During the years that you were growing up until today, you might have gone through several pairs of leather shoes, with laces and without. Your very first dress shoes may have been slip-ons. These leather shoes without laces were fashioned after the slip-on shoes of Norwegian dairy farmers. The penny loafer, a wardrobe staple for most people, is a very versatile shoe that is suitable for both men and women. But why was it called penny loafer?
In the 1930s there was an article in Esquire Magazine that included photos of dairy farmers from Norway wearing a very distinct type of slip-on shoes. The Spaulding family from New Hampshire were suppliers of leather and lumber. They started producing the leader shoes and gave them the name loafer, which actually pertained to the area where cows in a dairy farm wandered around or "loafed" before milking.
The G.H. Bass Shoe Company also produced slip-on shoes in 1936, branding the shoes Weejun, to connect the shoes to its Norwegian origin. It was said that it was the wife of Mr. Bass, who used to send off her husband to work with a kiss on the cheek every morning that inspired the very distinct lip-like detail on the shoe strap. That little strip of leather became the mark of the Bass Weejun and other shoe manufacturers did the same.
From the farm to the office to formal wear
From being just a casual footwear worn by dairy farmers, Americans quickly embraced the comfortable and easy-to-wear shoes for casual wear, then as a staple among college students and eventually, the slip-ons became the popular choice for office wear. Its sturdy construction, its classic lines and the ability to retain its shape and still look good even when scruffy and worn are what make these slip-ons a perennial favorite.
Why the penny, or two pennies, actually?
So how come the shoes became popularly known as penny loafers? As you know, the slip-ons became very popular for boys and girls back in the day, as sneakers were not yet produced. But during the 1940s and the 1950s, wearers of loafers actually stuck dimes in the lip-like slots on the strap. Mobile phones were not yet available then, and those two dimes were equivalent to the cost of a phone call from a pay phone booth. The tightness of the slots on the shoes kept those precious dimes from getting lost.
It was not until the 1960s when the trend to call the shoes penny loafers began. Actually the trend was set off by the younger set that started to slip a penny in each of the slots. It became like a fashion statement that caught on real quick. Although the two pennies will not go far these days, the name stuck and has been used until today, which is, if you are counting just from the time that pennies were used instead of dimes, is more than half a century. Not bad for something that was used as a place to hold coins for the pay phone in case of an emergency.