Russell Moccasins, and Thoughts about the Past and Present

I recently found this catalog from the W.C. Russell Moccasin Company of Berlin, Wisconsin.  I was pleasantly surprised to open it and find that Russell Moccasins were not just for men.

Click to enlarge

The first pages show both men and women out in the wild, enjoying their Russell boots.  By the looks of the clothing and hair styles, my guess is that most of these were taken in the 1920s and early 1930s.   There is no date to be found in the catalog, but the front cover illustration looks to be more like a late 1930s or even a 1940s style.  Another hint is that the catalog reads that the company has been in business for over a quarter of a century.  Since it was founded in 1898, I know that is later than 1924.

The last clue is the style of the shoes.  These look to be late 1930s, or 1940s.  The trouble with sports clothing and shoes is that while fashion is considered, the styles are a bit more constant than a fashion garment or shoe.  But still, I’m leaning toward late 1930s for a date on the catalog.

This boot was a favorite for hiking and camping.  I’ve seen ads for very similar ones as early as 1922.  I have a pair in my collection from Abercrombie & Fitch, the famous outfitters for adventurers.

Click to better see the moviegram

I thought this “moviegram” showing moccasin construction was very interesting.  And just because I love them so much, here are better views of some of the women campers.

I look at a lot of old images, read a lot of vintage magazines and watch classic movies.  To my modern sensibilities, sometimes the things I encounter are disquieting.  The way people thought about race relations, animal rights, and the status of women can be vastly different from the way I look at these issues.

Right now I’m slowily reading my way through every issue of Life magazine, thanks to Google Books.  To be honest, I’ve been shocked at the language used when referring to people of different races.  Words that today we think are used only by ignorant racists were used freely in a national magazine.  Especially in advertising, women are portrayed as being glorified house maids, being concerned with trivial domestic problems while the man of the house works to support her.  There are photos of hunters surrounded by dead animals, in which sport hunting is glorified.

When I encounter such a disturbing image or passage, my mind has to remind my sensibilities that this was almost 80 years ago, and today at least people are aware of these issues and are working toward solving the injustices of life.  I don’t have to like what I’m seeing, but I have learned to put it in the past where it belongs.   Sometimes I think history lovers tend to over-glorify the past.  I love the images of the women I’ve posted here, and frankly have thought about what a great time it must have been.  I’m glad that the photos do not contain images of dead animals, which they very well could have seeing that they are, after all, in the woods and probably hunting.

Which brings me to the present.  I was really surprised to learn that the W.R. Russell Company is still in business, still producing boots in Berlin, Wisconsin.  I was all ready to link to their site when I encountered a page where customers are pictured wearing their boots, surrounded by their prey.  It was like it was 1933 and these guys were big game hunters in darkest Africa.

I live in an area of the country where hunting is still accepted.   Cars sport bumper stickers like “Hunt with your kid, not hunt for him.”  I realize that some people do still hunt for their food, and I know that hunting does help control animal over-population.  However, I cannot understand why any website that is trying to sell shoes in the 21st century would feature photos of great-white-hunter wannabes.    I respect the heritage of hunting.  It is how our ancestors survived.  But I do not understand gratuitous killing just to make the killer look manly.

My point here is not to bash hunters. My grandfather was a “fox hunter.”  I put that in quotes because in his case being a hunter meant that he and his buddies liked to dress in red buffalo check jackets, go camping, and let their hounds run loose.   My point is that we need to remember the past and to honor it.  But there are some things about the past that need to stay there.

UPDATE:  I have discovered that this catalog dates from 1940.


Filed under Camping and Hiking, Made in the USA, Shoes, Viewpoint

15 responses to “Russell Moccasins, and Thoughts about the Past and Present

  1. “Sometimes I think history lovers glorify the past.” – so true! I think this happens as a way to distance themselves from what the realities were at the time. While a lot of what we see is shocking regarding race, ethnic and gender stereotypes, I’m always happy to see the more forward-thinking examples in our social history, which you are great about sharing with us in your blog.


  2. Lizzie-
    I struggle with this too, as my dad was a game bird hunter, and the fall always reminds me of it being pheasant, quail, partridge or duck season. My dad’s father passed away when my dad was only 18/19 and he was the only boy in the family, growing up with a sister and a gaggle of girl cousins, and aunts. I think hunting for him was a way to bond with his uncle (my great uncle) Jim, who showed him how to hunt, and they’d often go out each season.
    We did eat everything he brought home (like it or not) and we knew in the fall never to ask a friend to get something out of the fridge, knowing they’d encounter a tidy pile of birds in there.
    I don’t necessarily agree with hunting just for sport, but I do know that my dad and many of his hunting pals were active in supporting the preservation of open space and wetlands, and he’d often lament when we’d drive past a place he used to hunt, that is now a giant suburban development.
    Many times he came home empty handed, and mum said she thinks he just liked to walk around the woods with his dogs and his cronies, and this was a good excuse. I too have to remember that that these were different times. No one in my generation hunts, and even our dog Rigby (who’s mother was a national field trial champion) isn’t trained in the sporting ways of his ancestors.
    Thanks for bringing this up, and making me think of my dad – he passed away almost 3 years ago this October.
    Mod Betty


  3. I have been reading Mary McCarthy’s novel “The Group” and have had a similar shock in regard to women’s sexuality circa the 1930s! It’s easy to start thinking that we’ve come a long way…but we have a ways to go, too.

    I lived in western Montana for 15 years as a young woman. The county I lived in often had an unemployment rate as high as 25%. I was accustomed to seeing hunters’ kill strapped to the hood of family cars or in the bed of a pick-up. And while I know that some was trophy kill, in many cases the meat taken was a necessity for feeding a family. I don’t see this so much in the midwest where I live now, although to visit a local Cabela’s it is disturbing to see the high numbers of shoppers in the ammunition department.


    • I think that a lot of the hunters around here eat what they kill as well. I have a neighbor who hunts all year and every July has the entire neighborhood over for a big barbecue to sample his game. I stick with the vegetables and beer.


  4. Fantastic post. I totally agree with you about leaving the past in the past. There is a big difference between nostalgia and the reality of the way things used to be. Makes me greatful to live in 2013!


  5. Sometimes society shifts the language to something more neutral but keep the predjudices intact.
    Love the images of women camping, and the dog looks like a good chum too!
    Excellent post.


  6. Karen Antonowicz

    What a great post! As an animal lover, I heartily agree!


  7. I have to second what Terri says. We have come so far. We have so much further still to go.


  8. I really enjoyed this post and couldn’t agree more. I say what’s nice about now is that we get to go back through history and choose the things worth saving and passing on to the next generation.
    I know in school my daughter will be taught about all the wars throughout history, the injustices people have suffered, and so on. But I think it’s important too to show her history through a different lens…the lovely history of vintage feed sacks, Make Do & Mend, the marvelous craftsmanship from days of old, the stories of people who recognized injustice and sought to create something better.
    No matter what pocket of history we look into, we can find sordid tales and nitty-gritty bits of reality, but just as much as those bad things exist, the good things do too. Nostalgia doesn’t deny the existence of bad things just because it remembers the good. There is value in knowing both ends of the stick, and certainly some things are far more worthy of our attention (but then again, I also study quantum physics and understand to a degree that our attention to things keeps them alive in a sense). Personally, I like to get my history lessons from Reminisce magazine (and your blog, of course!). I love stories of fun and joy, determination and overcoming hard times, the indomitable good of the human spirit, stories of love and friendship. Is that glossing over history? Maybe a little bit, but I’m ok with that.
    I think as vintage purveyors, we offer a great value to ourselves and others by keeping alive the beautiful parts of history. I’ve learned so much from your blog (and VFG posts), and really I can’t thank you enough for all the lovely, interesting bits of history you’ve helped preserve.


  9. oh and thank you too for telling us about the online Life magazines. I didn’t know those were available. No doubt that will be another invaluable resource. Thanks for sharing!


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