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The Shoes That Sears Sold

   

   Research of early-day shoes far too often runs into dead ends. There are few sources to refer to. Then sometimes there is a wealth of information if one just keeps digging. Such is the case in the Sears & Roebuck Company. Finding one old Sears catalog (circa 1935) with an ad for pitching shoes, fueled the hunt for "The Shoes That Sears Sold."

   Initially the hunt seemed to be an endless search for old catalogs in libraries and antique shops. Enough information was found, though, to be incentive to continue. After a couple of years, a major breakthrough occurred to complete the project. A number of contacts to the home office in Chicago found that a complete set of Sears catalogs on micro-film were archived at the University of Minnesota Farm Campus library. Good grief, almost in my own back yard. After three weeks of going through film and making print-outs, there was a tremendous story to be told. So much of the history and transformation of pitching shoes was tracked by the picture ads. There were even shoes advertised and sold, which are not listed or even mentioned in any other publication. In other words, if it was not for the copies of old Sears catalogs, there are several early-day models of pitching shoes that we would have no knowledge of.

   The first commercially manufactured pitching shoes appeared in 1921-by 1923 Sears & Roebuck was into the sport of horseshoe pitching. In the first ad, a pictured ad, regulation pitching horseshoes sold for $1.25 a pair. The shoes were bookless, of course, and pairs were #ls or #2s. The first shoes were also brandless, but other research has identified that the Chicago Steel Foundry Company manufactured the shoes. These shoes were unique by the oval shape of the blade and since have been nicknamed "Ovals." There has been no other bookless shoe that copied that uniqueness. The same shoe was advertised in 1924 and the price increased to $1.45 a pair, but in 1925 and 1926 they were offered and sold for 98C. In 1927, the shoes were still manufactured by the Chicago Steel Foundry but finally carried the brand name of Sears & Roebuck and another price decrease as the shoes sold for 89 cents.


   1928 brought some changes. The same "Ovals" were offered for 98 cents, but the National Standard shoes, designed by George May, were also being sold through the catalog. The National Standard shoes listed for $2.10. In addition, junior sized "Ovals" were advertised and they sold for 79 cents. The junior models weighted 1-1/4 pounds but had a much smaller size than later date junior shoes that maintained the official dimensions for regulation shoes. 1928 is the only year that the junior models were advertised and may explain why the shoes are so difficult to collect.

   There was no change in 1929, other than a slight price reduction. The National Standard brand shoes now sold for $1.98 and the "Ovals" were priced at 87C. The fluctuation in prices no doubt was a determination of the commercial minds of Sears. What the determining factor was is a real question. Were the reductions an incentive for increased sales, or allowed due to already good sales and the lower costs could still maintain desired profit levels? We can assume sales were good for "Ovals," as they are readily found today by collectors, even though all were manufactured over 60 years ago. A new shoe was offered in 1930, still of the hookless design. Rather than selling National Standard, a new brand was listed, called the President. Only two are known in collection, so needless to say the President is a rare shoe and would be virtually unknown if it were not for these pictured ads of the Sears catalogs. This shoe was listed for just three years, through 1932, and sold for $1.39 a pair. The "Oval" shoes also continued for sale during this period, for 98 cents a pair.

   1933 brought forward a revelation in pitching shoes, a shoe with hooks. While the hookless "Oval" was still offered, the Eagle Ringer by Diamond Horseshoe Company of Duluth, Minnesota was introduced for a price of $1.59 a pair. The Eagle Ringer was the first model designed with a full-sized hook as we are familiar with today. There were a few other shoes with hooks in 1933, but none had yet advanced to the style of the Eagle. They still had smaller hooks, more of a picnic shoe design.

   1934 was the final year the "Oval" shoe was offered. The shoes had been sold by Sears for ten years and probably with very successful sales which explains why today the "Oval" is readily found by collectors. With the development of the hooked style shoe, hookless shoes certainly were becoming obsolete. Yet Sears listed a different hookless shoe in 1935-the Leader. Leader had been originally made by Octigan, which was purchased by the St. Pierre Chain Company of Worchester, Massachusetts. The Leader shoe was a two-pound shoe featured for youth and lady pitchers. Also in 1935, the Eagle Ringer was replaced by a new shoe- J.C. Higgins, which actually was of a lesser design and is still referred to as a picnic shoe.

   The same Leader and J.C. Higgins shoes were offered in 1936 and 1937. Leaders cost 98 cents for four shoes, and the J.C. Higgins sold for $1.39. In 1938, an interesting change- Sears added Gordon Spin-On shoes to their line of pitching shoes, but only for that year. A pitcher could buy a pair of Gordon shoes for $1.85 in 1938.

   T.J. Octigan shoes, a St. Pierre Product, were introduced in 1939. A set of four sold for $3.39 as compared to $4.79 for a J.C. Higgins outfit (the term used to describe a set of pitching shoe including stakes). Prices were noticeably increasing.

   In 1940, the Cordon Spin-On was back in the catalog, replacing the T.J. Octigan. But in 1941, The Octigans were back on sale as well as J.C. Higgins shoes and the hookless Leader shoes, which were also offered in 1939 and 1940. Leaders were still available for 99cents.

   There was no change in 1942, but the year is noteworthy for it was the last year pitching shoes were sold for the period of World War II. During the war, there was such a demand for steel for the war effort, products as horseshoes were banned from manufacturing. In fact, there were ads to bring iron items in for smelting. Those ads listed various items, including horseshoes. Just imagine all the jewels of horseshoe collecting that might be still available, but were sacrificed for the cause of World War II.

   Sears began selling pitching shoes again in 1946, with J.C. Higgins being the sole model advertised. An outfit cost $4.59 or a set of four shoes cost $3.29. In 1947, the hookless Leader shoes were offered for the last time. The price of 98 cents for four shoes may explain why Leader shoes are so readily available to collectors. Cordon's were also sold for $1.85 a pair or $3.45 for a set.

   T.J. Octigan replaced Gordon's in 1948 and were offered along with The J.C. Higgins shoes. Why Octigan and Cordon shoes were alternated so many times, must simply be the price breaks Sears could negotiate from year to year. A few pennies difference in price would determine which brand was offered in a given year.

   During the 1950s, the prices certainly increased, and the line of shoe drifted away from the tournament models to what we recognize as picnic shoe. Sears could buy the lesser models cheaper and still maintain sales volumes to the general public. This did set up more opportunities for our shoe collectors, for it brought more different models into production. Some have turned out to be rather uncommon to find, if not rare. The J.C. Higgins was, for the most part, the lead brand, but the shoe was modified in design. The unusual length-wise heel calk was replaced with a traditional crosswise calk. Picnic specials were also advertised. The most common was a set of Royals (by St. Pierre) selling for $3.89. The J.C. Higgins outfits sold for $6.39. Previously all outfits had been sold in wooden boxes. In the 1950s the packaging was in cardboard boxes. Those wooden boxes are prized finds for collectors.

   In the 60s, a novel set entered the Sears line-Nighttime Horseshoe Sets. Caskel Manufacturing (a Minneapolis company) designed a cheap picnic shoe that was painted with fluorescent paint for a glow-in-the-dark effect. Those sets sold for $7.49. Few have been found, but when found with original paint, they are so ugly they are beautiful. One other significant change in the 60s-Higgins shoes were replaced by a line of picnic shoe bearing the Sears brand name. So, when you find those Sears shoes, they certainly are collectibles, but may not be as old as you think. Today, a set of Sears shoes can be found for around $12.00. If you bought a set out of the Sears catalog in 1965, just $6.75.

   Here is the tale of "The Shoes That Sears Sold." While Sears & Roebuck were involved merely for sale and profits, they did make a major contribution to our sport. In the initial years, a major portion of the general public was made aware of the advancement of our sport and that there were official pitching shoes available. There are many shoes available to collectors today because of the impact to American consumers by the Sears catalog and "The Shoes That Sears Sold."



TRADER JOTTINGS


  • More and more collections are being shared in showy displays at tournaments and other events. Here is a picture of a fine display by Jeff Gaston, living, Texas. Jeff is flanked by a couple of pitchers enjoying the interesting display at a recent tournament in Arlington, Texas. In the smaller picture, note the old-fashioned shoe box that Jeff has added to his collection of shoes. This particular box is by the Phoenix Shoes.

  • Just imagine the display that can be presented to the public when our NHPA Hall of Fame museum is completed. A display of pitching shoes is just a portion of the artifacts that will be on display, telling the story of the history of our sport. Your donations to the NHPF are needed to complete the project.

  • A big thank you to Stan Towne (Middleburgh, NY), for donating a beautiful pair of old rare shoes. The shoes bear the manufacturer's name Frazer & Jones Company, believed to be a New York company. These old bookless shoes could have easily been included in any of the "Rare Ones" articles, if there had been any knowledge that such a shoe existed. Receiving the shoes was the first ever known of the shoe. This shoe will be on display in the NHPA collection as soon as construction is completed. One will be part of my display in Bismarck at the World Tournament 2000. Thank you, Stan.