The Bygone Cobbler
Excerpted from The Chronicle, Volume III, No. 10, March 1947
By Jared Van Wagenen
The community tanner and cobbler have disappeared together. Both of them represented the same phase in our industrial development; each of them was to some extent dependent upon the other and both of them are only a memory. It is true that in our larger towns and cities we still have cobblers of a sort. Sometimes the shop is called the “Electric Shoe Repair Parlors” and commonly these places are manned by Greeks or Italians, who if necessary will mend a rip or put on a “live rubber heel” or a neolin halfsole while you wait. But the genuine craftsman of three generations ago, who out of home-tanned leather and hand twisted flax, wax-end and wooden pegs, and over a last which he himself whittled out of a block of maple, made boots and shoes-he survives only now and then as an ancient, time-worn man.
I am sure that of all our community handicrafts, there is none more primitive or more universal or representative of a wider range of technique in a one-man business than is the ancient and honorable art of the old-time shoemaker. He was once found not only in every township but literally in almost every school district.
The census of 1845 counted the workers and establishments in several lines of rural industry, but for some reason failed to enumerate the shoeshops. The census of 1855 reported 1,467 such establishments and ten years later there were reported only 525. As a matter of fact the true number was very much greater. The enumerators were either very careless or else did not bother to count individual cobblers. Much better evidence can be gathered from the various county directories and gazetters, a large number of which were published both before and after the Civil War. The usual plan was to sell subscriptions to the directory in return for which the subscriber’s name would be listed, together with his business. In Child’s Directory of Schoharie County for 1872-73 it appears that there were no less than 96 men who were willing to pay their money in order that they might be listed as “custom” shoemakers. By the same token we had 131 blacksmiths. Without question my own county was merely typical of all the rural counties of the state. That was 55 years ago. Since then the very last of the cobblers has laid aside his tools forever and of all that goodly company of blacksmiths, only an insignificant fraction remain.
In the United States Census for 1860 is an article in which the author moralizes upon the rapid development of the factory system as applied to shoe manufacture and he writes with great satisfaction that it is only a question of time until the cobbler with his “bench and kit” will be as extinct as the “hand card” or the “great and little spinning wheel” (meaning thereby the wheel for wool and the smaller wheel for flax). Time has vindicated his judgment for his prophecy has been almost literally fulfilled.
The shoemaker was such an absolutely indispensable member of the community that he appears very early in the history of all our settlements. Thus in the second year of the Plymouth Colony arrived one Thomas Beard with his tools and a stock of hides. The London Company not only accredited him to the governor of the colony but also promised him a yearly salary of ten pounds in addition to his earnings.
The Yankee inventor seems always to have had a peculiar flair for shoemaking. Almost from the beginning Lynn was a center of the business and until recent years the practical supremacy of Massachusetts in this particular industry has never been questioned. In 1860 three counties of that state produced more than one-third of all the factory shoes manufactured in America.
The Use of Wooden Pegs in Tapping
The use of wooden pegs to fasten the “taps” to the “uppers” while at one time almost universal for the footwear of both men and women, was by no means the earliest method. Indeed it is said that wooden pegs were first used in New England about the year 1812-or according to another, 1818. At any rate their use spread very rapidly. Time was when each cobbler laboriously whittled his own, but shoe-peg factories were soon established. In 1841 a factory at Laconia, New Hampshire, is said to have produced nearly all the pegs used in this country. They were made from black, yellow or white birch and from hard maple. The daily production of pegs exceeded fifty bushels. They did not long have the field to themselves, however, for in 1850 the Census returns for Massachusetts showed a total production of 17,800 bushels of pegs worth $12,900. This seems very little money for such a tremendous output of pegs, but it was the day of cheap labor and abundant raw material. In 1855 New York State reported 15 shoe-peg factories, but ten years later only three survived. Cobblers bought their pegs by the quart in several different sizes and the price for that unit of measure was only five or six cents.
Advent of the Front Lacing Shoe
It is said that the idea of a shoe open in front so that it could be laced up with a shoe string originated with a Yankee cobbler about the year 1791. There are still living old men who can remember when boots were not made “left and right”; both were made over one last. Then if the owner would be careful and conscientiously transpose his boots from one foot to the other each time he put them on they would never “run over” on the heel or wear out the taps unevenly. My father frequently told me of this careful economy of his boyhood.
I think it safe to say that up until at least the close of the Civil War, the average man and woman of the farm went shod in the product of the local cobbler’s art and even after factory shoes were generally introduced there were many conservative men who steadfastly refused to wear “store boots.”
There is no question but that in those years when the Homespun Age was in flower in our state, literally thousands of cobblers sat on their low benches and industriously tapped-tapped-tapped or drew out the long waxed ends from morning to night in order that our farm people might be shod. There was hardly a crossroads hamlet but had its representative of that trade, of which St. Crispin is the patron saint. The last man who ever practiced his craft in my community was one Fred Martin. Very dimly I remember him. The house· where he worked still stands and the big window with sixty panes of glass, built of this unusual size so that as he sat by it, his bench might be flooded with light.
I think it will be proper that I should here speak of his unfortunate venture into agriculture. Through many years, by patient industry, he had accumulated what seemed to him a little competency, perhaps $2,000 or thereabouts. Then in his folly he must needs leave his craft which he understood and buy a farm about which he knew nothing. He purchased a poor hill farm at an inflated price just about the time that land values began their long decline. On the land he was helpless and his equity was soon wiped out and he was forced off the farm-a sadder and a wiser, and unfortunately an aged and broken man. This back-to-the-land foolishness is responsible for too many tragedies such as his.
The Itinerant Shoemaker
The shops of these old-time shoemakers were very frequently in the living-room of the house, but there were also itinerant workmen who with their bench and kit went from farm to farm and wrought besides the fires of their employers. If it was a large family the cobbler might stay a couple of weeks before all the members of the household were properly outfitted. The arrangement seems strange to us, yet it was very widely adopted and probably had a sound basis. In the days when there was very little contact with the outside world, the traveling cobbler, especially if skilled in the art of pleasant gossip, was welcomed both as an employee and as a guest. Then, too, inasmuch as his clients were all on hand it was easy to cut and fit and try as the work proceeded. My father lived long enough ago to remember how the country tanner was scolded and importuned to hurry and get the leather finished because the shoemaker was expected.
At the Pioneer Home on the State Fair Grounds in 1926, might be seen Mr. John Mulberry of Potter’s Hollow, actually making a pair of boots after the exact methods of the long ago. Mr. Mulberry is my authority for the statement that at an early date the shoemaker whittled out his own lasts. Sometimes when he established himself for a genuine siege of family cobbling he measured the biggest foot of the family and then made a last to match it. This last having served its purpose he proceeded to shave it down and shape it to compare with the next largest foot, and so on until every member of the family down to the six-year-old boy would have had his footwear built over the self-same last, finally reduced to a small fraction of its original size. It is at least an interesting tale.
The coarse working boot of the farmer was made of cowhide and in the boyhood of the oldest living men cost not less than $3 a pair. The cost was much less, however, when the leather was furnished.
For Sunday and town-meeting wear the well-to-do farmer had a pair of fine boots made of calfskin. On these the maker sometimes lavished wonderfully patient and skillful care. I have seen a pair of very old calfskin boots which had an inside lining of leather sewed to the outside by stitches that went partly through the outside but never pricked entirely through or showed any indication of the seam. To do this required craftsmanship of a very high order. A pair of these fine boots cost $5.00 in the days when that was a large sum of money, and they were expected to last the careful owner for many years.
John Mulberry, before referred to, tells me that in his prime he could make out of the raw three coarse boots – a pair and a half a day; but it is well not to forget that old men remember the maximum rather than the average day’s work.
The cobbler at his task sat on a very low bench hardly eighteen inches above the floor, and true to his trade, his seat was made of a sheet of leather stretched over a round hole. He sat hunched over his work, and some of the time with the half completed boot held against his chest. For this reason his calling was commonly alleged to be an unhealthy one, and I find one writer using this as an argument for the introduction of factory methods. As a matter of fact, I think most cobblers did grow stooped and round shouldered with the years. Still, I remember that some time ago there died at Lowville, N Y., one David Cronk who had not only attained the great age of 105 years, but also had the honor of being the last surviving soldier of the war in 1812. He was given a public funeral, and his body lay in state in the City Hall of New York while 20,000 people filed past his casket. He was by occupation a cobbler, but it can hardly be alleged that as the result of his unhealthful calling he was cut off prematurely in the flower of his youth.
The Cobbler’s Bench
The antique hounds have long been spoiling the rural neighborhoods of spinning-wheels and nearly all other reminders of the handicraft age, but I have not yet heard that they have taken to collecting cobblers’ work-benches. I judge that there still remain literally thousands of them stored away in sheds and attics about the state. This bench was four or five feet long. At one end was the round, sunken cobblers’ seat, while the other end was divided up into a large number of different compartments to hold and keep separate the different sized pegs and nails. His tools were simple and inexpensive but a full “kit” had a surprisingly large assortment. There were many sizes and shapes of awls, and there were three or four thin knives, one or two of them curved and all kept as keen as a good razor. For this purpose there was always at hand a fine whetstone and a strop. His wax-ends and his ball of shoemaker’s wax were within easy reach. At his knee stood his “sewing-horse ” whose jaws clamped and held his sewing while both hands were employed in punching the holes with his awl and drawing through the threads-a stitch entirely different from that employed by a woman sewing cloth.
In order that he might be prepared for all kinds of customers – for men with number 10 feet and for women, and for little boys and girls – he had a wooden rack where his lasts were arranged in orderly rows, from which he picked out the one he judged would best fit his client. Up until say seventy-five years ago he sewed with a hog’s bristle waxed fast to his thread, but later he had steel needles with various curves adapted to his particular job. The “tap” (never “sole” in his speech) was fastened to the uppers with pegs. With his short, stout “pegging-awl” he punched a hole for each peg, set the peg in place and then drove it home with a single smart blow of his broad-faced hammer. If it was necessary to strike the same peg twice, by that token he was emphatically a botch and no cobbler. Against his wall hung tin or wooden patterns which he laid on the leather and then with his keen knife cut out the peculiar shaped pieces, which when crimped and drawn down into position became the “upper” of a boot or shoe. In the corner were flung pieces of leather and rolled up hides which the farmers had brought him and which later would be shaped into footwear for their needs, while over all was the pleasant aroma of tanner’s oil and hemlock bark.
The invention of a machine that could at one operation make its own pegs and drive them, and the introduction of a sewing machine which could stitch leather, marked the beginning of the end of the individual craftsman. Of them we must write in the phrase of long ago, “They rest from their labors, and their works do follow them.”