G.H. Bass Shoes: More Than Two Pennies’ Worth

Bass Weejun wine penny loafers
Image is my own / All rights reserved

When I was writing about penny loafers earlier this week, the topic of G.H. Bass & Co. naturally dominated the conversation — as well it should given that they invented the style.

If, however, you were tempted to think that the story of G.H. Bass begins and ends with their most famous shoe, you’d be wrong. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the serious prep cred of the Weejun loafer, it turns out Bass has far more rugged roots that predate the arrival of the penny loafer by more than half a century.

The company first came into being in 1876 when a leather tanner named George H. Bass set up a shoe-making business in the town of Wilton, Maine. Bass’s stated mission was simple: ‘To create the best possible shoe for the purpose it is intended’. In the early days of the operation, this birthed a range of practical and hardy shoes intended for sporting and outdoor use. These soon caught on across the United States and necessitated that Bass upgrade their operations. To do so, in 1887, they moved over to the nearby town of Farmington to set up a water-powered factory (driven by the local Wilson Stream) which allowed them to fast track production.

The rugged, durable nature of those early Bass offerings is often hinted at in their given titles. In 1892 there was the ‘National Plow Shoe’, for example, which was a year-round number aimed at farmers, or 1906’s ‘Bass Moccasin Cruiser’ for woodsmen, which was the company’s first moc toe creation in the days before the arrival of the Weejun.

Bass shoes were popular among intrepid types across the board in the early twentieth century. In 1927, Charles A. Lindbergh wore a pair of Bass flying boots for all 33 hours, 30 minutes, and 29.8 seconds of his groundbreaking transatlantic flight from New York to Paris. Ditto the explorer Admiral Richard E. Byrd on his expeditions to Antarctica, mountaineer Bradford Washburn in his exploration of the Alaska-Yukon boundary, and golfer Bobby Jones, who played a Grand Slam (which entails winning all of golf’s major championships in a calendar year) all while wearing a pair of the intriguingly titled Bass Sportocassins.

What’s more, the U.S. Army adopted special Bass moccasin boots for aviation and mountaineering purposes because of the protection they offered from extreme cold at high altitudes. And, for similar reasons, when the American Olympic Ski Team were looking for a footwear provider ahead of the 1948 Winter Olympics, they naturally turned to G.H. Bass & Co.

Close-up on kids wearing Bass Weejun penny loafers
Weejun penny loafers on show
Image credit: Esther Bubley / No known copyright restrictions

It was in the 1930s, however, that the brand’s most iconic and enduring design was born. The world’s first penny loafer arrived in the form of the Bass Weejun (a corruption of ‘Norwegian’ in reference to a similar Scandinavian shoe style that had gained popularity around that time). It was an instant hit. Unlike their burlier, outdoor-oriented predecessors, Weejun loafers appealed to a new, midcentury market. Thanks in large part to favourable press coverage offered by Arnold Gingrich, the founding editor of Esquire, Weejuns found their first fans among a group of wealthy, holiday-making elites, after which they quickly became part of a certain East Coast Ivy League uniform alongside other preppy staples like boat shoes, chinos, button-downs, and madras.

By the 1960s, Weejuns had become a mainstream phenomenon and catapulted Bass into a period of enormous growth for the business. Famous photographs of Grace Kelly, Paul Newman, and President John F. Kennedy show them wearing none other than those selfsame Bass loafers. Weejuns also appeared on the feet of Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face (1957), Steve McQueen in The Honeymoon Machine (1961), and — best-known of all — Michael Jackson in the 1984 ‘Thriller’ video. It has proven such a popular and timeless style that the brand has released countless different versions over the years, including a canvas iteration introduced in 1990 (which quickly reached a million pairs sold), and contemporary collabs with brands like Universal Works, Engineered Garments, and Tommy Hilfiger.

Grace Kelly wearing penny loafers 1954
Grace Kelly in Bass Weejuns
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

As was the case prior to the arrival of the Weejun, so too in its wake Bass has, despite the outsized reputation of its signature loafer, carved out a well-respected place for itself in the shoemaking landscape. The brand’s present-day offerings include ranges of loafers, boots, shoes, and slippers in both men’s and women’s styles. And while they closed their last factory in Maine in 1998 to relocate operations to Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, and more recently to El Salvador, it has meant that their shoes have always remained relatively affordable without sacrificing on quality. That standard is maintained in large part thanks to their continued use of some of the pioneering techniques developed decades ago in the business’s dawning days, in addition to some useful modern upgrades.

It means that when you wear a pair of Weejuns or any among Bass’s other legions of designs today, thanks to the brand’s rich history and a timeless appeal, you feel some sense of having one foot in a glamorous past and another firmly in a contemporary, timeless present. It’s a nice feeling if what you’re after is a look that’s likely to last for a while. And it’s a useful reminder — sometimes the originals never get old.