• Exploring American History

Loafing in a Classic Manner

With the arrival of cell phones, telephone booths have, for the most part, gone the way of T-Rex and the carrier pigeon. In their day, however, they served a vital function.

During the 1930s, only a small percentage of homes were blessed with telephone service, and the majority of those who had phones were hooked up on party lines. This put someone needing to make a call in the hands of a chatty neighbor’s good graces, hopefully, willing to pause an intense conversation so the needing individual could make a call. Should the chatty neighbor refuse to do so, a mad dash to a telephone booth would be required; likely without first checking one’s pocket/purse for change.

Thankfully G. H. Bass, a gentleman in Wilton, Maine, came up with a solution. Though he was unable to do away with party lines or chatty neighbors, he did offer a solution to prevent someone from leaving home without change for the phone.

Bass’s inspiration was found in Scandinavia by a number of American students on holiday. There, they observed the moccasin-style footwear of the Norwegian fishermen. Bass was told of their observations when they returned home. Having opened a men’s clothing company in 1876, Bass was always on the lookout for a new style to wow his customers. What he learned about the Norwegian moccasins filled him with inspiration.

Rather than release a standard moccasin, Bass chose to add a fashionable decoration in the form of a strap across the vamp. Not just any strap, mind you; this one had a lip-shaped cut out in it. By doing so, Bass accomplished two things – 1) his Weejuns stood out from all other moccasin/loafer designs and 2) the lip-shaped cut out was large enough to hold a penny – the cost of a phone booth call during his time. This way, anyone wearing his shoes carried back-up change for phone calls due to the fact the cost of a call was only a penny. (When inflation took its toll on the phone booths, a dime fit as well.)

Bass’s penny loafers’ continue to remain popular with both men and women, in dressy and casual styles. Though the need to carry pennies in the vamp for phone calls no longer exists, many still find it nostalgic to do so.

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