a Vintage Sole grew out of five generations of fascination with quality footwear. The path started when Rüth Brouwer (pronounced rõõt) immigrated from the Netherlands and eventually settled in Grand Haven, Michigan. Rüth was a master cobbler but as the industrial revolution moved shoe making into factories, he opened R Brouwer City Boot & Shoe Store. In addition to selling the finest manufactured shoes such as Dr. A. Reed Cushioned Shoes, the store sold women's and men's clothing.
Stephen J. Brouwer sitting on the steps of his dad's store.
Grand Haven, Michigan — circa 1888
Realizing that shoe making was giving way to manufactured footwear, Rüth's son Stephen began selling Dr. A. Reed Cushion Shoes door-to-door. He followed a suggestion to take the boat across Lake Michigan to try his luck in Milwaukee. He spent a year traveling from Milwaukee to Green Bay visiting nearly every tavern, police station, school and anywhere else people stood on their feet all day. Having found great success, in 1902 he used his nest egg to open his first of many Brouwer's shoe stores in Milwaukee and the vicinity.
The S. J. Brouwer Shoe Company grew steadily even through WWI, the depression, and WWII. At its height, the company purchased a ten-story building at 178 West Wisconsin Avenue and occupied the first four floors. The shoe repair, men's, women's, and children's departments each occupied their own floor!
In addition to being a brilliant retailer, Stephen was integrally involved in shoe and last designing for a number of companies as well as the U.S. military. When shoes first began to be mass manufactured, there was no 'right' or 'left.' Your feet had to do the uncomfortable work of shaping the shoes or boots to fit. Stephen knew that when your feet hurt, you hurt all over. So he started Brouwer's Research and worked with the shoe industry to introduce anatomically correct lasts, the form over which footwear is actually made.
Other than changing styles and materials, the shoe industry experienced little fundamental change from the early 1900s through the early 70s. Man-made materials started being used more commonly in the early 40s, primarily rubber compounds for soles and bakelite for heel top lifts. The big change in the shoe manufacturing started in the 1970s when environmental concerns over the tanning industry drove most leather making overseas. By the late 1980s, a majority of shoe manufacturing followed suit. With new factories also came new manufacturing techniques which included injection molded soles and a drastic reduction in the number of sizes that were made.
Blue and Doozer ‘guarding’ the a Vintage Sole warehouse / showroom.
Jumping ahead a couple of generations, a Vintage Sole essentially grew out of a deeply engrained – perhaps genetic – appreciation for quality footwear. Having grown up and worked in the shoe industry, it isn't at all a cliché to say "they don't make shoes like they used to!" Drawing on her education in Art History, Fine Arts, Fashion, and Business, our daughter Libby originally developed the concept of 'a Vintage Sole' while still in college. We readily agreed that vintage shoes were wearable art objects in their own right. The real challenge was finding unworn vintage shoes as we were all raised being taught that wearing someone else's worn shoes was ten-times worse than brushing your teeth with someone else's toothbrush (arg).
The genuine vintage shoes we sell have never been worn and are still in their original boxes! They are just too beautiful to stay boxed up forever. If you share our passion for quality shoes that are uniquely vintage, we know you'll enjoy them.
All the best,
Jim & Carol Brouwer