One thing that more or less all types of classic or traditionally constructed shoes have in common is the use of toe stiffeners to retain the shape of the toe and to protect the foot. The use of stiffeners have come and gone through the centuries, depending on what types of shoes that has been in fashion at the time.
The topic came up in a thread on StyleForum recently, where the American bootmaker D.W. Frommer II, who have written a number of books on shoemaking, took help from D.A. Saguto, who is a famous shoe historian and among other things have translated the book Art du Cordonnier to English (Art of the Shoemaker), one of the oldest shoemaking books that have ever been saved for our times, written back in 1767 by the Frenchman M. de Garsault.
Saguto summarises what he knows about the evolution of toe stiffeners, or toe puffs, the hard part found on all traditionally made shoes and many others, placed between the lining and upper leather over the toe area. It gives the toe its shape and protects your foot, making them possible to look and work the way they do.
The earliest information Saguto could found was from the 1660’s, when a type of sharp square toes were popular on men’s shoes. A quite thick piece of leather were then pulled over the last before the upper leather was lasted, and a small amount of paste was placed in between the layers. However, given that the skived stiffener wasn’t secured with any type of stitching or anything, just that old days paste, the stiffeners often tended to curl in and hurt the feet of the wearers. On women’s shoes at the same time in history, one also used toe stiffeners, but here they were safely inserted between the lining and the upper leather and sewn in with the upper when the hand welting were done, so very similar to how today’s toe stiffeners are made, apart from the fact that it was mainly thick textile that was used as material for the stiffener.
A bit later in history, between something like 1680s-1750s, very high square toes, aka box toes, were in vogue. The common solution for these were to extend the insole and bring it forward up over the toe, and a separate box piece was butt-stitched to it (when you put two edges of leather “butted” against each other, and stitch a saddle stitch from a 45° angle where the awl holes meet in the middle of the edges that are against each other). The upper was then lasted over this.
For women’s shoes during the 18th century, the toes have gone from square to pointy and later round/almond shaped, and the toe stiffeners were commonly made of rag paper or cardboard (maybe one can say that “shortcuts” and ways to make things easier/cheaper have always been used also back in history, but maybe there were other practical reasons for the material uses, I don’t know).
During all these time, “regular” round toe shoes were still used but they were always soft-toed without any type of stiffeners. It wasn’t until the second half of the 19th century that men’s shoes began to be lined in the same way as women’s shoes had been for a long time, and one started to insert toe stiffeners between the lining and the upper leather in the same way, and the way that classic handmade shoes have their leather toe puffs made today became standard.
Today’s bespoke shoes and similar have the stiffeners made out from veg tanned thick leather pieces and attached between the leather layers and hardened using paste, very much exactly the way it was done 100-150 years ago. For mass produced shoes, during the 1900s one went away from leather toe stiffeners to the much quicker and cheaper celastic ones (plastic impregnated fabric), and they are what’s used also on premium Goodyear welted factory-made shoes. Even if the heel stiffener is made of real leather on those, toes are plastic, the practical advantages of leather vs celastic toe puffs aren’t considered worth the higher material and especially production costs.