With this collection of more than a hundred old images, you can take a step back to the days when footwear shops were as common as today’s coffee shops — plus get quick takes from the past about shoe shopping and popular footwear trends.
SHOE SHOPPING IN THE 1920s
Going to buy shoes the old-fashioned way
For most of the 20th century, almost all shoe sales were done in person at a brick-and-mortar store. A small percentage of people ordered shoes by mail, but the catalog purchasing process often took weeks, and a good fit was not assured.
While people still can buy shoes with full-service assistance, nowadays, billions of dollars are spent each year on self-service shoes (like you’d find at Target or Walmart), and through increasing online sales.
Years ago, when you needed to get a new pair of shoes, the process usually went something like this…
Vintage shoe shopping: Step-by-step
B&W photo set from “Scientific shoe fitting and salesmanship” – American School of Practipedics (1929)
To start, you would go into a nearby shoe store, browse the shoes on display, and choose a few pairs that you liked.
Next, you would find a chair in the seating area, where you would sit and wait for a salesperson to help you.
When it was your turn, he or she would measure your feet — length, width and arch.
To measure, they might use the silvery metallic tool here, called a Brannock Device.
The salesperson would go check in the back (or wherever they kept inventory) to see if they had the styles you picked available in your size.
They would usually come back with a few options — other sizes, maybe some different colors, and a pair or two of similar styles.
To help you try on the shoes, they’d usually sit in front of you on a little stool with a slanted footboard and literally put the shoes on your feet — right down to tying the laces or fastening buckles for you.
With the new shoes on your feet, you would walk around a bit to see if you liked the fit, the feel and the look. There were mirrors in several locations to help you see how they appeared from different angles.
SHOPPING FOR SHOES UP IN THE 1930s AND 1940s
Florsheim Shoes store – NYC – 501 Seventh Avenue – West 37th Street (1930s)
Woman from the 1930s-1940s at a vintage shoe store (Colorized photo)
DON’T MISS THIS: 1930s shoes for women: 100 vintage styles
Fifth Avenue NYC shoe store – I. Miller & Sons Bldg – 1930s/1940s
Display in front of shoe store, Muskogee, Oklahoma (1939 via NYPL)
Window display of 1930s-1940s shoe store offering Brannock Device fittings
Bleecker Shoes – New York (1940s)
Jack & Jill Bootery, Juvenile Shoes – New York (1940s)
Sigel’s Juvenile Shoes – Long Island, New York (1940s)
Kurt Stride Rite Shoes for Children – New York (1940s)
Mateer’s Shoe Shop Kittanning PA (1930s-1940s)
Merry Go Round Shoes for Children – Bronx NY (1940s)
An elegant 1940s woman trying on high-heeled shoes with the help of a salesperson
Irving’s Shoe Shop, 2166 White Plains Rd., Bronx NY (1940s)
Stride Rite, Natural Bridge Shoes Brooklyn NY (1940s)
Cowhide-themed vintage shoe store decor (1949)
Women trying on shoes at a vintage shoe store (c1940s)
Poll Parrot shoes – Har-Rob Bootery – Levittown Pennsylvania (1940s)
A S Beck Shoe store – Queens NY 1940s-1950s
Measuring a boy’s feet for a shoe fitting (1949)
DON’T MISS THIS: How X-ray shoe fittings used to really be a thing years ago
SHOE STORE SCENES FROM THE 1950s
Shoe sales statistics in the fifties
From the Chattanooga Daily Times (Chattanooga, Tennessee) January 13, 1955
Americans bought more than 520 million pairs of shoes in 1954, Leather Industries of America reports in a year-end review.
It says that nearly 95 million hides and skins were used to keep America the best-shod nation in the world.
One precedent that remained unbroken was that women, who comprise about one-third of the population, bought about half of total shoe production.
Men, who also represent one-third of the population, got slightly less than one-fifth. And children took about one-fourth of all shoes.
“The small amount left went for assorted uses, including house slippers, novelty items and the military.
Vintage shoe store interiors from 1951
Shops shown: Crawford’s (Buffalo, New York), Corland’s (Albuquerque, N.M.), Smith’s Shoes (Dallas, Texas)
Bottom row: F&S Bootery (Minneapolis, Minn.), Marco’s Shoes (Coral Gables, Fla.), Grober Shoe Co. (Fort Smith, Ark.)
Vintage shoe brands and styles from 1951
Shoes featured on the top of shoe boxes. Featuring Claston shoes for men, Poll Parrot shoes, Randcraft, Hy-Test, Accent, Sundial, Yanigans, Conformal, Poll Debs, Cheer Leaders, John C Roberts, Official Boy Scout shoes, Sundial, Winthrop, City Club, and more.
Vintage Flagg Brothers shoe store (c1950s)
Woman trying on shoes in a retro shoe store (1952)
Naturalizer — The shoe with the beautiful fit (1958)
All your wardrobe needs in one exciting collection… and they fit like Naturalizers always do!
SHOE SHOPPING SCENES FROM THE 1960s
Bell Bros Shoe stores (1960)
Retro Florsheim Shoes store (1963)
Retro mall shoe store — Florsheim (1963)
Hush Puppies dealers lead colorful lives (1963)
Hush Puppies dealers lead colorful lives (So do their customers!)
Hush Puppies are the most colorful casuals in the store. They’re cool, comfortable. They resist soil and water, stay clean with an occasional brushing.
The new “Candy” casuals shown here come in sizes and widths to fit most everyone—about $10. See your Hush Puppies dealer (he’s a real ladies’ man!).
Retro modern shoe store from 1963
Men’s shoe store in 1964
Vintage women’s shoe displays (1964)
Shown here are five nationally advertised brands now sold by specialized divisions which replace general lines under new marketing program. (Personality, Miss Wonderful, Red Goose, Poll-Parrot, and Weather Bird)
Shopping for something new at Red Cross Shoes in 1964
Gay Nineties — classically styled barber shop and shoe store (1964)
Kinney shoe styles (1964)
Which one is wearing a Kinney nationally advertised brand name shoe?
Everyone except Mr. Kinney… He’s the gentleman on the right with the twinkle in his eye. The only reason he’s not wearing a Kinney brand name shoes is because he came first, and brand names came later.
Had to be that way because brand names are based on the kind of tradition he started from his very first store in 1894… a tradition of quality, value, and style.
Vintage Red Cross shoe store display (1965)
Florsheim Shoes – Dallas store (1965)
Retro sixties Kinney shoe stores (1966)
Fully-stocked vintage shoe store (1966)
Women’s shoe styles from 1966
Melville – Meldisco – Self-service shoe bazaar (1966)
Vintage sixties women’s casual shoe display (1967)
Man helping a young woman try on new shoes (1967)
Mod-styled woman looking at a shoe store display in 1968
Stylish sixties shoe brands (1968)
Thom McAn… style and quality for America’s Dynamic young millions.
Miles… High-fashion for young-thinking women coast-to-coast.
Meldisco… The best for least for all the family.
Racks of shoes at the self-serve Melville/Meldisco shoe store (1968)
Women shoe shopping at old Thom McAn store (1968)
Stylish sixties woman trying on shoes (1968)
Family inside a vintage Kinney’s shoe store (1968)
A teen/young woman browsing the low-heel retro shoes in 1968
Mom with family trying on shoes (1969)
Customers browsing a retro Thom McAn mall shoe store (1969)
SHOPPING FOR SHOES IN THE 1970s
Miles store clerk checking a shoe’s fit (1970)
Vintage shoe shopping for a teen girl wearing bell-bottoms (1970)
Two moms shoe shopping with kids back in 1970
Vintage Thom McAn shoe store (1970)
A vintage Miles shoe shop’s street-facing storefront (1970)
Lit displays at a quiet Florsheim shoe shop in a mall (1971)
Vintage seventies Thom McAn shoe store (1971)
Vintage Bally shoe store in a retro mall location (1971)
Old Thayer McNeil Shoes store at a mall (1971)
Bargain shoe shopping in 1971
Funky retro shoe store furnishings and decor (1971)
Retro seventies shoe store interior (1971)
Shoe shopping in 1971, with a worn-out salesman
This is actually an ad for Calvert Whiskey, but we loved the photo.
Retro seventies women’s footwear department chairs and displays (1971)
Retro Florsheim Shoes store at a mall (1973)
Measuring a child’s feet at a shoe store (1973)
Thayer McNeil Shoes – Mall store (1973)
Vintage Kinney shoe store salesman helping a customer (1973)
Retro 70s shoe store displays and seating (1974)
Trying wedge & platform shoes at a vintage Thom McAn shoe store (1975)
Vintage men’s shoe store scene (1975)
Shopping for women’s shoes (1975)
How vintage shoe stores and shoe buyers were changing in 1976
By Mary Daniels – Chicago Tribune (Illinois) August 23, 1976
The shoe industry’s trend toward a limited selection of widths isn’t good news for women with slender feet — those feet which slip most comfortably into the multiple A widths called doubles, triples, quads, or quints. [In shoe terminology, A is narrow, B medium, and C and D wide.]
Not only are narrow shoes becoming rarer, but a telephone poll of Chicago stores indicated the average shoe size increased in the last 10 years.
At the Neiman-Marcus store here, the average shoe size for Midwestern women is given as 7-1/2 B. Most stores said most of their stock is sizes 7 to 9.
Fifteen years ago, the size range was much smaller, usually 3-1/2 to 8-1/2, but there was a variety of narrow widths. Lord & Taylor in Chicago reported it no longer carries shoes in quad A or quint widths because “there isn’t a call for them.”
A large local department store will order the multiple-A width size as long as it’s in a “classic shoe.”
“Wide width business is growing,” said Deane Walker, merchandise manager for Florsheim Shoes, a Chicago-based company. “This trend has been steady for the last 10 years, and in the last five the growth has been phenomenal.”
There’s a hard-nosed economic reason behind the shift toward wider shoes in a smaller range of widths. “In the past, manufacturers in this country had every width imaginable,” one retail store spokeswoman said.
“One last [a wooden or metal form used to manufacture shoes] for one size used to cost $5. Now they’re $10. If you have to make every size, you start adding up $10 bills.”
As costs increased, American manufacturers began making shoes overseas to keep prices down. However, European-made shoes don’t come in the variety of widths American buyers were used to. European factories usually make only narrow and medium widths.
Coupled with the cost factor is the fact that “people are getting bigger,” according to Dr. David Bachman, orthopedist and physician for the Chicago Bulls, who sees a lot of problems he said are caused or aggravated by ill-fitting shoes.
And “feet are getting bigger,” added Dr. Melvin, Pettersen, Chicago podiatrist, who in his 27 years in practice said he has seen 140,000 patients.
Buyers are making their dissatisfaction known. Mark Richardson, president of the American Footwear Industries Association, said the annual per capita consumption of shoes has decreased from 4.2 to 3.6 in the last four years. He believes this is because of dissatisfaction with the comfort factor.
Also, imported footwear accounted for 43 percent of all shoes sold last year, and the projected figure for this year is 62 percent, Richardson said. He said imports are damaging the American shoe industry severely.
Adding insult to injury, most foreign-made shoes simply are not as good as the American-made shoes, Richardson said. (Ferragamo, the Italian shoe, is the exception. It is a quality shoe which does come in narrow widths.)
Fashion boots, which are popular, seem to be the hardest-hit in the width squeeze, and there is a trend to a “uni-width.”
“Golo and one or two other manufacturers make three widths,” Richardson said. “The others make the so-called medium width.”
Cultural factors influence the trend toward fewer size choices. Joseph Shell, president of the National Shoe Retailers Association in New York, agreed: “Take a kid and raise him in sneakers from day one. He doesn’t have a desire or awareness for great fit.”
“The young are more interested in look than fit,” a spokesman for the Joseph store chain said. “I don’t think it occurs to them.
“When you were a kid, you were taken in for Buster Brown shoes, and you didn’t go in and ask for shoes you saw on TV. They start very young nowadays with demanding fashion.”
The irony is that good-fitting shoes were once solely an American luxury.
“It was less than a hundred years ago that shoe manufacturers moved to making a left foot and a right foot,” Richardson said. “Before that, shoes, left or right, were worn interchangeably. A cobbler just took your overall size measurements.
“It was an American in 1878 who developed the machinery that was the precursor of footwear manufacturing throughout the world.”
“But women like fashion,” Dr Pettersen said. “They are willing to sacrifice health and comfort for it.”
To save leather, manufacturers are making women’s shoes with thinner soles, and they are causing problems, too, he added.
“Men have fewer callouses than women because their shoes have thicker soles to begin with,” Dr. Pettersen said. But men who have borrowed from women’s fashion trends have begun to feel a painful equality of the sexes in their feet.
“You’ve noticed that some men have started wearing platform shoes,” Dr. Pettersen said. “We’re beginning to see some of them with the same problems women have had.”
Kinney: “The great American, great American, great American shoe store!” (1976)
This old ’70s TV commercial features actor/entertainer Ken Berry
Vintage Foot Locker shoe store (1978)
Sporty shoe sales stats: “Three importers — Adidas, Tiger and Nike — account for 84 percent of U.S. running shoe sales. That’s 172 million pair annually, with a wholesale value of $544 million.” – From The Des Moines Register (Des Moines, Iowa) July 26, 1979
Antique-style red leather chairs in a vintage Florsheim shoes men’s department (1978)
Vintage Illinois Kham and Nate shoe stores (1978)
Nate Parker (L) and Kham Beard pause in front of their fifth men’s and women’s shoe store located in the swank Illinois Center Concourse in the Hyatt Regency Hotel complex in Chicago Loop.
The partners, who met in high school, also own an accessory boutique, and they are planning to add a children’s shoe store within the next year. (From Ebony Magazine – Photos colorized)
SHOPPING FOR SHOES IN THE 1980s
Some of the biggest shoe stores of this decade:
Bass Country Shoes
Bondi’s Fine Shoes
Florsheim/Florsheim Thayer McNeil
Johnston & Murphy
Red Cross Shoes
Teeks Fine Shoes
Fitting a tan loafer on a man (1980)
Men’s shoe shopping in 1981
Old Walmart shoe aisles with sales associate (1982)
Retro 80s women’s shoe display (1982)
DON’T MISS: 284+ retro women’s shoes from the ’80s
Fancy tech at a Florsheim shoe store (1986)
Women’s shoe shopping in 1986 at Senack
Sparkly shoes that shone at Bakers/Leeds (1987)
Pewter, bronze and black sequins shimmer on black satin, $35. From a collection of fabulous footwear for unforgettable nights.
Bakers east of the Rockies. Leeds on the West Coast. Prices higher in Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico.
Buying self-serve girls’ shoes at Walmart (1987)
Retro Johnson & Murphy shoe store and a Journeys shop (1988)
Mens’s shoe shopping (1989)