Domestic Economy in the Confederacy

From an 1886 Atlantic Monthly article by David Dodge

            The dearth of leather also drove the people to all sorts of grotesque expedients. Sole leather especially, owing to the difficulty which the small tanneries experienced in its production, was extremely scarce. Wood, which had long been worn to a very limited extent by the slaves in some localities, now came into general use in the making of shoes. A wooden shoe was among the very first inventions patented under the Confederate government. In the beginning a considerable variety of shapes prevailed. Some could do no better than dig out a rude wooden receptacle for the foot, a travesty on the sabot worn by the French peasants; a strip of leather being attached to the top, by means of which the clog was secured to the ankle. But by far the best and most comfortable style, and one which was adopted whenever the additional leather required was to be had, was a simple sole of ash, willow, or some light wood, to which full leathern uppers were fastened with tacks. At first these were made so thick, in order to insure durability, that among their various other effects was, that of adding very sensibly to the stature of the community. Later on it was found better to make the soles thinner, and protect them from wear by nailing on their bottoms light irons, similar in shape to horseshoes. They were necessarily the noisiest shoes ever worn, always announcing the approach of their wearers at a good round distance. When the air was clear and the ground frozen, one was by this means kept well apprised of the movements of his immediate neighbors. Especially did their telltale clatter make them the abomination of the negro in his nocturnal rambles. The dismay of nervous people and careful housewives, their effect in-doors was indeed something terrific, though after irons came into vogue and lessened the impacting surface, the clatter was toned down to something under the tramp of a horse. Nor were they much less destructive to floors, while carpets simply did not exist in their wake. Despite the scrubbings and scourings of a quarter century, their marks are yet to be seen in some houses.

            The use of wooden bottoms for shoes was by no means confined to the negroes. They were worn by the majority of laboring people, as well as by many of both sexes who had been reared in affluence. The scarcity of the last winter of the war drove whole families into them, except the little feet which could not be trusted to steer such craft, but bore their share of martyrdom by being imprisoned indoors throughout the live-long dreary months.

            Great skill and caution were requisite to keep afoot in wooden bottoms at all. A queer spectacle it was, too, to see one’s fellow-beings stepping gingerly around, as if there were universal misgivings as to the safeness of the earth’s crust. One may forget his first feat with firearms and even his first exploit on skates, but never his first flight on — or, to be accurate, his first abduction by — wooden bottoms. If the soles, which in a clumsy attempt to fit the foot were shaped like rockers, were once set in motion, they persisted in inexorably tilting one forward, especially if descending a hill, till volition was utterly lost, and nothing short of an ascent or a fall could arrest them. However, in time they became comparatively manageable, one getting able to choose his own path, as well as to have some small voice in stoppages.

            Uppers were made of such random pieces of leather, or of anything bearing the faintest semblance to leather, that could be lighted on. Carriage curtains and buggy tops were acceptable. In some cases old morocco pocket-books were converted into children’s shoes; while many ladies managed to fashion themselves a sort of moccasin out of the most heterogeneous and unpromising materials. Woe to the careless wight who suffered his saddled horse to stand out near church, store, or post-office after nightfall! The chances were that when he went to mount he would find that some one had appropriated his saddle skirts for sole leather, unless indeed he had forestalled such an act by appropriating them to that end himself.


Dodge, David; “Domestic Economy in the Confederacy,” The Atlantic Monthly,  Volume 58, Issue 346; pp. 229-243; August 1886; Boston: Atlantic Monthly Co.

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