A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Whatever happened to Buster Brown shoes?

January 27, 2009

Whatever happened to Buster Brown shoes? You know, with the label inside showing Buster and his dog, Tide? For that matter, whatever happened to Paul Parrot shoes? When I was in the first grade (ca. 1949) it was considered the essence of coolness if you could show everybody that you had Buster Brown or Paul Parrot shoes. I think Buster Brown was advertised on The Howdy Doody Show and Paul Parrot was advertised on Captain Video and his Video Rangers, but I can't be absolutely sure of these recollections.

Mike Warns replies:

First of all, Buster Brown shoes never went away – you just stopped fitting into them. The Brown Shoe Company is still one of the largest shoe concerns in the world, with annual sales of $2.5 billion, and I'm sure they'd be happy to sell you something by one of their other fine brands. Seeing as how you're old enough to remember Captain Video, a pair of Dr. Scholl's should be just the ticket.

And second, the dog's name was Tige, as in "tiger." Doesn't anybody remember their turn-of-the-20th-century comic strips anymore? Time for a little review.

Making its first appearance in 1902, Buster Brown was Richard F. Outcault's follow-up to his breakthrough strip, Hogan's Alley, starring the Yellow Kid. Instead of terrorizing the mean streets of a New York City slum, as the Kid did, Buster and Tige raised hell on Park Avenue. Imagine Calvin & Hobbes, only with Hobbes prone to biting and Calvin dressed in a Little Lord Fauntleroy getup that was as liable to get him beat up a century ago as it would be now. Buster pulled pranks, got into fights, and was regularly whaled to within an inch of his life by his mom, just like any boy of his day. Outcault most likely named him after arguably the greatest acrobatic comedian ever, Buster Keaton, who even as a boy was a big star on the vaudeville circuit. (The young Keaton was thrown around the stage by his father while his mother played the saxophone.)

Buster Brown quickly acquired a national following, and in 1904 Outcault went to the Saint Louis World's Fair to market his hot new strip. It's said that he signed 200 licensing deals in all, but the one that lasted the longest was the one with Brown Shoes, which saw the coincidence of the names as too good to pass up. Brown took off running, sending actors dressed as Buster to plug the brand in theaters and outside shoe stores. Not wanting to leave the girls' market untapped, they also licensed the name of Buster's sister, Mary Jane, for their line of strap shoes like those the character wore in the strip. Though no longer a Brown trademark, Mary Janes are still popular with hipsters, Harajuku Lolitas, and other women looking for fun style in their shoes.

Brown wasn't the only shoe company in Saint Louis, Missouri. Through much of the 19th and 20th centuries Saint Louis was the center of the American shoe industry. (With prominent breweries like Anheuser-Busch and a thriving brothel and music scene that attracted the likes of Scott Joplin, the city was known nationwide for its "booze, blues, and shoes.") Another local brand that took off as a result of the World's Fair was Red Goose Shoes. Originally named Gieseke-D'Oench-Hayes, the company stamped its crates with a picture of a goose. (Some claim that "Gieseke" was German slang for "goose," but that's not the case; it's likely that the goose logo was simply a visual pun on the Gieseke name.) Enterprising stockboys painted the goose red on crates being shipped over to the fair, and the owners liked the response so much they changed the company's name.

The other shoe brand you mention, and the third major player in the early-to-midcentury kids' shoe biz, was actually called Poll Parrot – a play on the name of its parent company, Paul Parrot Shoes. Well into the 60s Buster Brown, Red Goose, and Poll Parrot battled for the hearts and minds of American children using giveaway trinkets, comic books, radio shows, and television sponsorships. I can't verify your memories of seeing their commercials on Howdy Doody and Captain Video, but I do find that for a while Red Goose sponsored Tom Corbett, Space Cadet.

Buster Brown may have won the war, and Red Goose and Poll Parrot may not have really been competing with each other – having both been swallowed up by International Shoe in the first half of the century – but I always had a soft spot for Red Goose. Why? Because its swag wasn't dispensed from some old shoe box under the cash register but was instead delivered via a golden egg laid by a large red mechanical goose when you pulled down its head. Or at least that's what I heard – since my shoes came from Montgomery Ward or Topps, I never knew for sure.

Ah, nostalgia for a time when style and comfort in kids' shoes were at best an afterthought; what Buster Brown and its competitors had to offer was sheer durability. In those days, their mission was to turn the thickest, stiffest leather imaginable into a shoe that could last a fourth grader (if he did not grow too fast or complain too much) an entire school year.

Big, clunky shoes that wore like iron still needed to be saved for school and church, though, so kids were encouraged to swap them after hours for cooler and more comfortable Chucks, Keds, or Red Ball Jets (or their department-store clones). Eventually boomer informality brought sneakers into the classroom, and the great kids' shoe wars were over. International Shoe dropped Poll Parrot from the line, then Red Goose, and finally stopped making shoes altogether; after several decades and name changes and a bizarrely long string of acquisitions and divestitures, it is now America's largest furniture company. Only Buster Brown and Tige remain, and their maniacal grins have been toned down to tasteful profiles.

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Staff Reports are written by the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board, Cecil's online auxiliary. Though the SDSAB does its best, these columns are edited by Ed Zotti, not Cecil, so accuracywise you'd better keep your fingers crossed.

References

Barnacle Press. [Archive of Buster Brown comic strips.] <http://www.barnaclepress.com/list.php?directory=BusterBrown>

Blackbeard, Bill, and Martin Williams. The Smithsonian Collection of Newspaper Comics. Smithsonian Institution Press, 1977.

Brownshoe.com. "History of Buster Brown." <http://www.brownshoe.com/history/bb-1902.asp>

Furniturebrands.com. "Furniture Brands International – A Company History from Footwear to Furniture." <http://furniturebrands.com/Our-Company/Our-History.aspx>

Stripper's Guide. "News of Yore: Mary Jane Outcault Profiled by Her Dad." <http://strippersguide.blogspot.com/2007/12/news-of-yore-mary-jane-outcault.html>

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