'Something's Afoot' exhibits changing footwear

Military veterans returning from World War II started families and needed shoes for their children. "We had a tremendous children's business because all of the service people returned in 1945 and 1946, got married and started having children, and...

Military veterans returning from World War II started families and needed shoes for their children.

"We had a tremendous children's business because all of the service people returned in 1945 and 1946, got married and started having children, and there was a tremendous amount of shoes sold, primary this one,'' said Ralph Olson, reaching for a white, size 7Β½B Poll-Parrot high-top.

"That was the big thing. You had to have the shoes on,'' said Olson, a longtime Willmar shoe dealer. "We prided ourselves that that little shoe we carried in seven widths. There wasn't any foot that we couldn't fit properly.''

That little white shoe is among nearly three dozen shoes representing decades of changing footwear styles in a new exhibit entitled "Something's Afoot -- Shoes from the 1870s to the 1970s'' at the Kandiyohi County Historical Society Museum on Business 71 North in Willmar.

The idea for the display came from Mona Nelson, executive director at the historical society. The shoes were arranged by curator of collections Andria Olson, with assistance from Ralph Olson and Ridgewater College work-study students Pam Hillebrandt and Sara Lilligaard.


"Ralph Olson came in and helped me put it together,'' said Andria Olson. "It just kind of all fell into place once he got here. We have a lot more shoes than we have room to put out. We kind of picked and chose, and put the best ones out that show the most variety.''

Ralph Olson knows shoes. He began working at Ray Peterson Shoe Store in Willmar in June 1949. Olson bought the store from Peterson in 1984, and retired in June 1999 after 50 years in the business. Olson's son, Robin, and his wife, Joan, now own the downtown store.

The exhibit represents a little bit of everything: children's shoes, adult shoes, wooden shoes, work shoes, railroad shoes, fashion shoes and overshoes.

One of the oldest examples is a ladies' lace-up, high-top shoe made with a cloth upper and leather sole. It represents high fashion from the 1880s.

A more recent example is a Marlinelli from 1970 with a thick white sole and heel.


Olson has seen brands come and go. Florscheim has been making shoes for more than a century. Another manufacturer, Red Wing, has been making footwear in the Minnesota city of that name since 1905.

Other manufacturers are long gone, such as Foot, Schutze and Co. of St. Paul, maker of "Maidwell'' shoes; Peters International Shoe Co. of St. Louis; and Poll-Parrot shoes for children.


"The companies that didn't reinvest and redesign and put new things on the market ... the people that didn't are gone,'' said Olson.

The exhibit features a few examples of vintage advertising. A framed clipping from the Willmar Daily Tribune invites those attending the Norwegian Lutheran Synod Minnesota District meeting in Willmar on June 1, 1912, to shop at Peterson and Wellin Department Store. The store was located where Peterson Shoes is located today.

There's a sign -- made from a puzzle -- advertising P.F. Flyer casual footwear. The brand was named for the "Posture Foundation'' sneaker patented by B.F. Goodrich.

And the green, red and yellow bird known as Poll Parrot can be seen on a metal advertising sign from 1940.

The exhibit has two news photos. One, which was taken after World War II, shows a little Greek boy holding a new pair of shoes to replace the cloth shoes he's wearing. Olson said the photo was taken by either The Associated Press or Life magazine and became photo of the year in 1946.

"It was distributed to us by a shoe company who thought this was something we should look at,'' said Olson.

The other photo was taken by the Tribune in September 1954 and shows 3,000 pairs of used shoes collected by Peterson Shoe Store for the needy. Olson is among employees shown in the photo.

The fluoroscope


Shoe stores were once equipped with an X-ray machine called a shoe-fitting fluoroscope, a big wood-paneled, console-like device that resembled an old-fashioned Victrola. A customer put on new shoes and inserted his or her feet into the left and right openings at the base of the unit.

The customer and the salesman could then look through viewers and see the green outline of the feet, as if encased in neon, and could judge how well the shoes fit. In 1949, the danger of the fluoroscope was revealed and the machines were quietly phased out during the 1950s, according to the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

"It was a sales tool. Every shoe store had to have one of these,'' said Olson, who donated a fluoroscope to the museum. "Before they were outlawed, they came out with a law that you had to have them certified by the state and line it with lead, so there are about 40 pounds of lead in it to absorb the X-ray.''

Olson remembers a man who checked his gunshot-wounded hand in the fluoroscope. The man's wife looked through the viewer.

"He put his hand in there and she looked and she thought that was so funny because he was wiggling his hand and she could see eight to 10 pieces of buckshot in his hand. But he had healed up pretty much,'' Olson chuckled.


Rounding out the exhibit are a 50-year-old curved chrome chair with green plastic upholstery, a fitting stool and art deco metal-and-glass display stands -- all from Peterson's. The exhibit gives the viewer the impression of looking at the display through the store window.

Olson says store owners took pride in their display windows.


"We changed that window every month substantially and changed it week to week also if we had something special to feature. We'd try to present everything we had in the window. We probably had 200 pairs of shoes in the window,'' he said.

Olson said farmers always bought two-buckle rubbers or five-buckle overshoes to wear over their work shoes to protect the leather soles from moisture.

"They really took care of those shoes,'' Olson said. "Those folks would probably buy a pair of work shoes every two years or so, maybe a longer period of time than that.''

Sixty years ago, most shoes were black or brown. Black styles were worn primarily by undertakers, preachers and lawyers. Everyone else wore brown.

"We had probably 30 to 40 styles in brown, but that's the way it was,'' said Olson.

For Easter, Olson said, every little girl received a new pair of patent leather shoes, and almost every lady in town bought a new pair of navy blue shoes.

"So in the spring of the year our shelves were loaded with navy blue shoes, and by the end of that season we wouldn't have any blue left,'' he said.

Olson said shoes have changed tremendously in fashion and in function. Leather soles are no longer as common and the uppers must be waterproof because no one wears protective rubbers or buckle overshoes over them.


The emphasis today, at least at Peterson's, is on comfort shoes for adults and tennis shoes for the younger buyers.

"There are a lot of shoes that are manufactured for some store to have something on their shelf,'' said Olson. "Then there are shoes that are manufactured to be fitted and made to fit on people's feet.''

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