Swastika slippers made in Ypsilanti were once openly advertised in national magazines – including Collier’s and Cosmopolitan. In its day, the footwear didn’t cause outrage, or taint the city as sympathetic to Nazis – even though two other Ypsi companies made similar items. The fringed footwear pre-dated Hitler’s rise by around 20 years.
The swastika slipper was made in the Indian Shoe Company’s little third-floor factory at 17-21 Cross Street, above the present-day Fantasy Attic costume store. In the high-ceilinged space full of light from large south-facing windows sat an array of shoemaking machines with tough leather-penetrating needles, operated by about a dozen women and a few men.
Benjamin Boyce managed the company, but soon moved on to become the bookkeeper for the Peninsular Paper mill. His lengthy December 12, 1956 Ypsilanti Daily Press obituary makes no mention of his involvement with the Indian Shoe Company.
During Boyce’s tenure there, the company’s 1910 Depot Town neighbors included Charles Dueress’s grocery store, King and Pressler’s second-hand shop, Pearl Laundry, the business office for the underwear factory, C. M. Fairchild & Company’s flour and feed store, coal dealer John Engel’s office, and the Oliver House hotel. The district was bustling and noisy, with frequent trains pulling in and out of the depot area on multiple parallel tracks.
The Indian Shoe Company made moccasins from scratch, starting with cured hides that may have come from the Ypsilanti Hide and Leather Company, John Howland’s odiferous tannery. “The smell coming from that place is intolerable, especially in the evening when there is but a slight breeze,” said the July 14, 1909 Ypsilanti Daily Press, quoting a ‘prominent Forest Avenue matron.’ That matron may have pulled a rawhide string or two – soon after that, Howland moved his tannery from Forest Avenue to 25 South Huron at the south edge of the commercial district.
After delivery to the Indian Shoe Company, the skins were cut into pieces using patterns. Finished sizes ranged from 3 1/2 to 10 for men and 2 1/2 to 7 for women, along with children’s sizes. Many of the moccasins were decorated with designs made with colored ink or a leather-burning tool. The designs incorporated what the company judged to be Native American motifs.
One 1910 model featured the large swastika on the toe. The Indian Shoe Company likely chose this design due to its traditional use as a decorative motif by the Navaho, Hopi, and other indigenous peoples, long before the symbol acquired its indelible association with evil during WWII.
The completed moccasins sold by mail for $2 [$46 in 2010 dollars]. “[T]he most comfortable shoe you ever wore – the latest in high grade foot-ease,” boasted one 1910 ad. The ad claimed that the shoes were made of a material it called “Ypsilanti Moosehide.” “Ypsilanti Moosehide is tough but pliable,” it said, “heavy yet very flexible. Guaranteed to wear and to satisfy for years, being INDIAN SEWED.”
A full-page 1913 ad in the outdoorsman’s publication The Outing Magazine went further, touting the shoes as perfect for a range of outdoor and indoor uses. It was, for instance, an ideal yachting moccasin.
“[F]or canoeing, for tennis, for camp wear, our number 900 shown below is a favorite,” said the ad. “It’s a dandy in the gymnasium, too … [and for] camping, hunting, and cool weather … This same shoe makes a splendid, comfortable, foot-resting house slipper to wear at home in the evening.” By this time the Indian Shoe Company had devised a logo, consisting of the word “YIPSI” in a horizontal diamond – presumably with the extra “I” so that out-of-town customers wouldn’t wonder how to pronounce the strange four-letter word.
Perhaps the strangest aspect of the Indian Shoe Company’s story is that it was one of three moccasin companies in Washtenaw County – none of which operated in the county’s largest city. Around 1910, Ann Arbor had nearly twenty shoemaking shops, including Justice Houghtalin’s shop on Liberty, the Walk-Over Shoe Co. on Main, and Clark & Cooch (“Bang-Up Shoes for Boys”) on both Forest Avenue and South University. All three moccasin manufactories, however, were in Ypsilanti.
In Ypsi in 1906, Sumner Damon founded the Elk Skin Moccasin Manufacturing Company at 11 North Huron. A year later, Thomas McAndrew’s Horner Specialty Shoe Company began making moccasins and athletic shoes. In 1909 the Indian Shoe Company was the last to arrive on Ypsi’s bustling moccasin manufacturing scene.
“During the past few years the ‘Indian fad’ has taken the country almost by storm,” wrote one O. H. Kipps in a 1906 edition of Southern Workman magazine. “There has been a great demand for all sorts of Indian handiwork … Indian purses and moccasins … have been placed upon the market by enterprising dealers.” It may be that the three Ypsi companies were formed to capitalize on this so-called ‘Indian fad.’ However, the demand for such goods eventually faded.
The Indian Shoe Company went out of business just a few years after opening. The Horner Specialty Shoe Company, which for a while shared factory space with the Indian Shoe Company, also closed. For a while in the 1920s before it too went out of business, the Elk Skin company became the third moccasin maker to occupy the Cross Street space – making that space the unrivaled historical hotspot of moccasin manufacturing in all of Washtenaw County.
Now used as apartments, the Depot Town space is all that remains. Aside from an obscure ad or two in forgotten publications and a few listings in city directories, Ypsilanti’s early 20th-century era of locally hand-crafted moccasins vanished leaving no footprint.
Jim Rees and Irene Hieber correctly guessed that last column’s artifact was a potato planter.
Presumably it was invented to save the toil of stooping, hand-digging, and planting, but it seems that using this tool would still be fairly arduous, doesn’t it?
This time we have a mystery artifact that perhaps wouldn’t be found in the potato fields. It’s an odd little device; what might it be?