First Burial Shoes Were Made In Decatur
J. G. Bixby Secured the Patents–Great Evolution in the designs and manufacture of the Shoes–Not always worn in caskets.
Some persons perhaps do not know that the first real shoes to be used for burial purposes were made in Decatur although there had long been so-called shoes made for such uses. The footwear in use for burials was in fact a moccasin, a knitted article something similar to what is known as a bed slipper and were made in Cincinnati. Where shoes were used for burial purposes these Cincinnati goods had the sale and were distributed by manufacturers of caskets and burial goods. Prior to 1895 Jo. G. Bixby was on the road as a salesman for the Decatur Coffin company and jobbed the moccasins made by the Cincinnati concern. It was while he was a traveling salesman that the idea came to Bixby that there should be something more nearly like a shoe to offer the trade and that it should be something that could be easily placed on the foot of a corpse.
Long Cherished Idea.
Now he admits that he conceived the idea which has proved so successful and that he cherished the thought of engaging In the manufacturing business for a long time before he could convince himself that the trade would take kindly to the innovation. He had a good position and did not care to resign that for an uncertainty. But at last he did so and his venture was a success from the start. In speaking of the possibility of success coming to such a venture he said “Inducing a man or a people to change customs in regard to burying the dead is like inducing them to change their religion. It is slow work, an uphill job. They cling to the old customs. In the business there are progressive undertakers who easily see the advantages offered but the people whom they serve do not always see it in the same light. Before we went into the business there was nothing more than a moccasin on the market, although it was called a burial shoe. The shoes for men and women were alike except as to size.” A Patent Shoe.
Putting a shoe on the foot of a corpse is a difficult task–that is adjusting an ordinary street shoe. Mr. Bixby believed that there should be offered the trade something having all of the appearance of a shoe or a slipper and at the same time be easy of adjustment. He devised and patented such an article. The principal feature of that shoe is that the quarter and the vamp are not sewed together, but make a sleeve joint, the counter or quarter fitting smoothly into the vamp. The sole is not fastened to the heel but between the heel and the front piece of the shoe there is fastened a strong elastic band which, when in its normal position is just long enough to hold the two pieces properly in place. If the shoe is a bit short the elastic band expands sufficiently to permit the fitting of the foot without in the least destroying anything of its neat appearance, because it is so constructed that when the joint is expanded the quarter and the vamp meet in such a way that the appearance is perfectly normal.
There was in opposition to this device put on the market a shoe that had at the back of the counter a gathered puff of silk concealed in which was some elastic. This of course would give if the shoe was too short but when stretched the heel of the corpse would extend beyond the sole of the shoe and be covered only by the expanded puff, while in the Bixby shoe the counter, the heel of the corpse was neatly covered by the extension being in the sole.
When the manufacture of the Bixby patent was commenced the shoe were crude affairs as compared with the ones now put on the market. They were but little more than slippers made of silk and satin, but they had on them heels and more of the appearance of shoes than the soft knit goods that had been known before. During the ten years that the business has been carried on there has been a gradual evolution in the style of the shoes made until now they have the general appearance of the shoes and slippers sold for regular street wear, and while it undoubtedly is true as Mr. Bixby has said that it is a difficult matter to get a people to change customs in burying their dead, the more nearly the burial shoe conforms to the actual street shoe in appearance, the better it sells.
At the Bixby-Pitner plant on Park street samples of all of the various shoes that have been made are preserved as curiosities. The first efforts were odd affairs but even they were an improvement on the old ones that had been known up to that time.
When the Bixby shoe was put on the market it was the only thing known to the trade except the old moccasins. Now there are four concerns making burial shoes but none of them have the special advantages offered in the Bixby patent–the extension sole which permits the shoe to be adjusted to a larger foot. That is the feature which makes its adjustment to the foot a comparatively easy task and that is the feature which appeals to the undertakers.
The burial shoes are made in Oxford styles only for both men and women but there are many styles of Oxfords in addition to the range of sizes.
The greatest range of style is among the shoes for women. There is a Juliet made of black velvet, fur trimmed about the ankle, and it is one of the styles that is in good demand. There are plain black silk or satin, low-cut shoes and a great variety of shoes and slippers in white and delicate shades. The one probably most used is a white satin vamp, ornamented with a satin silk bow, a brocaded silk quarter and French heel. There is a lace Oxford made over white satin, the top of the vamp and the quarter trimmed with a row of lace insertion, the heels being the French style. Then there are white kid Oxfords that much resemble party shoes and when the similarity was commented upon the statement was made that occasionally the trade told some queer stories.
Worn at a Dance.
One comes from Taylorville. There was to be a party and one of the young women who was to attend had been unable to find in the shoe stores a pair of white kid shoes that would fit her. Her heart was set on going to that dance but unless she had the white kid shoes she could not go. The selection of the shoes had been delayed so long that there was no chance of sending to Decatur or Springfield for them. How it was that she never happened to think of an undertaker no one knows but she did apply to him and he sold her a pair of white kid burial shoes that had been made by Bixby and Pitner. She wore them at the dance that night and was perfectly satisfied. If she is of an economical turn of mind she might save them to be worn in her casket at a later day but on that the informant is silent.
At Her Wedding.
There was another young woman who at a late moment remembered that she had neglected to make a selection of white shoes and her wedding day was at hand. On such an occasion she must have white shoes to match her white silk dress. Nothing else would answer. You’ll all admit that, and the wedding could not be postponed. She too appealed to the undertaker and he supplied her wants. That night faultlessly gowned, and no one the wiser, she was married wearing a pair of white satin shoes that had been made for use at a funeral.
These stories were reported by the undertakers to the manufacturers. When the undertaker gets a story of that kind he generally thinks that it is good and writes to the manufacturers to tell about it.
Success from the Start.
When the patents had been secured on the burial shoes J. G. Bixby and his cousin, Frank Pitner, since deceased, began the manufacture. Bixby went on the road with a line of samples. The start had been made in a small way for there was some uncertainty about the venture. There were three persons employed making shoes. The first day’s output is said to have been one pair. That was before they had the work systematized but that came soon and easily. When Bixby had been on the road less than two week. selling to the trade direct, he had sold more than the then limited capacity of the factory could produce in ninety days. Then he quit the road and came home to help get out the shoes. Now the output is sold direct to jobbers. Practically all of the manufacturers of caskets sell burial robes and burial shoes and the output from the Decatur factory goes direct to their hands. It is an easier and cheaper way for the manufacturers to handle their output and traveling salesmen are not required.
When the business started there were three persons making shoes. Now there are thirty and they are busy all the time. In the ten years that have elapsed since the business was established the manufacture of the shoes has been reduced to a science and the output has grown enormously. No one person in the factory makes a complete shoe but each team or gang makes a certain part. Working continually on the same piece enables them to attain the greatest degree of expertness. The burial shoes are made after the fashion of street shoes. There is a cutter who makes the forms and then the pieces are passed to girls at sewing machines, and then down the line, each team doing some special part of the work and at the end of the line there is a shoe finished, complete. The degree of expertness attained depends of course upon the individual. One day last week one young woman was pointed out as one of the best workers now or ever in the factory. The statement was made that if she was absent from the factory from sickness or any cause it was necessary to have two persons do the work that she does every day. She not only works rapidly with her hands but she uses her head and in the factory is regarded as one of the most capable employes.
The sewing machines are all special design, that is there are no single stitchers. One not only puts in two rows of stitches at one time but at the same time runs a circular knife which trims the goods as desired.
One sewing machine, all are operated by electricity, runs at high speed. It is used to sew up the quarters The young woman operating that machine is of course an expert and the speed and accuracy with which she handles the pieces is a marvel. In answer to a question Mr. Bixby said that he believed that the girl would sew up at least one thousand pieces in a day. The girl said that such a task was impossible and that she could not do nearly that much. To settle the dispute a watch was held and a count showed that she was handling at the rate of nearly two thousand pieces a day. Different sections of the country have different ideas about burial shoes. The Mormons want white shoes for men and women. In the east there is a religious order whose dead are always attired in brown and brown shoes are made for them. Some places men’s shoes must be of patent leather and when they are nicely fitted on a corpse the shoes have all of the appearance of a pair of street shoes.
The trade is growing, partly due to the fact that the style in caskets has changed. Years ago coffins with a bit of glass over the face of the dead were used. Now the caskets are open full length and there is also used the couch casket which exposes the full length of the body. In either of the latter cases the appearance of the burial dress is not complete unless there is a pair of shoes and one would think that they were seldom lacking.
The manufacturers say that if the mortality statistic are correct there is only one body in twenty wearing shoes when it is consigned to the grave.
Herald and Review [Decatur IL] 24 March 1906: p. 16
Chris Woodyard is the author of The Victorian Book of the Dead, The Ghost Wore Black, The Headless Horror, The Face in the Window, and the 7-volume Haunted Ohio series. She is also the chronicler of the adventures of that amiable murderess Mrs Daffodil in A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales. The books are available in paperback and for Kindle. Indexes and fact sheets for all of these books may be found by searching hauntedohiobooks.com. Join her on FB at Haunted Ohio by Chris Woodyard or The Victorian Book of the Dead. And visit her newest blog, The Victorian Book of the Dead.