The History of Leather Part 11 – Moccasins

Posted on 20/07/14

The moccasins of our fathers (1850-1880)

It’s odd in many ways that we have arrived at “moccasin”as the English spelling of that word; it’s even odder that we ended up using “moccasin”as the term for that type of shoe.

For starters, the word “moccasin”, meaning a sturdy, heelless shoe sewn from tanned leather, is an Algonquian word. The Algonquians were the very first Americans encountered by exploring Europeans. Quite why the Europeans’ research begun and ended with the Algonquians remains to be seen. You would have thought they might have approached two or three more tribes before settling on a universal term for a popular accessory, but there you go.

As for the “moccasin” spelling, well that varies depending on the transcription you read from. Take your pick –mocasin, mocassin, moccassin, mocussin –all are valid, apparently, no matter what the cruel tyranny of spellcheck has to say about the matter.

Possibly building on the Stone Age design of footwear like the Areni-1 shoe, the moccasin is another one-piece leather creation. More slipper than traditional shoe, if we’re honest, the moccasin’s sole was soft and flexible, like its Stone Age forbearer. The upper part of the shoe was where the Native Americans flexed their creative muscles, in some cases adding the now-iconic fringes, and in other cases adding beads, painted designs, and extensive quillwork.

The soft sole wasn’t always soft, admittedly. It tended to be the eastern tribes who preferred soft-sole moccasins as they glided through leafy forest floors. Soft soles wouldn’t have fit the bill for tribes located on the Great Plains of North America, however. They were faced with ground strewn with rocks and cacti, so a harder sole made more sense for their purposes.

Moccasins in both flavours are still available today, and are of course, still made in leather. The softer versions are hailed as perfect squishy driving shoes, while the harder versions have been embraced as casual shoes in the 21st century. Modern moccasins, unfortunately, tend to look more generic than their original inspiration, and some moccasins are Frankenstein’s monster-like creations, combining the soft moccasin shell with the flexible rope or rubber sole of an espadrille.

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