“My good sir, you forget that these matters are not as they used to be; formerly, indeed, the buckle was a sort of machine, intended to keep on the shoe; but now the case is quite reversed, and the shoe is of no earthly use, but to keep on the buckle!”
~ Sheridan's Lord Foppington
So important were buckles throughout the 18th century on both men and women’s footwear, that they reflect each change in fashion both in their design and ornament. It was said to be the most important item of male daytime dress. Shoe buckles were worn by nearly all classes, and could be fashioned of almost anything. The millions of shoe buckles made during the 18th century had frames in materials ranging from precious metals – mainly silver and sometimes set with jewels from diamonds to topaz to garnets or with paste (glass) or marcasite, to Sheffield plate and close-plated iron, to pinchbeck and blued steel. Cheaper shoe buckles appear in copper, gilded brass, tin, tutania (a silver white alloy of tin), and even the brightly decorated white earthenware evolved from Josiah Wedgwood in 1779 which he named pearl-ware.
"Permit me then to offer you my sincere congratulations on your drawing so near to the period when your public life is to be terminated…As you will have become a private Citizen before this shall be put into your hand, I may now venture to ask your acceptance of a pair of Shoe & Knee Buckles, made expressly for you of oriental Topases [sic]…As, I think, they are neither mean or gaudy, or too vulgar or too expensive, I hope you will wear them very often for my sake…"
(David Humphreys to George Washington, Lisbon, Portugal, April 5, 1797 (Cadou))
In my research, I have come across mention that shoe buckles were worn and fell out of fashion and common use until about 1680. After that time, buckles fell back into favor where they replaced ribbon or string holding the shoes closed. James II made his ignominious flight from Kent in 1688 in the Glorious Revolution, wearing a pair of jeweled shoe buckles, which, curiously escaped the notice of the fishermen who robbed him of his watch. (Hughes) There are many extant examples of 18th century shoes with no holes in the buckle straps, and my thought is they were closed with ribbon.
“To church in the afternoon to Mr. Herring, where a lazy poor sermon. And so home with Mrs. Turner and sitting with her a while we went to my father’s where we supt very merry, and so home. This day I began to put on buckles to my shoes, which I have bought yesterday of Mr. Wotton”
The above written by Samuel Pepys in his diary dated 4 January 1659 gives us one of the earliest written records of using buckles on shoes. Pepys is widely quoted when talking about shoe buckles.
Some buckles were marked “L” left and “R” right as well as included the patent or maker’s mark so that pairs were kept intact and/or you knew who made them. The buckle shoes began to evolve from a purely stylish and functional role to performing both social functions as well. Men of distinction increasingly asked for buckle shoes, used as a symbol of wealth.
It has been suggested that buckles went out of fashion towards 1800 because the horseman found they tangled with their stirrups or merely because shoe-strings suited the casual mood of the day. I have also read that after the end of the French Revolution in 1799 all fashions associated with aristocracy, including buckles shoes, were rejected for less extravagant wear. In this sense, this type of shoe was able to survive thanks to its original purpose of a new way of fastening shoes, while it could no longer be worn as an item of fashion. An additional probable contributory factor was the pitifully inadequate spring clip that was another late 18th century patent which served to be totally inadequate and was soon abandoned. We also see shoes changing in this time and buckles were no longer needed. Maybe it was the perfect storm as there was a lot of turmoil during this time period.
Shoe buckles over the century showed changes in the design and size. Shoe buckle ornamentation of diamonds, gems, pastes or stones of the rock-crystal type, intended for dress wear, had been introduced as early as the 1650’s. Up until 1720, shoes were worn with square tongues rising high in front of the ankles. These might be fastened by straps extending from the hell leathers to very small and usually plain rectangular buckle in front of the shoe tongues. Ornament on the early silver buckle consisted of little beyond the silversmith’s conventional tooled scrolls and scallop-shell detail.
From about 1720 to 1725, the frame of shoe buckles was somewhat larger, squarish, oblong, or circular. By the 1740’s, the jeweler’s gemstone studded buckles promoted the design of tooled silver buckles to suggest close-set faceted stones, some within milled edges. This increasingly flamboyant rococo manner of the 1750’s was reflected in bolder styles of buckles in squarish or shouldered outlines with openwork patterns of scrolls. They started to increase in size through the 1760’s, reaching its peak in the absurd “harness buckles,” deeply rounded to fit the arch of the foot, sported by the fops in the late 1770s.
Fashions of the 1770’s to 1780’s included the arrangement of large faceted embossments encircled by smaller ones, clever twisted ribbon effects, the neo-classic shuttle or marquise outline and the lines of tiny sparkling facets known as bright-cutting. Many of the extremely large rectangular buckles were almost smooth-surfaced. These arched from side to side of the fop’s shoes, vying with his enormous wig, buttonhole and coat buttons. The large rectangular frame was known as the “Artois” buckle, weighting as much as eight or ten ounces in silver. They were supposedly the rage, a French style and designed for and worn by the Comte d’Artois, French ambassador to England, and later Charles X. Jewelers and shoemakers were challenged to keep up with demands for novelty designs. The size gradually decreased until the 1790’s insignificant small buckles were quickly gone out of fashion by the “effeminate shoestring” and the change in shoe styles.
Mourning Shoe Buckles
I must also mention that mourning buckles did exist for those who lost a loved one. They were always in demand, and usually made of block tin that were japanned black. The London Chronical, January 23 1772, stated that at funerals “Men wear black full trimmed or plain linen, black buckle and swords.” (Art of Mourning)
Portrait paintings illustrate the changing fashions in shoe buckles. The five portraits of the Lords Baltimore may be cited as they date from the 1660’s to 1760’s. I have created a Pinterest Board of paintings with shoe buckles shown on the wearers and the dates of the paintings. This does not necessarily conclusively identify a date for the shoe buckles, but they do show a representation of the styles and sizes worn when they were painted. Hallmarks and maker’s marks, if they have them, can also date a buckle which can make it interesting in trying to figure out styles of tongue and chapes and when they were worn.
Links for the first to sixth Lords Baltimore at the Maryland Statehouse –
My Pinterest Boards-
Within the memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne of 1789, she mentions having escaped from France to Brighton at the age of nine, she was brought to the house of Mrs. Fitzherbert and the Prince of Wales who were living as man and wife. She recounts: “I remember that I was taken one morning to see Mrs. Fitzherbert and she showed us the Prince’s dressing room, and where there was a large table, it was entirely covered with shoe buckles. I expressed my astonishment at the sight, and Mrs. Fitzherbert, with a laugh, opened a large cupboard, which was also full; there were enough buckles for every day of the year.” (Dawes) Would this not have been a sight to see?
How and Where were Shoe Buckles Made?
Portrait Carding Buckle by Guillaume Dominique Doncre
dated 1796 on sale by Parker Fine Art Auctions, 5 August 2021 French
During the 18th century, buckle making was a large trade in England, according to Chambers’ Encyclopedia: A Dictionary of Universal Knowledge, Volume II:
“In the latter half of the 18th century the manufacture of buckles was carried on most extensively in Birmingham, there being at one time not less than 4000 people directly employed in that town and its vicinity, who turned out 2,500,000 pairs of buckles annually, the prices ranged from one shilling to five guineas, and even ten guineas a pair. Much of this output was due to the stamping machine invented by John Pickering in 1769 and subsequently improved by Richard Ford of Birmingham. Now buckle frames could be produced in large quantities by machine pressing from prepared dies.” (CW, Art of Mourning website) The Funk & Wagnalls New Standard Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge of 1931 defines a buckle as “a rim and tongue used for fastening straps or bands in dress and harness…” (CW)
Charles Storey, 1757, Lewis Walpole Collection
In England, there seems to have been pawn shops and silver smiths that paid or loaned money for all manner of things, including buckles as shown in the trade cards below.
Second Hand Shop Detail
(London Tradesmen’s Cards of the XVIII Century An Account of Their Origin and Use)
Buckles could be cast in moulds and therefore were easily produced in any shop. An imported buckle could be taken apart and used as the pattern to be impressed in the casting for reproduction. Plain buckles and those set with pastes continued to be made by jewelers some of whom designed their own moulds. Thomas Fletcher made cestus buckles of his own pattern (more research is needed to know exactly what this type of buckle would have looked like).
Shoe Buckles in America
Most buckles available for purchase in the colonies would have been imported from England and after the 1780’s also from France. However, there could possibly have been some local production but I'm thinking that it was probably more on the side of repair of existing buckles as John Greenhow advertised within the 11 April 1766 edition of the Virginia Gazette that he had available “chapes and tongs for silver buckles” for sale. (CW) Some New Hampshire silversmiths specialized in making silver stock, knee and shoe buckles in the post-Revolutionary period which I believe they did because they were no longer beholden to the English guilds. Of oval or rectangular shape, the buckles were often carved to look as if they were set with faceted stones. (Fales) The carved buckles were often “cut steel” like my reprodution James shoe buckles (available in my shop) based upon an original pair that I own.
Virginia Gazette, 3 Apr 1778
In the first years of Martha Washington’s marriage to George, for instance, “paste and garnet buckles fastened her clothing and shoes; garnet, ‘gold wier’ and ‘Silver Barings with Bobs’ hung from her ears.” She also ordered gold shoe buckles from England. (Cadou)
Anatomy of an 18th Century Shoe Buckle
Manufacture, bound by close craftsman loyalties in England, was divided between buckle-makers and chape-makers. The elegance of the finished buckle depended upon the buckle-maker. The shoe is considered as four units: The frame and the three parts which included the roll and spikes that compose the chape and the tongue.
The frame is an open oval, oblong or rectangle, usually of metal, decorated on the surface and curved to fit snugly against the instep. All ornament is concentrated on this, the main unit, which surrounds the moveable parts. (Hughes)
The roll which holds the under leather strap. This is a little smaller than one half of the open frame and hinges on the bridge with a pair of lugs. In shape it is a more or less square-shouldered open loop within the outline of the frame. It became a thoroughly practical method of securing the buckle to the under latchet when its cross-bar was given two short inward-pointing spikes.
The tongue, also hinging on the bridge and pointing away from the roll, was originally a single sharp spike but is usually found on an early Georgian buckle as a double spike or fork like miniature pitchfork. The later version is a decorative openwork rectangle sawn from steel plate with the ends elongated into two spikes.
The spike or spikes of the tongue pierce the upper shoe-strap so that the tip rests on the surface of the frame. Occasionally the silversmith cut two tiny nicks into the sinner ed of the frame to receive the tongue-points. With the two shoe-straps passing under the frame-ends, crossing over each other over the bridge, and attached to the roll and tongue respectively, the pressure exerted by the food movement ensured that the buckle remained in position.
While buckles were the dominant form of closure; ties or laces never entirely went away. The shoe buckle was made to be attached to the shoe’s two straps, securing them together over the instep at any tension required by the wearer. (CW)
What is the Correct Way to Wear 18th Century Shoe Buckles?
I have not found, in portraiture or otherwise, the evidence of the tongue facing one way or the other as that level of detail doesn’t seem to be there. I have seen some portraits where I kind of, sort of, think I see the tongue poking out but do I really?
When doing research, I came across an article on-line by Colonial Williamburg that shows you how to put your buckles on your shoes. They mention that when a buckle
is first set on a new shoe you are determining whether the shoe, which was made
straight, will be for your left or right foot. The excess leather from the
under strap (which points towards the opposite foot) will be trimmed away to
reduce bulk and prevent any discomfort.
If you are buying commercially-made shoes that have a left and right,
you do not have to worry about the trimming as the strap is usually shorter
than the top one. (CW/kkw)
for evidence of the “correct” way to have your buckles on the shoe, I come back
to the tongue spikes pointing inward toward the other foot. I am still looking for an 18th
century document, diagram, or evidence of how they were worn. It may be that it was just known and worn
either way. I have found that if the
tongue spikes of my buckle points outward and away from my other foot, my petticoat
can snag more easily on it when walking. If you have come across any research on a correct way, let me know!
Reproduction Shoe Buckles and How to Put them on your Shoes
My ETSY shop offers several style buckles that are exact reproductions of buckles that I, or a friend, owns. None of my buckles are based upon anything other than a real physical buckle.
Reproduction buckles from my shop will not have tines sharp enough to pierce the buckle straps – either cloth or leather. You will need to use an awl to create the holes so that the spikes on the chape, and tongue, will go through the straps.
Remember that leather straps can stretch over time, so making it a bit tighter than you normally would like to wear them may be a good idea.
I personally do not like a bunch of holes in the buckle straps of my shoes, so getting it right the first time is key. If you mess up, it isn’t the end of the world! You will just have extra holes in the shoes, and sometimes changing the buckle with one that has a wider frame can cover up the mistake. There are some that want to use one pair of shoes with multiple style buckles, and in that case, you may have more holes in the buckle straps to accommodate those buckles.
Of my reproduction shoe buckles, the “Belle” and “Charlotte” have the same tongue and chape size/width so they can be interchanged on your shoes. The rest – the”James,” “Eden,” “Dandridge,” and “Forget Me Not” – also have the same tongue and chape which makes them so flexible with just one pair of shoes.
I will also create a video of how to attach your shoe buckles to your buckle straps, and will include how to do so in written form in another post. The video will also be on my YouTube channel. You can reach my channel at this link -
Art of Mourning On-Line
Cadou, Carol Borchert, The George Washington Collection: Fine and Decorative Arts at Mount Vernon (Manchester, Vermont: Hudson Hills Press, 2006), 238, 239
Colonial Williamsburg On-Line https://www.colonialwilliamsburg.org/learn/living-history/buckle/
Dawes, Ginny Redington with Collings, Olivia, Georgian Jewellery, ACC Artbooks, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK 2007
Fales, Martha Gandy, Jewelry in America 1600-1900, Antique Collector’s Club, Woodbridge, Suffolk, UK 1995
Heal, Ambrose, London Tradesmen’s Cards of the XVIII Century An Account of Their Origin and Use, Dover Publications, New York, reprint of 1968 edition
Hughes, Bernard & Therle, Georgian Shoe Buckles Illustrated by the Lady Maufe Collection of Shoe Buckle at Kenwood, Greater London Council, London, 1972
McNeil, Peter, “Pretty Gentlemen Macaroni Men and the Eighteenth-century Fashion World, Yale University Press, 2018
Sheridan, Richard Brinsley, A Trip to Scarborough A Comedy, G. Wilkie, London, 1781
The History of Buckle Shoes - https://fratelliborgioli.com/en/history-of-buckle-shoes/