The Most Comfortable Shoes Ever Devised by Man
Possibly the story of Congress boots begins with the slop closet. Unquestionably the finest and most comfortable footwear devised by man for man was the Congress boot. It flourished from the late 1890s through the Calvin Coolidge dreamtime. I think they were available in stores until the H.E. Davis shoe factory in Freeport, Maine, decided to stop making them for Capt. Julius Soule, who was the last person I saw with Congress boots still on his happy feet. I'd describe them as an ankle-height boot, or shoe, without lacings. They had an elastic fabric in the sides so the boots could be slipped on and off with ease.
Because the Congress boot was considered a necessity to being a Member of Congress, the shoe was so named. I do remember they were worn throughout his career by Freddie Hale, who was in the House and Senate so long I don't remember. Sen. Wallace H. White also wore them, and he came after Freddie. It's even possible Senator White had Freddie's boots.
Now, the slop chest: In days of sail when the United States Merchant Marine was in its infancy, every vessel had a slop chest, which amounted to a company store. Every ship had a supply of garments and personal items to sell to crew members who might need such on a voyage. These goods were not paid for as taken, but were totted up and the amount taken from the crew member's "snack" when the voyage was over. That the owners rooked the seamen was unquestioned, just as coal-mine and timberland owners did. A pair of Congress boots, for instance, would fetch $3 ashore, but two months at sea would come to a princely value. Down East sailors came to use Congress boots as a consequence of seafaring, although aboard ship in good weather they went barefoot.
The Congress boot was by no means a work shoe. It was dress-up all the way, an expensive luxury accepted as everyday. The slop chest always had a good supply of Congress boots, but not just as a convenience to the crew.
Our Down East blue-water men made a customs sop of the Congress boot. When approaching any foreign port of call, the captain would send his mate to the slop chest to get a couple pairs of Congress boots. They would be waiting on the captain's highly polished cabin table when the inspectors came aboard to see what they could tax.
Nobody knows how many millions of dollars were saved by this simple foresight. The customs officers of the world thus came to wear Congress boots from the United States as signum auctoritatis, and had cozy feet that sang paeans to the American shoe factories. As I recall, all retired sea captains wore Congress boots, which doubled as slippers in repose.
A small word about Dennis (Dinnie( Bibber. He had been a Freeport shoe-factory worker, but came to have a shoe-repair shop. In it, he would make you a pair of special Dinnie Bibber Congress boots. Shoe factories made excellent Congress boots, but the best were the Dinnie Bibber kind. My sister, younger than I, says she was a woman grown before she came to know that Dinnie Bibber was a man, and not the word for cobbler.
In those days, operating a shoe factory was not a difficult venture. It was said all you needed was $800.
Proposing to become a shoe factory, you took yourself to Boston, where you could borrow the money from the First National if you had collateral.
This was easy, as your collateral would be a 10-day option on leather. So the First National put up the $800, and you paid them back each time you got a supply of leather from the warehouse. The United Shoes Machinery put in the equipment you'd need on a rental or delayed-payment basis, and you borrowed operating money at 90 days and sold shoes at 30 days. It was in such a climate that Congress boots were perfected. I believe that in the Lincoln Memorial, Honest Abe has Congress Boots on his statuary feet.
DINNIE BIBBER, as a cobbler rather than a shoemaker, had several advantages. He had time to find and select superior leather. He carefully measured a customer's feet so the fit was more precise than factory-run sizes. Next, Dennis was an artist among dabsters, and as such did all operations, whereas the shoe factory had cutters, stitchers, lasters, and so on through packaging. A pair of Congress boots by Dinnie Bibber was a La Gioconda among Hollywood lobby pictures. Dinnie asked $4.50 for a pair of his boots, and they were well worth it.
I never owned a pair, and I never wore Congress boots. By the time I began to buy shoes, the Freeport shoe factory was in a new era. Sears Roebuck, which used to make its own shoes, had closed down and was buying inventory. Their closed shoe factory in Freeport was taken over by somebody with $800 and a job contract with Tom McCann.
I could go to the old Sears shoe factory, and in the shipping room Chester Brawn would sell me stylish shoes for 25 cents a pair, their only fault being that they were "damaged." This was usually a blemish nobody but a trained inspector would notice. While in college, as a 25-cent shoe collector, I owned a closet of shoes, all of which would fall apart the minute I stepped in any puddle.
Congress boots were by that time forgotten, and remain so today. Would you believe that one day I went to buy a pair of damaged 25 cent shoes, and Chester Brawn said, "Sorry, I don't have your size on the shelf. Wait a minute and I'll damage you a pair!"
How time flies!