For years, a vast conspiracy existed between the women of New York and their shoe salesmen. From the doughtiest matron to the slimmest debutante, shoe size 13A or 1 were considered ideal, and anything up to a 3 acceptable; and women struggled to fit into them, much to the consternation of the salesmen.
The best conspiracies are the simplest, and footwear specialists came up with a solution; label each and every pair of shoes a 13A or a number 1. The smallest feet around…size 1. Feet like toboggans…size 1. Give the shopper a shoe that fits, label it a size 1, and she’ll be happy.
And so began the legend; “Feminine residents of New York have held to themselves for lo! these many years the flattering belief that they have the smallest feet of the women of any large city. They have prided themselves especially upon their superiority in the matter of small neat tootsies over their sisters of New York’s deadliest rival, Chicago” said the New York World.
Women showed up to buy these:
Advertised by retailers such as this (putting on a White Sale during the second week of January 1909):
and all who wanted went home with a size 1 or a 13A.
The charade fell apart during the week of January 13, 1909. First, The National Boot and Shoe Manufacturers’ Association, holding their annual convention at the Hotel Astor, condemned the practice. Association President J. Hanan stated on the record, “The subterfuge ingeniously arranged so a dealer can give a woman any size to fit no matter what she may call for is manifestly unfair.” J.D. Smithers, shoe dealer from Detroit, disagreed, “You tell a lady with a No. 9 foot that you are giving her a No. 9 shoe,” said Mr. Smithers, “and watch her whisk out of your store! What you need in trade young man is discretion.”
Then the other shoe fell (pun completely intended). Mat Grau, theatrical booking agent, was in town to pick out a chorus line for the new Broadway play A Stubborn Cinderella. Advertisements were inserted into newspapers invited the small footed young ladies of the greater New York area to call upon Mr. Grau for an audition; to sweeten the deal Grau offered twice the usual chorus girl salary.
The special nature of the play called for the chorus girls to fill a size 13A shoe. “Out in Chicago, we had no difficulty of a serious nature in picking a chorus of girls – adults – who could wear a 13A shoe” said Grau, and so he expected it to be easy. ” One thousand women came from Newark, Brooklyn, and Manhattan, each trying to squeeze into a size 13A. Said Grau, “Putting [the test shoe] on most of the feet I have run across in a week was like trying to fit a peanut shell on the end of an incandescent lamp.” Grau’s heart fell like a pair of arches with each failure. He’d been testing the feet of chorus girls for years, “I remember the time, when I was younger, that this test shoe I have – a 13A – would slip on the foot of possibly every fifth girl who applied for a chorus position.” But no more. Out of those 1000 women, Grau found only one who could wear the 13A. Miss Rita Harris.
But the illusion was gone; the Achilles heel exposed. The women of New York, Brookyln and Newark had big feet. And now the world knew it.