fifty dollars a pair right now, so I am checking a lot of Antique stores for lasts still in good shape because I am attempting to make my own pair of shoes. I have all the leather and other materials, but these are difficult to find.


  16. Andy says:

    Check out Bykowski tailor and garb. They have a website which sells men’s button boots for about half the price of usual (still pretty expensive). They are selling them on Ebay right now in different sizes and I just got a pair. I like them a lot! Their website does not seem to be working as I cannot sign up or buy any items, so Ebay is really the only way to go with them. But still, they are half price and still pretty well made.


  17. Stacy says:

    That little boy is dead. See the contraption visible behind his feet. It’s holding him up. See how his hands are unnaturally curled.


    1. Mrs Marvel says:

      Hi Stacy, I must respectfully disagree with you. It is quite common in vintage photography to see these posing stands. They were very common and used to help people stand still for the duration of the exposure. We have patent records that indicate they are for use with live people. Additionally, were this child deceased, he would be a complete dead weight and no flimsy stand would be able to hold him up. Post mortem photos tended to show the subject In repose, sleeping and often with flowers around the body. This child is definitely alive.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: