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Monday, October 28, 2013

Cordwainers and Cobblers

If ever I Saint Crispin’s day forget
may my feet be never free from wet,
But ev’ry dirty street and lane pass through
Without one bit of sole to either shoe.


        Saint Crispin is the commonly recognized patron saint of shoemakers, though there have been others. Since medieval times, October 25 has been celebrated as St. Crispin's Day feast day and the shoemakers’ holiday. Boot and shoemakers would close their shops on this day in celebration.

        In colonial times, a cordwainer was the name for a shoemaker as opposed to a cobbler, who was a shoe repairer and who had as much as five years less training than a cordwainer. Cobblers were often prohibited by law from making shoes.
        Shoemakers had arrived in Jamestown, VA, by 1607, and were flourishing by 1616.

        Christopher Nelme, a British shoemaker, was the first known shoemaker to arrive in America, which he did in 1619. In Plymouth, the first shoemakers to follow the trade there arrived in 1629.    
        Before leaving England, each colonist was allotted four pairs of leather shoes called “Well-Neat Leather” shoes. Working shoes were fully welted and made from heavy leather on the top and bottom.

Lady's shoe (Los Angeles Museum of Art)
        The earliest shoes did not have buckles but were secured with overlapping straps. They were made on straight form, which means that there was not right or left shoe, and a shoe could be worn on either foot. To ensure an even wear and to make the shoes last longer, men and women would shift the shoes from one foot to the other.
        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. Dancing shoes had lighter soles and were usually made out of material.
        The shoemaker’s tool kit included items with names such as “helling sticks,” “petty-boys,” and “St. Hugh’s Bones.”
There’s an interesting story about St. Hugh, a prince of Britain in 300 AD, who fell on hard times and became a shoemaker who preached the gospel. He fell in love with a woman who was arrested and condemned to death for her devotion to God. He too was condemned because of his association with her. It is said that his fellow shoemakers held a vigil while he was made to drink poison. He was so destitute, all he had to leave were his bones. After his death, his friends pulled his body from the gibbet and distributed his bones. These were made into shoemaking tools. Hence, the name “St. Hugh’s Bones."
        Cordwainers in New England set up small shops, sometimes in their homes, where they made shoes on request. For custom made shoes, models were made of people’s feet. These models, called lasts, were carved out of wood and kept for subsequent shoe orders. Large plantations usually had a shoemaker to maintain the families’ shoes.
Cordwainer's tools
(The Trade Museum of Suhlendorf)
        Cobblers travelled from town to town, exchanging shoe repair for room and board, and circulating news and gossip. They sometimes used a unique shoemaker’s lamp, an oil lamp with water-filled globes that amplified the light at the work area.



Susan F. Craft

I am a historical fiction writer with a novel, The Chamomile, released in November 2011. The Chamomile won the Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance Okra Pick Award. I'm represented by Hartline Literary Agency
       

6 comments:

  1. Very interesting. My children disregard left foot and right foot all the time. Too bad children's shoes aren't made on straight form anymore, it'd save me a lot of breath. :)

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    1. Hi, Melissa. I agree about the children's shoes. :-) There was no distinction between the right and left foot for shoes until after the Civil War.

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  2. That was a fascinating post, Susan. I can't help but wonder how comfortable the shoes were.

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    1. I've wondered that, too, Janet. We had a shoe factory here in Columbia, SC, during the Civil War, which supplied the Confederate troops until the city was burned in 1865. It wasn't until the late 1800s that shoes were made with a right and left foot.

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  3. My grandfather had a stand which accepted metal lasts of different sizes. He repaired shoes for the family although he was a miller by trade. Now I have to go looking up helling sticks, pretty boys and St. Hugh's bones. Thanks for my assignment today.

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    1. Hi, Judith. Interestinga bout your grandfather. I thought the St. Hugh's bones story was creepy, but interesting. Go and do good things with your assignment. :-)

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