From Leather Boots to Keds, the Connecticut Historical Society Focuses on Shoes in New “Sole of Connecticut” Exhibit

October 18, 2016 ·

Hartford, Conn., (October 18, 2016) – From the artistry of tanning leather to advances in manufacturing to the invention of the sneaker and the famous Keds brand, shoes are very much a part of Connecticut’s long history.  The Connecticut Historical Society takes a fresh look at how shoes helped shape the story of the state’s economy, cultural life, and landscape in its newest exhibit, “Sole of Connecticut” which runs now through January 14, 2017.

The exhibit features shoes from the 18th to the 21st centuries including “miniature shoes” that were sold as advertising souvenirs or used as commercial samples at major events such as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  It also includes related artifacts, tools and images from the CHS collection and from the Naugatuck Valley Historical Society to illustrate the journey shoes have taken in the state – from the early leather tanning techniques of the Native Americans to the riverside workshops (tanneries) set up by early English settlers, to the modern factory.  Additionally, the exhibit looks at how the invention of the sewing machine and the influx of European immigration to Connecticut greatly increased the state’s shoe production.

The exhibit also considers the discovery of a new chemical process that “vulcanized” rubber so it could handle various environmental changes.  This process, developed by Connecticut inventors Charles Goodyear of the Naugatuck India-Rubber Company and Nathanial Hayward of the Hayward Rubber Company in Colchester, eventually led to the mass production of the sneaker around 1916 – and to the introduction of Connecticut’s famous canvas-top Keds.

Additionally, the exhibit reflects on the environmental downsides of the shoe industry on the state – especially to Connecticut’s rivers which became dumping grounds for the chemicals and dyes used in shoe production.  In fact, by the 1900s, the Naugatuck River was considered one of the most polluted rivers in the entire nation – making it no longer able to sustain once-abundant fish and wildlife.  However, the decline of manufacturing and the rise of cleanup efforts have helped reverse this trend.

“Over the years, shoes really have left a footprint on life in Connecticut, providing jobs and leading to great inventions,” said Jody Blankenship, CEO of the CHS.  “This new exhibit gives us a colorful glimpse into early crafting techniques along with the materials, methods, and artistry manufacturers developed to produce and repair different types of footwear. There are so many fantastic visuals and details for everyone to enjoy.”

This exhibit was developed in partnership with 12 graduate students in the Public History Program at Central Connecticut State University.  Working under the direction of Dann J. Broyld, assistant professor of history, the students created the concept and presented it to the CHS.  Once approved by the CHS, the students worked closely with museum curators to develop content and finalize the exhibit.  Students are: Amanda Drummond from New Britain, Brianna Dunlap from Windsor, Melissa Gagne from Plantsville, Cristin Generoso from North Branford, Sally Givens from Nashville, Tenn., Candace Hall from Plainville, Zachary Keith from Waterbury, Helene Neuhaus from Westport, Kristina Oschmann from Windham, Tania Pichardo Weiss from West Hartford, Kathleen von Jena from Ridgefield, and Sandra Whitney from Southington. Drummond and Assumption College student Steven Foertsch from Plainville conducted additional research and development for this exhibit while they were completing a summer internship at the CHS.

“These students conceptualized this exhibit, presented their ideas to the CHS for consideration, and then helped research and create the final production,” Professor Broyld said.  “They were involved in every step of the way and learned how much energy, planning and creativity is involved in developing museum-quality exhibits.  Now we are excited to show our work to the public and help tell the story of shoes in Connecticut.”

The Connecticut Historical Society ( is a private, not-for-profit educational organization that includes a museum, library, and the Edgar F. Waterman Research Center. Founded in 1825, the CHS is the state’s official historical society and one of the oldest in the nation. The CHS works to connect visitors to the story of Connecticut, and to help create a society that values historical perspective and understanding as essential tools in shaping communities, and making informed decisions. To accomplish that, the CHS has collected more than 4 million manuscripts, graphics, books, artifacts, and other historical materials related to Connecticut’s social, cultural, and family history – which are available to the public onsite at One Elizabeth Street in Hartford, off-site at other locations, and online.  The CHS is a member of the Smithsonian Affiliations.

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