I found a great little half-hour video on Peal & Company on YouTube recently. For those who appreciate the history of British shoemaking, this is a rare opportunity to see a glimpse of a world long gone.
Peal & Co., as many readers may know, wasn’t always just a name stamped inside of Brooks Brothers’ shoes. They were once the largest bespoke shoemaking operation in the world. Having been founded in 1791 by Samuel Peal - an English cordwainer who first made a name for himself by patenting a new way of weatherproofing boots - they eventually built a list of clientele that stretched throughout North and South America, Europe, and East Asia. Sales reps would travel abroad to meet with men, measure and trace their feet, and then take their orders. These notes were then posted to Peal’s factory back in Acton Vale, London, and the finished shoes were delivered six weeks later. This “traveling bespoke” system was so successful that by the time of the company’s closing, two-thirds of Peal’s production went for export.
The client list was impressive. There was the regular run of Hollywood stars (Fred Astaire, Humphrey Bogart, Cary Grant, Douglas Fairbanks, Henry Fonda, Steve McQueen, etc); industrialists such as Henry Ford; intellectuals such as Hugh Trevor-Roper; politicians such as the John F. Kennedy; and almost every diplomat, aristocrat, and king from that period. It’s hard to imagine this many people ordering bespoke shoes from just one firm today.
Peal & Co. was also an important innovator. They developed a system whereby a handmade last could be duplicated up to eight times on a copying lathe. An important innovation, I imagine, given the large demand.
Unfortunately, by the mid-20th century, the company struggled to find suitable replacements for their skilled craftsmen. This led to longer delivery times and, sadly, eventually the closing of the factory in 1965. The trading name was then sold to Brooks Brothers. You can see the letter sealing this agreement below.
Brooks Brothers still trades its shoes under the Peal & Co. banner, but of course, all the history has been forgotten and their shoes today are made by various Northampton firms. The company still somewhat lives on through Foster & Son, however. When the Peal closed, their bespoke last maker, Terry Moore, took many of their lasts with him to Foster & Son, where they’re still being used today as a valuable reference point for certain styles of riding boots and slippers. This is why you can still see Peal’s “boot and fox” emblem - which they picked up from Bartley & Son when they acquired them - in Foster & Son’s logo. It’s the same boot and fox, you’ll notice, that Brooks Brothers stamps inside of their shoes.
Anyway, in the video, you get a rare glimpse at one of the most important bespoke shoe making operations in history. The film was shot on a 8mm in 1959, just six years before the company’s closing, and has been brought back to life thanks to the wonder of YouTube and some narration by Peal family members in 2012. Even if you don’t care about the history of English shoes, halfway into the film at the 14 min, 30 sec mark is some nice, stylish shots of London.
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