A Penny for your Thoughts

Some things just go together, Astaire and Rogers, peanut butter and jelly, popped collars and preppies and, of course, the penny and the loafer.  Like all of the above, the penny loafer is a classic.  It’s every boy’s first dress shoe (no laces), looks perfect beaten-up and broken down through your college days, and later is spiffy enough for the office.  It’s a lifelong wardrobe staple and all and all just about the most versatile shoe you will ever slip-on.  But, what’s with the penny?

Loafing Around the Farm

The loafer itself was invented in the early 1930s; inspired by an Esquire Magazine photo series featuring Norwegian dairy farmers and their distinctive slip-on shoes.  The Spaulding family of New Hampshire, purveyors of leather and lumber, began producing a leather slip-on they called a “loafer”; named after the area on a dairy farm cows “loaf” around in prior to milking.

In 1936 G.H. Bass Shoe Company began producing its famous Weejun, a name meant to give the flavor of the shoe’s NorWEGIAN roots.  Mr. Bass’s wife, who sent her husband off each morning with a kiss on the cheek, inspired the distinctive strap detail.  Shaped like a pair of lips or the perfect lipstick stain, the new design left just enough room to squeeze in something round and flat.

Your Two Cents Worth

Two cents won’t get you much these days.  There was a time, before the debit card and ATM, when cash payment required the correct dollars and cents.  That time is now long gone and the copper penny (now 97.5% zinc), literally, costs more than it’s worth. Back in the 1930s the recently popularized outdoor payphone or “phone booth” cost a paltry two cents.  The new loafer design allowed just enough space for a penny in each shoe, equaling the cost of an emergency phone call, thus the penny and the loafer were united, never to be torn asunder.

Everything Old Is New Again

The penny loafer had its heyday in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties.  The shoe became a pervasive trend on Ivy League campuses.  With socks, without socks, sometimes even with white tube socks and shorts, the penny loafer became a centerpiece of the newly solidifying post-war “Ivy Look”.  By this time a phone call cost ten cents, some fiscally responsible young gentleman made the switch from pennies to dimes.  But, as is often the case with the preppy set, some held onto the traditional penny, or maybe they never even noticed the change in price.  The penny loafer resurgence of the 1980s happened to coincide with another rise in payphone pricing.  The twenty-cent call kept the loafer’s less sartorial purpose viable for a new generation.

What Now

The social zeitgeist surrounding the payphone and the penny loafer has sadly come to its technological end.  The smart phone has all but eradicated the phone booth, but the shoe abides, it’s back and stronger than ever.  The pennies are now only worth the nostalgia they call forth, or maybe a bit of luck, but the loafer itself has become a timeless American classic, and in our humble opinion, worth every penny.

i. Short for obsolete land-loafer, vagabond, idler, possibly partial translation of obsolete German Landläufer, from Middle High German landlöufer : land, land + löufer, runner (from loufen, to run, from Old High German hlouffan).

ii. As of 2010 the penny cost 1.79 cents to produce and distribute.

iii. The “lucky penny” dates back to the old superstitious practice of putting a penny in the shoe of the bride on her wedding day, the penny was said to bring wealth and luck to the newlyweds.