Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 40 no. 1, March 1987
by David B. Crowe
On an international basis, the wooden shoe is typically regarded as a Dutch object. This understanding may be due, perhaps, to the persistent and widespread use of the wooden shoe in the Netherlands into contemporary times. It is hardly an accurate viewpoint when the origin and use of the wooden shoe is considered in historical perspective.
The wooden shoe (i.e. the shoe made entirely of a single piece of wood as opposed to the clog, a shoe with wooden soles and leather uppers) was “worn in many parts of continental Europe, especially where leather was expensive and wood cheap.” (Salaman, 1985) Noorlander (1984) indicates that wooden shoes are not as typically Dutch as was once thought, but were worn by peasants all over Europe from Brittany to Lithuania. Their usage was also widespread throughout Scandanavia and these shoes, together with the tools to make them, followed the emigrants to the New World where they occasionally appear at auctions throughout the Upper Midwest which received the major part of this population movement. Moberg (1978) in his intriguing tales of the Swedish emigration to the United States relates that the Americans referred to these newcomers as ‘1he wooden-shoe people” because of the oddity of their footwear, never seen before on the American frontier.
It is understandable, then, that there exists considerable variation, not only concerning the styles of shoes produced, but concerning the tools used to make them. While the work process to shape the shoes remained broadly the same wherever they were produced (Noorlander, 1984), different craftsmen working in geographically separated parts of Europe and Scandinavia undoubtedly modified the “standard” patterns of shoemaking tools to suit their own needs and perhaps to more effectively fashion the styles of wooden shoes they were producing. The degree of variation found is further compounded by the fact that most of the tools used in the process were fashioned by local blacksmiths, each lending his own individuality to the finished product.
The “sabot” (1) axe is an excellent example of the sort of variation which is found. The Dutch version of this axe is pictured on the cover of The Chronicle and is described in the accompanying article by Perch (Dec. 1975) as ”. .. a small broad axe similar to the axe used by coopers [with] a ten-inch-long offset handle. (The poll of the axe is also offset.)” Noorlander (1984) describes the same tool as ”. .. a type of side axe, i.e. an axe with a broad blade with a handle set on at somewhat of an angle, in order to protect the fingers holding the axe from injury when it bit deeply into the billet during cutting out.” The French sabot axe, of more graceful form than that of the Dutch, is shown in Diderot’s (1751-52) Encyclopedie. A more recent variation is shown in the Iron Horse Antique Catalog (1976).
During a recent extended visit to Denmark the author observed still further variation in this form of this tool. In this small, Scandinavian country, the role of the shoemaker has followed very much the same path as comparable craftsmen elsewhere in Europe. The wooden shoe is seldom seen except at historical sites where they are worn to lend an air of antiquity. Clogs are still in common use, but more and more they are being industrially produced and increasing amounts of synthetic materials are being incorporated into their structure. The shoemaker is disappearing from the contemporary scene. Keenly interested in the common tools of Danish craftsmen, Mr. Mikael Anderson of Forlev, Denmark has assembled a very large collection including items from two shoemaker’s shops. Among this tool assemblage are two, similar, hand-forged side-axes which in Danish would be called blok-økser (block axes) indicative of the fact that they were used to fashion blocks, unhandy pieces of wood destined for further treatment. The better example of these axes is shown in Fig. 1. lt has the following characteristics: head length = 5.6 in., head width = 1.2 in., edge = 2.8 in., handle length = 9 in., maker’s mark “LK”. It differs in two respects from the other forms of sabot axes; it is significantly smaller, approximately half the size of either the Dutch or the French forms, and the handle is quite distinctive. While offset laterally 2.4 in. from the horizontal, the handle is also reflected edgeward in such a manner that the fingers of the craftsman would be positioned in advance of a line drawn parallel with the cutting edge of the axehead.
It is the opinion of the axes’ owner, Mr. Anderson, that axes of similar form may have been used in types of wood-shaping activities other than that of the shoemaker in early Danish woodcraft. He has no doubt, however, that this is the Danish tool equivalent to the Dutch and French sabot axes.
(1) The tool described in this article is best known to tool collectors as a sabot axe regardless of its ethnic origin. For purposes of clarity and to simplify the problem of dealing with several European languages, the author has chosen to utilize similar generic terminology.