He wore green trousers and a red jacket and his hat was leather with a narrow brim and a purple band all around the crown. He was sitting on a wooden stool, hammering away at a pair of boots that he was making, with the tools of his trade all laid out beside him: the lap-stone, the stirrup, the whet-board, the pincers and the nippers. As he worked he sang a little song to himself, to go with the rhythm of the hammering:
A Gentle Craft that hath the Art,
To steal soon into a Lady’s Heart.
Here you may see what Guile can do,
The Crown doth stoop to th’ Maker of a Shoe.
In the Middle Ages, tradesmen formed guilds that protected their trades. Those who worked with fine leather were known as Cordwainers, named after the very finest leather that was imported from Cordoba, Spain. In later years, those who processed leather formed their own guild, but shoemakers retained the name of Cordwainer. Cobblers were distinct from Cordwainers, for they only repaired shoes, but over the years, this distinction began to weaken. – Cordwainers: History.
At the time, the shoemaking trade consisted of division according to the type of shoes made: men’s, women’s, and shoes for workers, such as night-soil men and slaughterhouse men. There were different operations performed by different persons: cutting leathers, sewing uppers, and joining heel and sole. And there were production sites, such as shop masters and cellar, garret and stall masters. Shoe masters employed many people in large operations that hired many workers (there were only 600 or 700 of these), but over 30,000 individuals worked as journeymen, countryworkers, apprentices and cheap garret masters.*
By the 18th century, most boot and shoemakers barely made a subsistence wage. The majority of individuals who made shoes worked for very low wages, about 9s or 10 s a week. Many could barely afford their own lodging, and if they did, the accommodations were mean and poor. The wages, while low for men, were even lower for women – who worked in shoe closing and shoe binding – and for children.*
The life of a shoemaker was a hard scrabble life, for their trade depended on leather, the purchase of which required money or credit. Some shoemakers were known to stretch their goods by reducing the thickness of the leather used for heels and soles. Others, desperate to feed their families, would steal food or clothing and be jailed or, worse, hung after they were caught.* -*London Hanged: crime and civil society in the eighteenth century, Peter Linebaugh
Yet the shoemaking business was not totally abysmal:
Shoemaking flourished in the 18th century, and boot- and shoe-makers were the most numerous of all Salisbury craftsmen throughout the 19th century and until the First World War. It was said that in the later 19th century ‘in hundreds of houses the shoe-binders, the closers and finishers were busy week in week out’. The business with the longest history is Moore Brothers, whose origins can be found in William Moore, boot and shoemaker in 1822 and 1830, and Henry Rowe, established in Catherine Street in 1842, who had moved by 1867 to Silver Street. By 1875 these premises were occupied by Rowe, Moore and Moore, a firm which subsequently became James and William Moore Brothers. The firm moved to its present premises in the New Canal at the end of the 19th century. – Salisbury Economic History Since 1621
Early in the Georgian era the fashion for high heels (as much as 3″) made it difficult for cobblers to make “paired lasts” for left and right shoes. The “last” of the shoe is footprint of the shoe, which can be straight or without a left or right side. Many of the 18th and 19th century shoes and boots were produced on straight lasts. As the person wore the shoes, they “molded” to the foot, creating a left side and right side over time. – The Bootmaker
After the French Revolution, shoe heels began to disappear, symbolizing that everyone was born on the same level. Delicate silk uppers began to be replaced by more affordable, sturdier leathers.
But the shoes continued to be made with straight lasts, a technique that continued into the 20th century.
As late as 1850 most shoes were made on absolutely straight lasts, there being no difference between the right and the left shoe. Breaking in a new pair of shoes was not easy. There were but two widths to a size; a basic last was used to produce what was known as a “slim” shoe. When it was necessary to make a “fat” or “stout” shoe the shoemaker placed over the cone of the last a pad of leather to create the additional foot room needed. – Fashion Through Time, History of Your Shoes
Tools used by bootmakers and cobblers included: awls for punching holes in leather; hot burnishers that rubbed soles and heels to a shine; sole knives that shaped soles; stretching pliers which stretched the leather upppers; marking wheels to mark where the needle should go throught the sole, and size sticks to measure the foot. “By 1750 shoemakers were making shoes in different sizes for anyone who wanted to buy them. Before that they only made shoes on special order.” – Tradesmen/shoemaker.