America’s Last Great Shoemaker
There’s a building in a drowsy suburb of Middleborough, Massachusetts — down from Boston, sort of on the way to Cape Cod — a low, handsome, mid-century sprawl, lots of dark wood and sharp angles, that looks like it could be out of Mad Men, or the clandestine headquarters of a slightly shady government agency in a 60s thriller.
This is the home of Alden, one of the world’s great shoe manufacturers, and the last of its kind.
If, like us, you’re interested in things that have been made by hand to exacting standards for more than a century, then a trip to Middleborough is something of a pilgrimage — the Graceland of Goodyear welting. Alden was founded in 1884 by Charles H. Alden, in a pocket of the country that was once teeming with hundreds shoemakers. Much like Northampton in the UK, those halcyon days faded into the post-industrial landscape, becoming relics of a different time. But Alden remains, the last of the original New England shoemakers. It’s still family-run, and still makes shoes, as sales director Josh tells us, “the old-fashioned way.”
The Cordovan leather is sourced from Horween, that peerless (literally, they’re the only one left) Chicago tannery. The lasts, insoles, outsoles, welting, cork filling, stitching, and cutting of the horsehide leather shell is all done by hand by workers who, in some cases, are second and third generation shoemakers. Demand way outstrips supply. A lot of people want to get their hands on a pair. There’s a Madison Avenue flagship (no online store) and a few stockists… of which we’re proud to be one. Alden don’t really like to talk about how things are done, believing that sometimes it’s better not to show how the immaculately-crafted sausage is made.
Our long journey to Middleborough begins in New York’s Grand Central Station on a clear morning, the 109 train rattling out towards, and then past, Harlem and the outer boroughs of the city. A conductor punches our paper tickets as morning sunshine spills across the red leather seats. At Stamford, CT, we hire a brilliant white Ford Expedition that is approximately the size of a Boeing 747 and peel out onto the I-95, which seems faintly glamorous to our British minds — the road trip, the open road, America — but is actually a massive, busy and very straight highway punctuated by peeling signs for injury lawyers and Toyota dealerships — In pain? Call Wayne; Jonathan Perkins Injury Lawyer; Hartford Toyota Superstore.
In Mystic, CT, most famous for being the setting of the 1988 Julia Roberts rom-com Mystic Pizza, we stop off at the local diner and eat eggs with cups of bad coffee in a yellow and blue booth. “What are you doing here?” Asks the waitress with genuine curiosity. “We’re on our way to a shoe factory.” “Well, if you have time, there’s a cool old fort nearby.”
In the early days of New England shoemaking, local artisans would typically make a pair a day in one room cottages called ‘ten footers,’ a bit like the traditional methods employed by crofters weaving tweeds inside their homes on the Scottish isles of Lewis and Harris. While its operation has continued to modernise, you still get a sense of Alden being inextricably tethered to its founding principles of making great shoes without compromise.
“We invented the penny loafer!” Says our friend John Happ, the company’s long-standing head of European sales, who has doubled as our tour guide. “Every tassel is tied on one single bench. I’d say each shoe that we make has been touched by 85 different people." We nod approvingly. There’s also the much-coveted modified last, which references the company’s early expertise in producing orthopaedic and medical footwear — an oversized last with a snug waist and arch which supports the foot in a balanced position.
We watch a man wearing green rubber gloves pull leather over one such last with trained ease. In another section three workers sew methodically by hand. “It takes six months to develop the finger strength for that,” says John with pride Everywhere you look there’s someone performing an intricate and difficult task that will, when it all comes together, end up as a superior pair of shoes. Eighty-five hands touching every one.
Away from the factory floor we’re led through the office, a glorious 70s time capsule. What’s in that room? we ask John. “Oh I can’t show you in there he says with a smile. Top secret.” There’s an American flag and flowers in a vase, a woman typing quickly on an old grey computer in a cubicle as we wander the halls.
“We’re slow to change around here,” says John, politely showing us to the exit, past the WW2-era boot advertisements and framed accolades in glass cabinets.
“Which is just how we like it.”