As Maine Goes, So Goes the Nation: A Brief History of Shoes Made in Maine
Lobster rolls anyone? With it’s iconic rocky coast and picturesque ports, the number of reasons we can think of to love Maine is greater than even the number of dresses on our Nordstrom wish list. And believe us… there are a lot of those. It wasn’t until we learned about Maine’s robust history and experience in shoe-making, however, that we began to consider it as a location for our own production. For this post, we decided to share the history of Maine’s shoe industry to help everyone appreciate our decision to invest in and reinvigorate the locale.
Maine has been in the shoe business since its inception. By the beginning of the 19th century, mature trade industry along the coast supported a bustling economy and attracted skilled craftsmen. Soon, a class of peddling cobblers turned into small shoe shops in every town, which turned into bonafide shoe-making factories by the end of the century as industrialism took hold of the country. Boots, moccasins, and loafers from brands like Eastman, Wassookeag, and Quoddy were cut and stitched all across the state for distribution across the country. At its height, the Maine shoe sector employed 50,000 people.
Then came the strikes. With the momentum from the New Deal, workers around the nation began to unionize and demand higher wages and safety standards. The Toledo auto workers won union recognition and higher wages, and company executives conceded to Teamsters in Minneapolis. Laborers in Maine tried to follow suite. In 1937, shoe workers in 19 factories in Lewiston and Auburn went on strike, but the government backed the factory owners; through force and court injunctions, the police shut down the Great Shoe Strike of 1937. These tensions between workers seeking higher wages and companies seeking higher margins would come to define the industry.
The labor disputes rattled the industry in the prewar era, but it was the freed trade agreements of the eighties that caused the wheels of the industry to fall off. The influx of shoes from south east Asia that could be produced with cheaper labor and fewer regulations meant that by the late eighties, almost all shoe factories in Maine were shuttered. And as Maine went, so went the nation. Shoe manufacturing’s emigration to Asia was just the beginning of the industrial outsourcing movement in America.
New Balance is one of the only major athletic footwear brands that still manufactures in the US. Though much of their production is outsourced, they have been continually creating certain shoe models and parts in the US for the past 75 years. And they have factories in Maine! A few years ago, they decided to bring one of their original shoe styles, the 990, back home and start producing it entirely within the US, start to finish. They soon found, however, that no US factory was equipped with the knowledge or machinery to produce the outsole of the 990 at a sufficient capacity. The expertise and supply chain had been lost.
Here at Soak, this story motivates us. We’d like to save Maine’s manufacturing industry from extinction. We want to take advantage of local craftsmanship to get a luxurious high quality sandal, and we want to exercise local tradition so it does not atrophy. We don’t want to wake up one day and realize we don’t know how to make things with our own two hands at home. We love NYC, but we’re afraid of America turning into that city girl who Ubers everywhere and orders seamless for every meal, only to realize that she has no idea how to drive or cook. Maybe the metaphor is a stretch, but you get the idea. It’s a matter of competence and independence. Call us patriots. We think red, white, and blue is definitely in our color palette.