Modern rubber’s origins are in northern Brazil, in the state of Pará, at the mouth of the Amazon. It was from here that the first samples of the unusual substance known as caoutchouc, or Indian rubber, were exported to Europe in the late 18th century. Then, about 1820, an unidentified New England sailor brought a few pairs of rubber shoes with him from Pará to Boston for exhibition and sale. They became a sensation.
The first rubber shoes were introduced to the Vineyard soon afterward — presumably before 1825 — by a young Holmes Hole sailor named Leander Daggett (1800-1888), who brought them up from the Brazilian city of Belém in Pará. (Whether he could have been the unidentified sailor who also brought them to Boston is a matter of conjecture.) Daggett, who later became a harbor pilot, grew up in Holmes Hole, the eldest of 11 children. Their family home on Beach Street was located near what is today Sweet Bites bakery. Daggett is also credited with introducing the first merino sheep to the Island, which he rescued from a wrecked vessel off New London, Conn.
The unvulcanized rubber shoes were expensive and impractical — they froze hard in the winter and became a sticky mess in the summer — but they were very fashionable, and waterproof. Brazilian overshoes, known as “India rubber shoes,” became a widespread fad in the U.S. starting in the mid-1820s. “It had become a matter of fashion to wear these shoes,” wrote Walter Houghton in his 1888 history “King of Fortune,” “and no person’s toilet was complete in wet weather unless the feet were encased in them.”
Until the mid-19th century, most Vineyarders had been pretty self-sufficient when it came to footwear. “They made their own shoes,” historian Charles Banks wrote. “The number of “cordwainers” (shoemakers) who appear on the records could make shoes enough for an army. It is not to be supposed that all followed this occupation — but they were proficient in it and could do so if required.” (The shoes of this era were mostly square-toed leather boots, and each shoe in a pair was identical — there was no “right” or “left.”) By 1850, there were a total of only 12 shoemakers or cordwainers listed on the Island, as imported ready-made shoes were becoming the norm.
By the time of Leander Daggett’s death in 1888, rubber was commonplace on the Island, and still quite fashionable. The New York Herald reported in 1881, “The ladies at Cottage City during the past few days reminded me very forcibly of the street costumes so frequently seen in the streets of Lima, for, as in Peru, these shrouded figures were more like pedestrian balloons than anything I can think of. But you can see the handsome faces of the wearers at Cottage City, while in Lima you can get only a glimpse of an eye roguishly turned toward the stranger. Sitting in a sheltered corner of the wide veranda I began calculating how many thousand dollars had been invested in rubber clothing, for every feminine form moving about was enveloped in its shiny and wavy folds, from the little girl of 10 to the mature matron of I don’t dare say how many years. No doubt $30,000 would be near the figure.”
Chris Baer teaches photography and graphics at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. His book, “Martha’s Vineyard Tales,” containing many “This Was Then” columns, will be released on June 1.