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American deerskin slippers

#1840 $2,500

Embroidered American deerskin slippers, c.1820s

These historically important American slippers (or moccasins) were found in Maine. According to Nancy Rexford in Women's Shoes in America, 1795-1930, "[deerskin] moccasins were made not only by American Indians for sale to tourists, but also by white Americans and worn by both men and women as boudoir slippers and carriage shoes."

The slippers are featured on p. 67 of Jonathan Walford's authoritative book, The Seductive Shoe, where they are described as Native American deerskin moccasins from the 1820s. Although they have the European shape, Indian moccasins from the 1780s already show a European design influence. Our Indian moccasins are likely Santee Sioux. Walford also documents the common use of moccasins by North American women.

Anne Langton writes (1840) in A Gentlewoman in Upper Canada: "Footwear...was generally moccasins...and over these another pair of moccasins for out of doors." Godey's Lady's Book (1861) illustrates a moccasin, calling it a "carriage shoe"; but it looks like an Indian moccasin attributed to the Iroquois.

Because of their rarity, these uniquely American moccasins are an important early clothing artifact. Most early shoe styles produced in the Colonies were hand produced and generally worn until they died; very few examples survive.

The deerskin slippers are hand-embroidered with a chain stitch pattern of abstract florals. Since the back side of the embroidery is covered, we cannot tell if the chain stitch was done with a needle or a tambour hook.

"Tambour" refers to a technique that uses a frame to hold the fabric taut. The frame is used in conjunction with a hook ("the tambour hook"), which resembles a crochet hook. This greatly speeds up the chain stitch compared to the old method, which used only a needle to do the embroidery. At Vintage Textile, we often use the words "tambour" and "chain stitch" interchangeably, because the result is a chain stitch.

The upper edge is bound with navy silk ribbon. The inside is lined with ivory cotton, and the sole is lined with linen. The soles are of leather. The round toes and peaked throats indicate the earlier dating of 1820-30, although the lavish decoration implies 1840-50.

From the 1820s forward, James Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking Tales captured the imagination of the young American nation. The five novels (1823-1841) recount the adventures of frontiersman Natty Bumppo, known as Leatherstocking or Pathfinder. As a little girl growing up in New York, not far from Cooperstown (where the novels are set), my favorite of the Tales was The Deerslayer (1841).

In the 1740s, Leatherstocking lived a life of freedom in the New York wilderness with his Indian companions. Together they fought a rear guard action against the advance of civilization. These handsome deerskin slippers must have been a treasured reminder to their owner—as he read the Leatherstocking Tales—of a romanticized frontier life, fast fading from view.

The condition is good. As the pictures show, the slippers must have been favorites because they are well worn. Deerskin, which gently molds to the foot, is known for its exceptional comfort.

The slippers are 8 3/4" long.

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