A few weeks back, my friends over at Vowel Movers were crowing about a perfect pair of poetry pumps from Nine West that went perfectly with their Sylvia Plath dresses. Ever on the lookout for new and interesting footwear, "Poetry & Popular Culture" is happy to call attention here to the "Poetic License" brand line featuring lyrically trendy styles such as "Romance," "Tranquility," "Venom," and the "Breathless" Mary Jane pictured to the left. Hopefully now, Vowel Movers, you'll finally be able to work those Gertrude Stein slacks—or your Elizabeth Barrett Browning hoop skirt, or that Edna St. Vincent Millay twin-set, or even your Beowulfian bodice—into a complete outfit to take on the town. Carrie Bardshaw, eat your heart out.
While "Poetry & Popular Culture" is hardly in the business of dispensing advice on matters sartorial, it nevertheless can offer a poetry pamphlet, "The Shoe Day of Judgment," in the way of a gentle cautionary tale. Produced in 1900 by the St. Louis Wertheimer-Swarts Shoe Company, manufacturers of Clover Brand Shoes (not Joshua Clover Brand Shoes), the pamphlet is a warning for those who might all-too-casually slip "Venom" or "Romance" onto their hoofers and go about their daily lives, wearing those shoes hither and thither, willy-nilly through sleet and snow and city and countryside with little consideration for the well-being, care, and feeding of the shoes themselves.
"The Shoe Day of Judgment" begins with a short preface, "Abuse of Shoes," explaining the man- ufacturer's complaint and appealing for "some sense": too many people hold a shoemaker responsible not for flaws in workmanship but for the consumer's irresponsible misuse. "There is nothing," Wertheimer-Swarts proposes, "that clothes mankind so much abused, and yet is so unreasonably expected to continue Perfect in Fit, Style, Workmanship and Service, as are its Shoes. We appeal to a fair-minded, thinking public to give a few facts their consideration. No two persons wearing the same grade and make of shoes will realize the same service. Leather will wear out. Gritty soil, briars, rocky and rough surfaces, Scuff and Peel soft, velvety uppers. Fine mellow tannages of leather in footwear exposed to extremes of weather, to Heat and Cold, to Mud and Slush, will crack. Seams put to such tests Rip. Failure to care properly for your shoes, by frequent cleaning, oiling and dressing, exposes them to rapid destruction and decay."
"Such abuses," the shoe company goes on, "are the burden of our song." And what a song it is! In 35 ballad stanzas, "The Shoe Day of Judgment" tells of a shoemaker who falls asleep and dreams of a day when shoe-abusers get their comeuppance for unfairly holding manufacturers responsible for every crack, rip, or tear caused by misuse. A farmer who puts his shoes against the fire and redeems them for a new pair the following day is sent to hell. A boy who tears his shoes on "gravel, brick and stone" is sentenced to twelve months of study without vacation. A teamster—not yet part of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters—has his "foolish head" soaked. Another man is sent to a thousand years in jail because he returned his shoes:
I bought them small, I must confess,
To make my feet look smaller,
Yet soon returned them by express,
Marked 'C.O.D. $1.00.'"
While calling attention to the particular pleasure of rhyming "smaller" with "$1.00," "Poetry & Popular Culture" also wishes to direct attention to the similar fate of the maid, which may be of special interest to those smiling yet careless misses seeking out Nine West's Poetry pump or any of the Poetic License products currently on the market:
Then came a maid, a smiling miss,
Whose action naught condones,
Who careless ran, that way and this,
And walked on glass and stones.
Back to the dealer with an air
Of injured worth she went:
"I'll have to have another pair;
These are not worth a cent!"
Oh, when the Judge encountered this,
His mien was most severe.
"You'll have to go, my careless miss,
Barefooted for a year!"
While "The Shoe Day of Judgment" may be a harrowing tale, its use of poetry as both a tool for advertising and instruction in the consumer marketplace is not unusual, as virtually every product was hawked via verse at one time or another during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Back then, poems were employed for their prestige or entertainment values. Nowadays, though, at least to judge from Nine West and Poetic License, the title of Poetry is grafted directly onto the product itself, because what can be more reassuring in our uncertain age than knowing that what we buy—indeed, even the very act of buying—is where, in fact, the poetry's at.