Preventing the Agony of Da-Feet --

Weather-treating your Period Footwear.

By Stephen Gilbert, 3rd New York Regiment of (dry) foot

As members of "Foot" or infantry regiments, artillery, dismounted dragoons, boatless naval personnel and camp followers, our collective Alliance feet and shoes play a vital role. Besides the usual hazard of blister-raising marches in squeaky new shoes, every campaign season, Alliance members spend a part of each weekend (so it seems) treading in wet grass. For those with new leather "authentic" shoes, this is a mixed blessing -- if tough thick leather soles at last develop flexibility when the shoes become wet and soggy. However, when they dry out at home, one is sometimes left with an uncomfortable pair of shoes impossible to wear until re-wetted or reshaped. What do we do? What did our forebears do?

We may not be able to alter the weather each weekend, but we can treat our leather shoes to make them both water resistant and flexible, even though 18th-century shoe weatherproofing is a very obscure area. One documented treatment was blackball -- a mixture of tallow, beeswax, and soot (carbon black). Applied onto the surface of shoes, gaiters and spatterdashes like an oversized round crayon, it waterproofed and blackened the footwear. Next, it was scrubbed into the surface with a brush, and was probably followed up with a buffing by a second brush. Former Captain (and quarter master of the 5th foot) Bennet Cuthbertson wrote: "... it is likewise requisite, that every Soldier should be furnished with a pair of shoe-brushes, and a blackening ball of good ingredients, that there may be no excuse, for not having at all times, their Shoes and Gaiters extremely clean and highly polished."1

Another possible treatment was neatsfoot oil, still in use today among outdoorsmen. At Valley Forge, PA, on 12 January 1778, General Orders read: "...The Brigade Commissaries are to apply forthwith to their Brigadiers or Officers Commanding Brigades and with their approbation fix upon a place for Collecting all the dirty Tallow and saving the Ashes for the purpose of making soft soap for the use of the Army, also for imploying proper persons to boile the Oyle out of the Cattles feet and preserve it for the use of the Army. This Oile is to be put in Casks and delivered to the Qr Mr Genl."2 (A "neat" is a beef animal = "neat's foot oil").

It isn't clear if this neatsfoot oil was for firearms, harness leather, or shoe treatment; still, it was available. I'm aware that some folks today swear by mink oil as their waterproofing oil, but I've never personally used the stuff.

Surviving clothing account books of the 71st Foot for 1776 show that infantry soldiers in a well-equipped army received a pair of shoes every six months.3 In that time span, the shoes were repeatedly soaked, marched wet through rough terrain, and still held together. Obviously they had some sort of weatherproofing treatment and tender loving care to survive that long. In particular, the sort of barnyard acids produced by water, mud, and manure would eat through the linen stitching unless there was some sort of special treatment.

The following treatment was suggested to me partly by period primary sources, hunters and fishermen, and Civil War re-enactors. I personally have used all techniques at some time or another, but think the process below is the best. The five pairs of shoes in my household have all had this treatment, not to mention several other pairs in my unit. The process works on either brand-new or well-used shoes, rough side out or smooth. I claim no patent on it, so feel free to adapt.

leather care items
Parts is parts! From left: Kiwi brand neatsfoot oil, small applicator brush, industrial-size black leather dye, a Najecki blackball, hobnails, Air-Pillo insoles, Sno-Seal, and a Kiwi shoe brush. (Photo by Steve Gilbert.)
MATERIAL NEEDED: Bottle of neatsfoot oil (manufactured by Kiwi among others), cost about $3.50; and a jar of Sno-Seal (manufactured in Orange, South Carolina), cost about $3.98; blackball (sold by Roy Najecki), cost about $2.50; two wooden-handled horsehair shoe brushes (one small-handled applicator brush and a larger shoe brush, both sold by Kiwi, cost less than $6.00 a pair); and a flat work area at room temperature. It helps immensely to have the shoes you are treating off your feet! The actual process takes about two hours (less the inevitable drying time), and can be divided over several evenings.

PREPARATION: The shoes should be relatively clean, dry, and at room temperature (I do this in a heated basement). If your untreated shoes need to have scuffed spots re-blackened, use leather dye at this time.

STEP ONE: Apply neatsfoot oil to the soles of your shoes. This can be done by selectively dribbling oil onto the upturned sole, and rubbing in. (I use my hands, messy though it is, for better control), or one might set the shoes sole down in a baking pan containing 1/8 inch of neatsfoot oil and leaving to soak the soles and heels for ten minutes. Allow three hours to dry, or rather, soak in completely.

STEP TWO: Using the small-handled Kiwi applicator brush, dip the bristles into the jar of Sno-Seal, and rub the Sno-Seal into the suede leather of the shoe upper. This will cause the surface to take on a waxy, glossy appearance (the stuff contains beeswax, among other ingredients), as well as making your hands feel slightly tacky. Let stand for about 24 hours, preferably in the hot sun or a very warm spot, to allow the ingredients to soak in.4

STEP THREE: Apply Sno-Seal to the soles to seal the stitching. You could do this in the same step as above, though I prefer to use gravity to let the treatments soak in. In winter, in fact the soles, if overly Sno-Sealed, will be rather slippery when treading directly on packed snow.

STEP FOUR: Using the big Kiwi brush, buff the surfaces to a gloss.5 You will notice that you may have some white waxy material caught in the seams and creases. Buff it out if you prefer, or put on a thin coat of blackball to hide it. In the 18th-century, remember, blackball completely took the place of the Sno Seal we have used.

WEARING YOUR SHOES: If your shoes were misshapen from previous wettings and dried out of normal position, this is the time to try them on. Your oiled and Sno-Sealed shoes will remain flexible when wet, hot, or exposed to snow and ice (even Fort Michilimackinac in January). Perspiration and body heat will soon shape them to normal.

TOUCH-UP: Treated shoes will soon become very dusty because of the tacky surface. Brush them off vigorously with the big brush and apply black shoe polish or blackball (your choice; it might depend on your surroundings) to coat the exterior. Buff with the big brush.

RENEWAL: Repeat the treatment during the off season, especially if going on a winter outing. Not as much Sno-Seal will be needed in subsequent weather-treating applications.

NOTES:

1) Bennett Cuthbertson, System for the Complete Interior Management and Oeconomy of a Battalion of Infantry, Second edition, London: J. Millan, 1779, p 81. Thomas Simes, The Regulator, or Instruction to Form the Officer and Complete the Soldier, London, 1780, p 14, writes in a list of necessaries, included "...one colouring and two shoe brushes."

2) Valley Forge Orderly Book of General George Weedon, New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1902; reprint ed. New York: The New York Times and Arno Press, 1971, p. 190.

3) Lawrence E. Babits, "Shoe Life in the 71st of Foot, 1776-1777," Military Collector and Historian #34 (1982), pp 84-86.

4) Mark Tully, "Complete Your Kit - CHEAP!", The NWTA Courier, XX (June 1996) suggests that today's soldier needs two large brushes. My experience shows that one of the brushes should be a small one for application/scouring in the polish.

5) Take care to have sanded off the modern red Kiwi logo off this brush and the small one, as suggested by author Tully (see above).


MORE FOOTWEAR TIPS.

By Stephen Gilbert

1. Wear padded liners in your shoes. I know it's not authentic, but neither is the asphalt pavement we often find ourselves marching on! I use Dr. Scholl's Air Pillo or Work Comfort insoles, trimmed to size.

2. Have your shoe lachets trimmed and buckles fitted before this treatment, while wearing new insoles, and the proper weight of stocking or socks on your feet. I use a Wigwam-brand medium weight woolen stocking for my fittings, and my "duty stockings" range from thin "Williamsburg" type cotton stockings in the summer to heavy woolen stockings for winter encampments. The shoes do stretch, and punching an extra set of buckle holes in the lachets is okay (the Fort Ligonier originals show multiple holes, too). Treat your brand-new shoes before you take them out for a weekend; you can't control the weather , and softening the sole prevents heel rub by allowing the sole to flex with walking motion.

3. Using steel heel plates or hobnails will prolong the life of the heels. The archaeology collection of Fort Ligonier (1758-1764) contains several excavated leather heels with hobnails arranged in an arc around the outside of the heel.1

The drawback to such heel protection is that on hard surfaces, one can skate unexpectedly across the floor! Also, wooden and vinyl floor surfaces take on a permanent speckled appearance as the hobnails dimple the surface (such as my new decking -- I forgot myself one day early this summer), but my shoe soles do not need replacing and I never lose traction on wet sloping surfaces)! No military or civilian shoes as yet have been recovered with hobnails still in the soles (except for the heels at Fort Ligonier mentioned previously), but there are many written descriptions of hobnailed soles.2 You will need thick soles and padded insoles if you put in hobnails!

Reproduction hobnails and heel plates are available from Roy Najecki. Brass heel plates were found among a preserved shipment of contract shoes on the French frigate Machault, sunk in 1760 in Canada,3 and at Fort Michilimackinac.4

4. Leather shoes can be resoled if you can find a shoe repair shop with a person experienced enough to do it -- not all can. Cost is about $38.00.

5. I experimented with scrubbing Sno-Seal into a pair of black pre-dyed canvas spatterdashes, which took on a sheen as the beeswax penetrated the canvas (I personally think this is how the British kept their gaiters and spatterdashes "blacked", not through the use of paint which was never provided for in the lists of necessaries) -- see Footnote one. Blackball would serve a dual purpose, both as treatment and touch-up. I may just have to buy a second small applicator brush for scrubbing the touch-up coats of blackball into the treated canvas surface.

Special thanks to Dan Joyce, Josef Kleffman, Jeff Saeger and Mark Tully for advice and tips.

NOTES:

1) Personal correspondence with Roy Najecki, 1992. These heels were neither mentioned nor illustrated in the book, Archaeological Investigation of Fort Ligonier, 1960-1965.

2) Howard, Bryan P., Had On and Took with Him, ; Runaway Indentured Servant Clothing in Virginia, 1774-1778, Phd dissertation, Texas A&M University, 1996 (pp 311-12, 316, 324).

3) Catherine Sullivan, Legacy of the Machault: A Collection of 18th Century Artifacts, Ottawa, ONT: Nat'l Historic Parks & Sites Branch, 1986, p. 80.

4) Lyle Stone, Fort Michilimackinac, 1715-1781: An Archaeological Perspective on the Revolutionary Frontier, East Lansing, MI: Publication of the Museum, 1974, pp. 83, 87.