A Shoe and the Historical Record

On October 7, 2014, students in Dr. Susanna Lee’s Digital History class (HI 534) went to the North Carolina Museum of History to participate in a new 3D-scanning project that sought to make items in the museum’s collection available as 3D scans to mass audiences cheaply and effectively. The project was an exploration into the cost effectiveness of 3D technology for museums and the methodological problems and challenges with using 3D technology to present historical artifacts. One of the objects that we scanned was a child’s leather shoe (Accession #2010.90.5) made by an enslaved person in North Carolina.  The shoe originated from Cleveland County, North Carolina, and was donated by the descendants of the Nowlin/Nolin/Nolan family (multiple spellings). One can access and download the completed scan on Thingiverse.

Scanning Process

We scanned the shoe using the MakerBot Digitizer 3D desktop scanner.  The scanner is a relatively affordable option for those interested in digital scanning, costing approximately $799.  It provides relatively detailed scans of smaller objects that can easily fit on the scanner’s circular platform.  The technology also works automatically, making the scanning process relatively foolproof and a good option for beginners experimenting with 3D scanning technology.  However, objects over eight inches high do not fit easily onto the platform and cannot be scanned.  In addition, the MakerBot Digitizer does not scan the original color of the object, although color can be later added to the scan digitally.[1]

Getting acquainted with MakerBot.

Getting acquainted with MakerBot.

In order to scan the shoe, we first placed it flat on the scanner and turned the scanning program on through the computer.  We made sure that the digitizer was facing a blank wall to avoid interference with people walking in the background of the scan, and thus corrupting the data.  The MakerBot Digitizer works by using two guiding lasers and a video camera to capture the details of the scanned object.  The object turns slowly on an automatic turntable, and multiple scans of the object can be combined in the software to create a single, detailed scan.  In the case of the shoe, we ended up scanning the shoe from two different angles.  First, we scanned the shoe as it lay flat on its sole.  Then we turned the shoe to sit up on its heel and scanned it again.  By combining the two scans, we received a relatively detailed 3D model of the shoe that showed interesting details of wear and tear and captured the intricately textured surface of both the top and the bottom of the shoe.

Digital Interpretation

While the scan captured a relatively detailed 3D model of the shoe, some of the original texture, wear patterns, and cracks in the leather of the shoe were inevitably lost when it was translated into a digital format.  In addition, the digital format is ultimately no substitute for real interaction with the object.  For instance, the 3D model loses the essence of the materiality of the shoe, such as the dried and cracked leather and the way that the child’s foot had slowly molded the shoe to fit around it.  Beyond just details of color that were lost, the 3D model cannot convey the weight or the emotional resonance of interacting with the real historical object.

The scan and 3D printing also turned an ultimately wearable object into something that could not be worn.  First of all, the inflexibility of the plastic used for 3D printing would mean that any printed shoe based on this model would not be pliable enough to wear comfortably, if at all.  Even more importantly, the 3D scanner did not pick up the essential hollowness of the object.  The 3D scanner interpreted the shoe as one solid object.  Although it is possible through advanced 3D editing to create the hole for the foot, the skills to do so were beyond that of the team.

However, 3D printing and modelling of objects like the shoe does have its advantages.  For instance, the actual shoe is fragile and cannot be handled by school groups or visitors to the museum.  Even when we scanned the shoe, we could not interact directly with it.  Although the 3D print would not capture all the details of wear and tear or texture, it would increase interactivity with the object by giving people something to hold and examine from all angles.  The actual object can only be mounted for view from one perspective and hidden behind a glass case.

The final product.

The final product.

Research Methodology

As with many slave-made objects, the actual life of the craftsman of the shoe may be forever lost to history.  Census records did not typically record the names of enslaved people.  In 1850 and 1860, “slave schedules” recorded the number, estimated age, and sex of enslaved people for taxation purposes, but even these records list the slaveholder’s name only.  Lower-class white men and women also left infrequent records compared with upper-class elites.  Historians, therefore, consult “popular” sources like newspapers, in addition to official censuses, to better understand individuals underrepresented in the historical record.

Nevertheless, there are ways to glean information about relatively unknown historical actors. Historians can make careful deductions about what an enslaved person’s life may have been like based on more general knowledge of the conditions of slavery and by careful study of available material culture.  The leather children’s shoe offers a rare opportunity to directly observe a portion of the historical record.[2] Subtle inferences of the craftsman can be made through the shoe’s material, style, and quality.[3]  In turn, the owners most likely considered the shoe to be representative of a certain time or place, and, thus, important to maintain and pass down to the next generation.  By simple observation, artifacts may complement or reveal new insights to the traditional historical record.[4]

Historical Interpretation

Museum records attribute this shoe to “Old Jack,” an enslaved man living in Cleveland County, North Carolina, in 1862.[5] “Old Jack” supposedly made a pair of shoes for Amelia Octavia Nolan, the one-year-old daughter of white county residents Anderson Nolan (alternately Nowlin, Nolin) and Sarah Nolan (nee Crowder).  Anderson Nolan was born in 1834 and was a farmer in Cleveland County at the time of the 1860 federal census.  Anderson had married his wife, Sarah, born in 1844, earlier that year.  Available records, including the 1860 slave schedules, do not indicate that the Nolans owned slaves, although a 21-year-old white farm laborer, Lewis Evans, is listed as part of their household at the time.[6] How then did “Old Jack” come to make this shoe for the Nolans’ child?

In 1860, most people living in Cleveland County and other counties in western North Carolina were small-time farmers like the Nolans who did not own slaves.  In fact, although slaves made up 17 percent of the county’s population in 1860, they were concentrated in the hands of the wealthiest 3 percent of white county residents.[7] Even so, wealth was relative in antebellum North Carolina.  White men in the eastern part of the state, where the climate was more suited to growing tobacco and cotton as cash crops, could own dozens of slaves on large plantations.  White men in colder, rockier, western North Carolina, however, considered themselves wealthy if they owned five to ten slaves.[8] These men usually relied on their slaves to help them farm subsistence crops like corn and potatoes, or assist in burgeoning antebellum industries like textile mills.  Enslaved men with knowledge of a craft worked as blacksmiths, carpenters, and tanners as well.  In a county that lacked good roads, bridges over waterways, and railway access before the Civil War, such skilled laborers were especially needed to repair farm equipment and household goods that were difficult to obtain otherwise.[9]

Enslaved craftsmen were often apprenticed out at a young age to white craftsmen, where they learned the trade over a number of years.  Some enslaved craftsmen were allowed to live in town with relative independence and send a portion of their earnings back to their master.  However, some of these craftsmen were brought back to the farm to fill needed roles in daily operations.  Many enslaved people who were apprenticed as craftsmen and allowed to live in town were seen to have a “better” life than the enslaved people who worked the land.[10]

“Old Jack” was likely one of these enslaved craftsmen, perhaps hired out to the Nolans by another white family.  He was obviously familiar with shoemaking, which was typically done by hand in the antebellum period; museum records indicate that the pegs holding the shoe together were handmade.  “Old Jack” could have also been familiar with tanning, the process of converting animal skins into leather.  Museum records indicate that the Nolan farm included a tannery in 1862.[11] The family probably raised cattle as a supplement to other agricultural income, and “Old Jack” could have been responsible for processing the hides into a variety of leather goods, including leather shoes for Octavia Nolan.  The shoe may also have been passed down from child to child due to its date of provenance right before the Civil War and to the wear and tear of the shoe itself.  Leather goods like shoes were rare during and right after the Civil War.  Many children grew up barefoot.  It was not unlikely that one or more of the Nolan children ended up wearing the shoes during childhood.  Although the shoes itself would not have differentiated left or right feet when they were new, the wear from multiple years shows that the shoes eventually conformed to right and left feet.  “Old Jack’s” craftsmanship is evident in that the shoes have survived over 150 years with no obvious patches or holes.

The exact date that “Old Jack” joined the Nolans is not known.  Had he been working for the family for a few weeks or a few years when he made the shoes in 1862?  Was he commissioned especially to make the shoes, or had he made other items for the family as well?  Records related to the Nolans may shed some light on when and how “Old Jack” came to the family, although little can be said conclusively.  The Nolans were listed as having relatively little personal property and no real estate in the 1860 census; this is likely because they were newlyweds in the process of establishing themselves at that time.[12] Therefore, the Nolans may not have had the resources to pay for a hired slave early on in their marriage.  Perhaps that is why they took in Lewis Evans, a white farmhand, who could work as an additional laborer in exchange for room and board.

Yet, by 1862, the Nolans not only had a farm, but a tannery on that farm as well.  This suggests a level of prosperity that was absent two years earlier and that may have allowed the couple to hire a slave to relieve them of the hard but necessary work of processing leather.  What accounts for this fairly quick rise in the Nolans’ fortunes?  As historian James Oakes has argued, white Southern men, regardless of their circumstances, aspired to become slaveholders and therefore gain the wealth and status that elite “planters” accrued.  Many white men born into lower or middling classes consequently worked incredibly hard in multiple jobs early in their adulthood to raise enough capital to buy slaves.[13] In 1862 or slightly before, Anderson Nolan may have taken the first steps towards breaking into the slaveholding class: he obtained and worked farmland, built a tannery, and hired the services of “Old Jack.”

The original children's leather shoe.

The original children’s leather shoe.

In May of 1862, however, Anderson Nolan joined with over half of Cleveland County’s white male population to fight for the Confederacy and for the slaveholding life that he had been working towards.[14] He served as a corporal in Company F of the 56th Regiment of Ransom’s Brigade, fought in Virginia in 1863, and was wounded in the left thigh at Plymouth, NC, on April 20, 1864.[15] Although he survived and eventually returned home, he was thus gone from the family farm for much of 1862 and the following two years.  If “Old Jack” was hired in 1862, did Anderson Nolan hire him before he left for war to help his eighteen-year-old wife, Sarah?  Or did Sarah Nolan, a new mother, take matters into her own hands and decide that she needed extra help after Anderson left?  It would have been difficult for Sarah to have hired “Old Jack”; as a woman in the South’s patriarchal society, she was typically barred from purchasing slaves herself.  Nevertheless, many Southern women, out of ideology or necessity, challenged traditional gender roles during the war.  It is not outside the realm of possibility that Sarah Nolan did too.

Similarly, historians can only guess at “Old Jack’s” thoughts about his situation.  Did he prefer working in the Nolan tannery to the main alternative–working in the fields?  Did the Nolans treat him well because he was a skilled slave, or did they feel threatened by his presence and talents?  Was he aware of Union troop movements and praying for freedom?  Did he live to see the end of the war and the changes that it brought to all Southerners’ lives?

For now, these questions remain unanswered and unanswerable.  What is known is that Anderson Nolan came back to Cleveland County, to Sarah, and to the young Octavia.  The couple later had two more children, another daughter, Florence, and a son, J.B.  J.B. grew up to became a real estate dealer, while both Florence and Octavia married into prominent Cleveland County families.  Sarah Nolan passed away in 1918, while Anderson Nolan died in 1926.  The child’s leather shoe was eventually handed down to Pearl Wells, Anderson Nolan’s great-granddaughter who donated the items to the Museum.  Today, the shoe is part of the Museum’s exhibit on North Carolina history where it acts as a window into the lives of black and white residents during the Civil War.

[1] For more information on the MakerBot Digitizer, visit the following website: http://store.makerbot.com/digitizer.

[2] History from Things: Essays on Material Culture, ed. Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), ix.

[3] Jules David Prown, “The Truth of Material Culture: History of Fiction?” in History from Things, ed. Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 5.

[4] Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, “Why We Need Things,” in History from Things, ed. Steven Lubar and W. David Kingery (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1993), 27.

[5] “Shoes,” Collection File, Accession Number H.2010.90.5, North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh, NC.

[6] “United States Census, 1860,” HeritageQuest Online, persi.heritagequest.online.com (accessed October 30, 2014). NARA Microfilm Publication M653 (Roll 893, Page 728), National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.

[7] James Whitney, Caleb Royster, and Alec Loeb, “The Civil War Experience in Gaston and Cleveland Counties,” DocSouth: Commemorative Landscapes, http://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/features/essays/whitney/ (accessed October 30, 2014).

[8] “Stories of the American South: Slavery in North Carolina,” DocSouth and UNC University Libraries, http://www2.lib.unc.edu/stories/slavery/story/index.html (accessed October 30, 2014).

[9] National Register of Historic Places, “History of Shelby,” National Park Service, http://www.nps.gov/nr/travel/shelby/history.htm (accessed October 30, 2014).

[10] Stephanie J. Shaw, “The Maturation of Slave Society and Culture,” in A Companion to the American South, ed. John B. Boles (Malden, MA: Blackwell Pub., 2004), 118-138.

[11] “Shoes,” Collection File, Accession Number H.2010.90.5.

[12] United States Census, 1860.

[13] James Oakes, The Ruling Race: A History of American Slaveholders (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1998).

[14] Whitney, Royster, and Loeb, “The Civil War Experience in Gaston and Cleveland Counties.”

[15] National Park Service, “Anderson Nowlin,” Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database, http://www.nps.gov/civilwar/search-soldiers-detail.htm?soldierId=9EE02CBF-DC7A-DF11-BF36-B8AC6F5D926A (accessed October 30, 2014).















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