Cordwainers & Cobblers, Shoemakers in Colonial America

          “The cobbler aproned and the parson gowned,

The friar hooded, and the monarch crowned.

Or cobbler-like, the parson will be drunk;

Worth makes the man, and want of it the fellow.

The rest is all but leather or prunella.”

                                                Pope, Essay on Man

The word shoe is derived form the Anglo Saxon ‘scoh,’ meaning any covering for the foot, excepting hosiery.  In ancient times through the nineteenth century, in the Old and New World, the shoemaker garnished a unique class of respect.  They were so regarded for their remarkable intelligence and the large number of literates, poets, and statesmen who had risen from their ranks.

Cordwainer (photo credit Williamsburg Foundation)

Cordwainer was the title given to shoemakers.  Cobblers were those who repaired shoes.  The cobbler had as much as five years less training than a cordwainer.  In most countries, including the American colonies, cobblers were prohibited by proclamation from making shoes.  The first shoemakers, tanners and other tradesmen arrived in Jamestown in 1607; among the colony’s principal founder John Smith’s many talents, was that of shoemaker –  the settlement was partially funded by a thriving English shoe trade.   However the first fully trained member of the cordwainer’s guild to arrive in America was the British shoemaker Christopher Nelme in 1619.  The first cordwainer in New England, Thomas Beard, landed at Plymouth in 1629.  Prior to his arrival and long after, New England settlements continued to purchase leather from Virginia until their own tanners were established.

For eons, from the Greeks until the sixteenth century, shoes were made of soft leather; similar to moccasins however with a hard sole. There was no heel nor left or right shoe. All shoes were straight last – last being the name of the wooden mold from which the shoe is fitted and stitched over. Wealthier families would pay a cordwainer to keep a last on their shelves per family member’s feet.

Before leaving England, each colonist was allotted four pairs of leather shoes called ‘well-neat leather.’  These working shoes were fully welted and made from heavy leather on the top and bottom. The earliest shoes did not have buckles, but were secured with overlapping straps.  They were made on straight form, which meant there was not a right or left shoe – each shoe could be worn on either foot.  Men and women would switch shoes on feet so the leather would evenly wear and to make them last longer.

Straight Last Wooden Model

Cordwainers in New England set up small shops, many times in homes, where shoes were made on request. Lasts, models of feet carved out of wood, were kept in stock per repeated customer. Larger farms and plantations usually were self sufficient; spinning and weaving their own clothes, having their own smithy and tins-men, and among many other artisans were cordwainers.  The larger southern plantations had apprenticed select slaves to perform these tasks.

Leather was brought to desired thickness by ‘curing,’ or scraping over a wooden beam. Unlined shoes would be made with the smooth side inside to take the place of a lining. The rough outside leather was dressed with a mixture of soot, lard, bear grease, and beeswax. The first commercial shoe polish was first advertised in Boston in 1771.

Curing and scraping leather.

Boot making was the most sophisticated and prestigious branch of the trade. By tradition, the making of boots and shoes for men and the making of shoes for women were separate pursuits.Riding boots and Jackboots were made for men, especially for soldiers or gentlemen. They were not intended for walking. The tight leather around the calf made it easier to feel and control a horse.

Fancy dancing shoes were light and soft, generally made from the skin of dogs, which is where we derive the expression “putting on the dog.” Mules were a type of slip-on, generally used for walking around inside. But some versions of mules were made to slip over a shoe to protect it from mud or muck.  Patens, usually made for women, were clogs with wooden soles intended to increase the wearer’s height, or keep them out of the mud.

Heavy leather walking shoe

By the sixteenth century, the Italians were the first to develop the high-heeled shoe. The earliest mention of high-heeled shoes was in 1533.  They become more common in Venice and Florence by 1590. This required modifications in design.  The shank in the arch of the shoe had to be strong and stiff enough to keep the shoe from collapsing forward. Also the sides of the shoe had to be molded so that the foot would not slide down into the toe area. Add the cost of caving curves into the last and then making a mirror image for the other foot and only the very wealthy could afford to don such shoes. Also the very rich were adapt at hiding the discomfort of choosing style over comfort.

Because the cost of a new pair of shoes made in America was very high, and shoes sent from England took time to arrive, many people learned from the local Indians to make moccasins. Vamps (top plate) and soles were made from soft hide, and were easy to sew in the shape of an individual foot. Moccasins were ideal for walking in the northeastern woodlands.

Early on, cordwainers and cobblers traveled from town to town, exchanging shoe repair for room and board, and circulating news and gossip. Aside from the boots, all colonial shoes were made for walking long distances. The soles could be replaced or repaired easily with leather, wood or fabric. Many families apprenticed a son to a cordwainer or cobbler, so that shoes and repairs could be made with little cost. The shoemaker’s tool kit included items with names such as helling sticks, petty-boys, and St. Hugh’s Bones [based on 300 AD shoemaker who, when martyred, requested his bones be made into shoemakers’ tools].  They would often employ a unique shoemaker’s lamp, an oil lamp with water-filled globes that amplified the light at the work area.

Basic steps in shoemaking:

1. Cutting the leather molds for the shoe or boot

2. Sew the quarters and the vamp [upper front part of a boot or shoe]

3. Lay the quarters and vamp on the wooden last to mold.

4. Attach a sole

5. Attach a second sole

6. Attach a heel [high-heeled on special request]

7. Finishing – dressed [or blackened] and waxed [a mixture of bear grease, beeswax, soot & lard.

“Company of Shoomakers” [spelling correct], Boston, 1648

The first American gild of cordwainers was that of the Shoemakers of Boston.  Its charter of incorporation was granted by the Colony of the Massachusetts Bay, on October 18, 1648.  Edward Johnson is the first to make mention of this guild in his Wonderworking Providence of Sion’s Savior in New England, 1651: “… Speaking of the material  of the colony… shoemakers who had a corporation granted… enrich[ed] themselves by their trade very much…”    The argument raised in the need for a guild of tradesmen run by a select group of officers recited that on petition of the “shoemakers” and on account of the complaints of the “damage” which the country sustained “by occasion of bad ware made by some of that trade,” there was a distinct need to organize.   

Cordwainers tools

Throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, it was tradition for shoemakers to attend their customers in their homes.  This practice was continued in the colonies.  The cordwainer would eat the customer’s food, find lodging in the home from which they work, and use leather and such materials provided by their provider.   This created a common incidence of widespread abuses by illiterate persons with little or no trained skills as a cordwainer.   Guild members sought to change this.  They did not want to be subject to the materials supplied by the customer or be forced to travel to and work in a different environment with each new client.  They desired a workplace in which they could work quickly and efficiently with all their tools and materials of their selection kept under one roof; one where the customer came to them.   But above all else, they desired the power to regulate their growing industry and control competition.  They sought for and obtained through the charter the authority to examine shoemakers and to secure from the courts of the colony an order suppressing anyone whom they did not approve.  However, they did not receive all that they desired.  The courts retained the right to appeal any decision, the cordwainer could not refuse to serve a customer in their home, nor could they set prices.

An industrial stage for tradesmen was established. It was the transition from the itinerant shoemaker, working up the raw materials belonging to his customer in the home of the latter, to the stage of the settled shoemaker, working up his own raw materials in his own shop to the order of his customer. The tradesman was remunerated according to his skill and quality of work, speed of output, and the amount and regularity of employment. This primitive guild set itself against ‘bad ware’ allowing merchants to set better prices for a better product. Also, the shoemaker obtained hard coin for their labors, as opposed to trading for room and board. Also, they built in the cost of their labor for the remedial tasks usually done by the family when the cordwainer worked in the home: preparing raw materials, stitching quarters and vamp, finishing, etc.

Economics of Bespoke work, Shop work, Order work, and Market work levels.

Eighteenth Century Cobbler

A hundred and fifty years of development in the colonies saw the distinct growth of a varied class of customer and the dramatic shift in the distinction of cordwainer.  By the later part of the eighteenth century, the cordwainer entered a period where he ‘farmed out’ the process of shoemaker to journeymen whereas he became master, merchant, employer, distributor, and controller of the market value of his product.  .As his business increased to provide the needs of the customer classes, he increased his requirement for skilled laborers.  Workshops expanded and took on the look of ‘factories’ where the larger number of materials, tools, and workers could be accommodated.  The master would also supply journeymen with materials to make the various stages of shoes in their home to be delivered to the master.

Bespoke work, the crown of modern capitalism and yet similar to the first custom market of the Boston gild, now differentiated as the market offered to the wealthy for the highest quality of work at the highest level of competition.  Shop work became the retail market of less particular customers at a wider but lower level of competition and quality.  Order work was the wholesale market made possible by improved means of transportation and foreign demands.  It was a lower level of strenuous competition and indifferent quality.  Finally market work was the cheap work sold in the public market – indicating the poorest class of customers and consequently the lowest level of competition.  It did at times undermine the shop work and, to a lesser degree, the order work level, but never the bespoke level.   It was the widening of these markets with their lower levels of competition and quality, but without any changes in the instruments of production, that destroyed the primitive identity of master and journeyman cordwainers and split their community of interest into the modern alignment of employers’ association and trade unions.*

Martyrdomn of Saint Crispin and Crispinian, cobbler saints. Painted by Aert van den Bossche.

Saint Crispin Day, a day of feast, traditionally celebrated throughout Europe on October 25, is in honor of the 3rd century cordwainers Crispin and Crispinian, patron saints of cobblers, tanners, and leather workers.  Twin brothers, they fled from persecution for their faith ending up in Soissons, where they preched Christianity to the Gauls and made shoes by night.

Thomas Blanchard’s water powered lathe for duplicating gun stocks. Its technology was applied to the mass production of shoe lasts resulting in left and right shoes.

Left & Right Shoes:  Not until the mid-nineteenth century, did shoes begin to be manufactured with a right and left shoe. In 1828, a foreman at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, named Thomas Blanchard (1788-1864), developed a lathe for the manufacture of gun stocks.  A Philadelphia shoemaker, when observing the lathe, thought it ideal for making shoe lasts. He discover that by reversing the cam which guided the cutter, a mirror image could be produced. Since a wooden last is gouged by multiple tack holes in a few hundred uses, there was a constant demand for new lasts. The new lasts were soon made in left and right. By 1841, the American military was using left and right shoes. The general public soon followed their demand for the same. Blanchard is widely recognized for inventing the major technological innovation known as ‘interchangeable parts.’  He also designed and made the first automobile. It ran on steam which he called a ‘horseless carriage.’

*  Commons, American Shoemakers 1648 – 1895, pp. 49-50

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Andrews, Charles M.  Colonial Folkway., A Chronicle of Colonial Life in the Rein of the Georges, Vol. 9.  1919: Yale University Press, New Haven, CN.

Commons, John R.  American Shoemakers, 1648-1895, A Sketch of Industrial Evolution.  The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Nov. 1909), pp. 39-84.

Earle, Alice Morse.  Home Life in Colonial Days.  1917:  The Macmillan Company, New York, NY.

Gannon, Fred A.  A Short History of American Shoemaking.  1912:  Newcomb & Gauss, Salem, MA.

Winks, William Edwards.  Lives of Illustrious Shoemakers.  1882: Sampson, Low, Marston & Co., London, UK.

Wright, Thomas.  The Romance of the Shoe, Being the History of Shoemaking.  1922: C.J. Farncombe & Sons,  London, UK.

Young, Alfred F.  The Shoemaker and the Tea Party: Memory and the American Revolution. 1999:  Beacon Press, Boston, MA.

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