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VanValkenburgh, David Mahany

Male 1793 - Bef 1881


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Shoemaking in Colonial America

Shoemaking in Colonial America


If you could travel back in time to Colonial America, what would be the most important thing to take with you for the trip?  If you said clothing and other such things, you would be close.  If you said shoes, I would be surprised. 


Shoes were an integral part of the early Colonist’s possessions.  Settlers were usually provided with four pairs of shoes when they left England for the New World.  You see, settlers in the New World had to walk virtually everywhere, so shoes were very important. 


Local shoemakers were called cordwainers, not to be confused with cobblers.  Cordwainers were more skilled than cobblers and had at least five more years of training and experience.  Cobblers were generally shoe repairmen and travelled from town to town earning a decent living, usually trading repairs for room and board, repairing shoes.  Cordwainers had to make shoes that were very price competitive with shoes imported from England.  Shoes that were made in England were mass produced in factories but were often difficult for the common settler to acquire.  Imported shoes were usually priced for the well-off residents of Colonial America and not the common man.


Cordwainers were believed to have arrived in early America as soon as 1610 in Jamestown Colony, Virginia.  In fact, it is believed that Captain John Smith was a cordwainer and used the profits from his company in England to fund his trip to the New World.  Soon, by 1616, the trade was thriving with tanneries and local shoemakers providing shoes to established Colonists as well as newcomers.   


Many of the 13 Colonies directed that each county have at least one or more tannery and shoe manufactories.  Tariffs were imposed on leather and shoes to control exports and speculation.  However, for the most part, shoemaking was still a highly decentralized industry.  Most shoemakers had their shops at home where they worked hard to satisfy their local customers.  A typical pair of shoes could be made in an eight hour day adding a pair with linings in an extended day.  Interesting fact,  both shoes were the same as there were no “left” or “right” shoes.  Both could be worn on either foot.


Shoemaker's shop at Black Creek Pioneer Village, North York (Toronto), Ontario.  Photo by S. Rance, 2012


There were two basic parts to a typical shoe:

A sole and an upper

The essential tools of the shoemaker were:

1 - the last – essentially a foot shaped block

2 - knife

3 - awl

4 - needle and cord

5 - pincers

6 - hammer

7 - nails or pegs

8 - lapstone

9 - stirrup

Making a shoe in Colonial America consisted of four basic processes:

1 - cutting – after pounding leather upon lapstone with a hammer, the soles and uppers were cut from the leather

2 - fitting – bore holes through the sole and upper with an awl, and then sew them together

3 - lasting – slip sewed parts over a foot shaped block, or the last.  the last had an insole tacked to it.  then this was formed tightly with pincers and fastened temporarily with nails.  the last was held in place by a stirrup or strap held at the cordwainer’s knees where the shoe rested

4- bottoming – permanently attach the upper to the sole by sewing or pegging.