This review is all about the American shoemakers Johnston & Murphy. Is their brand’s longevity due to quality or just low prices? Read on to find out!
American heritage brands, especially in the shoe industry, are a funny thing. Compare Florsheim and Allen Edmonds, for example. They’re at completely different price points, serving completely different markets, yet they started out as similar brands and “grew up” together, so to speak.
Johnston & Murphy is a middle ground between the budget brand Florsheim and higher-end Allen Edmonds, which makes them a bit more difficult to categorize. Are they closer to the former or the latter? Affordable luxury or budget heritage?
To help you figure this out, I’m going to do an in-depth, hands-on review of two of their models: The Meade Penny Loafer and the Conard Saddle shoe. I’ll tell you what I liked, what didn’t work for me, and my comprehensive take on the brand.
Johnston & Murphy: The Brand
A true American heritage shoemaker, Johnston & Murphy was founded in 1850 in New Jersey. Their claim to fame, and what cinched the heritage title, is the fact they’ve consistently been worn by American presidents from Lincoln to JFK (sometimes even customizing footwear for them).
Unsurprisingly, Johnston & Murphy is known for more traditional styles like wingtips and oxfords. They’re also known for being at a lower price point than other heritage shoemakers, like Allen Edmonds and Cole Haan.
Today, they’re based in Nashville, Tennessee, and continue to mainly focus on the tried-and-trues. In fact, they’re one of the few shoemakers that offer traditional models in a non-costumey way.
The Conard Saddles I tried out are a good example of one of a shoe that is very similar to the kind of shoe your grandfather might have worn.
The Meade Penny Loafer
The Meade Penny is an immediately comfortable and classic loafer. It’s infused with some Italian design sensibilities, which I think makes it more versatile.
I ordered a size 8 in the tan colorway. Here are my detailed thoughts on this shoe, after weeks of wearing it.
While I’ll go deeper into this under the comfort and fit section, I should mention that the very first thing I noticed was how supple and soft the leather is. I fully believe the product description, which mentions it’s made out of Italian calfskin.
I like calfskin for leather dress shoes since it’s durable enough, but isn’t as robust-looking as cowhide, which I personally think should be left to workboots. Plus, the grain is tighter and sleeker-looking.
The tongue has padding, and I’ve often seen much thinner leather tongues on higher-end shoes. That isn’t a knock on those shoes, since dressy leathers aren’t necessarily meant to be comfortable, but it’s a nice thoughtful touch in the case of the Meades.
On the design side, these features make the shoe look more expensive than it is, so it gets extra points there.
The silhouette is subtly unique and makes the style hard to categorize — if you’re being nitpicky about it. It borders on the pointier, longer Italian take on the loafer. However, the top stitching is rounded, tempering that “Italianness.”
The shoe is long but doesn’t look too long, which makes it look great with a suit or with jeans. You’ll find “versatility” is one of the shoe’s biggest strengths, on several levels.
At first glance, I’d assume it was an American or English loafer, but chicer and reined in. Part of this is also due to the minimal detailing. The kiltie is there, but no beef rolls and no tassels.
The detailing that does exist is super subtle, like the stacked heel featuring zero contrast colors, and the quiet patination on the sides of the shoe. This matches the more obviously patinated front and back so that the color variation is gradual and non-dramatic.
Comfort and Fit
I’m going to lead with the fact that I’ve never, in my decades of wearing leather loafers, ever worn a pair so comfortable right outside of the box.
As mentioned, the lip has soft padding beneath it where it touches the top of my foot.
Typically, unlike lace-up dress shoes, where the break-in discomfort often comes from the bottom of the shoe, with loafers, it often dominantly comes at me from the top, since there aren’t any eyestays that separate and give me room to adjust.
Between the lip and the soft leather, none of that with this shoe.
Secondly, I was surprised at how soft the inserts are. The main component of it, which fully covers the bottom of your foot, is perfectly flush.
Meanwhile, there’s a super squishy EVA portion beneath that, and it goes up the sides a bit. This solves another common problem I experience with breaking shoes in, which is pinkie toe rubbing.
And the final comfort components are the rubber pieces underneath the outsole. You can’t see it from any angle since these components are tonal with the rest of the sole and fully recessed, ensuring it doesn’t look like some kind of comfort-dress hybrid.
This also adds to the versatility of the shoes, since I can, and have, worn them while walking around the city for hours in casual and smart casual outfits.
At first, during the first two weeks of wear, my back foot slipped up and out from the shoe. Once the sole got bendier, this was no longer a problem. Wearing socks helps keep your foot inside of it as well.
Several reviewers report the shoe runs half a size large for them, which is understandable considering not every foot is the same.
The pricing is more than fair. At around $200, you can typically only find loafers of equal quality (calfskin construction with a solid yet comfortable outsole) at this price when they’re on sale.
What makes the Meade Penny better than many other comparable models is the unique sleek but versatile style, the immediate comfort you’ll feel right out of the box, and the fact that you don’t have to wait for it to be on sale.
There’s zero information out there regarding how the sole is attached, but since it was the hardest part of the shoe, and there’s visible stitching at the top, I’m assuming it’s Blake stitched.
There isn’t visible stitching inside of the shoe, underneath the insert, so I can’t be completely sure about this. However, you can see the interior nails by the heel, and it feels too substantial to be just glued on.
It definitely isn’t Goodyear welted though, since Johnston & Murphy wouldn’t skip on an opportunity to add “Goodyear welted” to product descriptions.
Pros and Cons
To wrap this model up before we get to the Conard Saddle, here are the at-a-glance pros and cons of the Johnston & Murphy Meade Penny.
The biggest pro of the Mead Penny is how versatile it is, both in function and style. The unique Italian-meets-English silhouette can be worn casually or formally, and it’s clearly built to be comfortable right out of the box.
Even better is how they blend the comfort components into the shoe, so it looks like a traditional loafer.
It comes in a sophisticatedly patinated tan colorway and a shiny all-black.
The main con here is that, before I broke the sole in, the back of my foot slipped out as I walked.
And since so many reviewers report it fits half a size larger than their usual number, I do wonder if this experience could’ve been avoided if I sized down. Unfortunately, this isn’t possible since my regular shoe size is an 8, and that happens to be their smallest offering for this shoe.
Conard Saddle Shoe
The Conard Saddle Shoe, which I also ordered in a size 8, is what I like to call a budget shoe plus. It’s just a bit more expensive than a comparable Florsheimer but goes a much longer way, quality-wise.
It has a very vintage look about it, but because of the coloring, can be pulled off outside of a theme party.
As mentioned, this is a traditional saddle shoe, with a template that’s not that far off from what you’d see on a Bobby Soxer costume.
However, there are three visual qualities that not only prevent it from looking costumey but make it an actually sophisticated take.
First, the quarter, or the “saddle,” is pretty flat. It isn’t flush, obviously, but it doesn’t add dramatic topography to the upper. Between that, and the lack of a toe cap, it has a sleek-ish silhouette as far as saddle shoes go.
Second, the stacked outsole and substantial heel up the dress factor.
And finally, the coloring is pretty clever. The quarter isn’t tonal with the vamp, but the contrast isn’t as substantial as it is with vintage white-vamped saddle shoes. The body of the shoe is a granular tan, while the saddle is like a pecan but lighter — and nicely vivid.
Moreover, there’s a gradual patination at the tip of the shoe that matches the saddle, further tempering the contrast.
Again, this is a traditional saddle shoe. The contrast is still there, but these strategic design touches definitely graduate the style away from wildly quirky, and into a normal dress shoe category, depending on your style.
Uniquely, I think this shoe caters to two style audiences: First, those who love truly older styles but aren’t sure how to wear it in a “modern man” kind of way.
Second, people like me, (I wore high-contrast saddle shoes for all twelve years of private school), love incorporating “grown-up” versions of nostalgic styles from childhood.
I love how they come with both blue or brown laces, which allows you to turn the volume up or down when it comes to how eye-catching you want it to be. I use blue laces with the blue suit I often wear to work.
Relatedly, the inside of the eyestays are fortified with grommeted rings. This maintains the more formal aesthetic of the shoe, compared to if the rings were fully visible.
Comfort and Fit
Just like the Meade Penny Loafers, these shoes were immediately comfortable. My feet sank right into the inserts as if they were contoured for me specifically.
The rubberized soles feel so lithe on my feet, I can probably do full-on dance choreography in these. The Conards would make an excellent wedding shoe. They go well with a suit, and won’t deter you on the dance floor during the reception.
Personally, I like the substance of a slightly-heavy dress shoe because it makes me stand a little taller, but there’s no denying that these are now my go-to work shoes on days I know I’ll be running around.
The only mildly inconvenient thing about this shoe is how impossibly, unnecessarily long the laces are. Granted, this is better than the alternative, but it does affect my comfort.
I have to strategically place the slack of the laces in between the lip and eyestays, and do it in such a way that they aren’t bunching up or could fall out of place, otherwise, the laces gather together as a big uncomfortable lump on the top of my foot.
Again, at around $150, the price of this shoe very fair, and like the Meades, the comfort and versatile style add extras on the value front.
The leather is thinner than on the Meades, though it’s still Italian calfskin — the smell and supple feel of the hand-burnished leather corroborate the product description.
And, again, like the Meades, it’s likely Blake-stitched (visible stitching, visible interior nails).
Pros and Cons
Here’s a distillation of the Conard’s pros and cons to help you decide if it’s for you.
Thanks to its coloring, strategic patination, and sleeker-than-template silhouette, the Conard offers an easily wearable take on a traditional saddle shoe, without compromising the genuine, vintage saddle look.
Between that and the fact it needs zero breaking-in, this comfortable shoe offers a compelling value proposition.
And on the size front, unlike the Meades, the Conards have a wider range, from size 7s up to 14s, with both mediums and wides available.
I’ll reiterate the fact the laces are too long, but this is an easy fix.
The second con is the fact it only comes in one colorway.
Johnston & Murphy: Final Thoughts
For the most part, our hypothesis on Johnston & Murphy holds true: It’s a market middle ground of sorts, offering higher-quality shoes than budget brands at lower prices than high-end brands generally have.
Some consistent strengths in their models include good leather and timeless styles. They’re a good brand to go to when it comes to more traditional footwear, as they’ve got every box checked when it comes to “canon” shoe styles — from saddle shoes to loafers.
While the shoes I reviewed here aren’t Goodyear-welted, Johnston & Murphy does have a few that are available at reasonable prices. The Melton Cap Toe, for example, is less than $200.
And finally, Johnston & Murphy shoes are incredibly comfortable, without falling into the hybrid aesthetic trap.
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