Museum seeks to save soaked, 19th C. shoes

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By Barbara Putnam
for Museum of the Albemarle

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Did you know you can help the Museum of the Albemarle protect our state treasures by adopting an artifact that requires conservation? Your tax-deductible donation in any amount will help support the museum’s mission of preserving artifacts and other historical materials relating to the history and heritage of northeastern North Carolina.

In preparation for an upcoming exhibit in 2018, the museum has barrels of shoes circa 1750 - 1900 in need of conservation. These shoes were found during a nautical archaeological excavation right in our very own Pasquotank River.

This site called “River Bridge” and is located along the Pasquotank River north of Elizabeth City. The site’s name comes from a bridge built before the Revolutionary War and noted by George Washington in his diary, when he visited the area. During this period of time, ships could navigate to River Bridge and a customshouse and a set of warehouses, where workers unloaded and loaded cargo. Today, the only reminders of this once-important center of commerce include a few pilings and several vessels submerged just below the river’s surface and a large collection of artifacts that are the focus of this exhibit.

Excavations at River Bridge have produced literally barrels of shoes. The well-preserved condition of the leather results from being in a waterlogged environment beneath the silt of the river, which is high in tannic acid. This site has yielded examples of every American shoe construction known from circa 1750 to 1900, some rare and unique. All the leather footwear recovered from the site displayed signs of wear, from minor (no repairs) to heavily worn (extensively repaired).

The bulk of the shoes date from the 1850s, and are men’s utilitarian laced ankle-high work boots, pegged. One group of shoes however-- women’s laced ankle boots--dates to the period between the 1880s and 1910. But why so many used shoes from this site? Perhaps 150 years’ collective waste from numerous shoe repair shops around the region? Answering these questions will require further research.

If you wish to assist Museum of the Albemarle with conserving these shoes or any other artifacts, please contact us at (252) 335-1453. We will then contact our conservator with specific expertise in the type of material needing care. That person will do a conservation assessment of the work needed to conserve the object plus the cost of materials, their time and travel. At that point, a contract will be written identifying the duration of the project and the monetary requirements. The museum appreciates your support. Stay tuned for more details regarding the opening of the River Bridge Exhibit in 2018.

Barbara Putnam is operations manager at Museum of the Albemarle. Text about exhibit was written by Wanda Lassiter, curator.