As any parent knows, keeping kids in shoes is a constant chore. If they aren’t outgrowing them, they’re destroying them. It was this second problem that attracted the attention of George Mitchell of Turner, Maine in the mid-1850s and led to the invention of the coppertoe shoes.
Mitchell was a farmer and businessman, and his many children were hard on their shoes. From being knocked around and kicked into things, their footwear always seemed to wear out before it should.
Turner was an inventive sort, however, and he concluded that he didn’t need to spend as much of his available funds on shoes as he had been. Instead, he simply needed better shoes. And if no one was going to make them, he would do it himself. With that in mind, he created a shoe craze that would last more than 50 years: the coppertoe.
Some versions of the story say he started with tin cans, others say it was a worn out copper washboiler. Either way, what he did was cut out pieces of metal and form them over a mold until he had a toe cap to cover the ends of his children’s shoes to thwart their more destructive efforts.
As one story has it, his kids were embarrassed at first by the new contraptions their father had put on their feet. As soon as their friends caught sight of the new invention, however, they were instantly jealous of the shiny-tipped shoes – and a fashion trend was born.
Mitchell (no relation to the senator) soon found his services and his new product in high demand, and he patented the improved shoe tips. But he was not one to market his “shoe-upper tip.” Instead, he sold his patents (for as much as $100,000, according to some reports) and by 1859, Chase, McKinney and Company of Boston was marketing “Mitchell’s Celebrated Coppertoe.”
The shoe became a multi-million-seller in the United States and enjoyed even greater popularity in the UK. For years, the reliable coppertoe was loved by parents and kids alike. It tripled the life of a shoe, and kids loved the flashy look. For generations of youngsters up into the 1900s, their coppertoe shoes were prized possessions, ranking right up there with baseball mitts and first bikes in their treasured childhood memories.
Mitchell’s shoes outlived him by many years, sadly. In 1866, Mitchell’s six year old son drowned near Turner and Mitchell died trying to save him.