Extinct Crafts: Shoemaking

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People used to keep a pair of shoes for a lifetime. They were a cherished and expensive possession. People would bring them to shoemakers in the hope that they could restore their shine and luster and bring them back to life.

Today, although traditional shoemakers still exist and we are able to visit their shops, they are fewer and more difficult to find. Like many artisans, many are closing their doors. Shoes have been mass-produced for many years and are easily replaceable at low cost.

The smell of real leather and quality craftsmanship evoke memories and take us back to a different time. A time where attention to detail, uniqueness, and quality were tantamount. It is possible that real shoemakers will soon be extinct!

(Image credit: Soletopia.com)

Thousands of years ago, man first tied animal skin around his feet to protect them, and the concept of footwear materialized. Not only would shoes protect people from rugged terrain and long journeys, they would help them deal with extreme temperatures of heat or cold, and allow them to move freely.

According to research, the weakening of small toe bones has been found in 40,000-year-old human fossils, shown as evidence of shoes existing back then.

There’s reason to believe that craftsmen emerged at that time and began to create and repair footwear. Shoemakers have been appreciated by their customers for years and recognized for their hard work and dedication to the craft, which is sometimes considered an art.

The world’s oldest leather shoe was discovered in an Armenian cave in 2010. It was well-preserved, as it was covered in sheep dung. Scientists have dated the shoe to some 5,500 years ago. It is a single piece of cow leather with laces along the front and back seams, tied with a leather cord.

Remains of ancient shoes have been found in other parts of the world, shedding more light on cultures and styles from times gone by. For example, in Mexico, one can see statues from the Olmec era (5,000 BCE) with specific footwear.

Shoemakers who repaired shoes were also known as cobblers, and also worked with leather bags and accessories, such as belts. If the craftsman created new shoes, he was named a master shoemaker.

Three centuries ago, shoemakers, much like such other craftsmen such as blacksmiths, carpenters and tailors, were among the lowest of the social classes. In Spain, it was believed that workers that worked with their hands lost their social status. People became reluctant to enter such professions, or to employ workers such as shoemakers. In 1783, the King of Spain found it necessary to issue a Royal Decree stating that artisans such blacksmiths, tailors, shoemakers, carpenters and others are honest and honorable and that using them is not degrading to the family or the person that uses their services.

Royal Decree (Image credit: Google Books)

Like many crafts, shoemaking skills were often passed down from parents to children or to young apprentices who helped in the workshop while learning the trade.

Shoemaking became more commercialized in the mid-18th century. Warehouses were created to house pre-made footwear to be sold in different areas.
By the end of the 19th-century, shoemaking was transformed from a traditional handicraft to an industrialized and streamlined production of large factories.

Today, many of the past’s tools and techniques have disappeared, replaced with new production methods. Many modern shoes are less durable and are designed to be replaced after limited use.

So, if you decide to use your local shoemaker and put your shoes in their expert hands, know that you are trusting an experienced craftsman who has learned a trade with a rich history that is almost as old as time.

Do you remember shoemakers of yesteryear?

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  • Pietje Arjaans


    September 30, 2015

    Nice to read about the honoreble craftsmen the shoemaker,my grandfather and greatgrandfather aswell as my uncle were shoemakers ,they designed and hand made beautiful leather shoes of the best quality .Proud to be related to them

  • P.Bland


    September 30, 2015

    Kendal was the home of K Shoes, this company was started by Robert Miller Somervell and continued until it was bought by Clark’s of Street who slowly transferred the business away from Kendal. Now the factories have been demolished one part Low Mills is now housing and the main factory block was replaced by a shopping centre and housing, called K Village. This however has not been a success. K Shoes were the biggest employer in the town and as a result Kendal has never recovered from the loss.

  • P.Bland


    September 30, 2015

    The company was started in 1842 and was in production for over 150 years.

  • B Schulz


    October 1, 2015

    What is the difference between a shoemaker and a cordwainer in Colonial times?

  • rhonda krowchuk


    October 21, 2015

    from what I understand is if someone was a shoemaker may have a last name like shuey.

  • Elizabeth Matthews


    October 28, 2015

    My grandfather, Benjamin Higgins was trained as a shoemaker at Bernardo’s Orphanage in England in the late 1800’s, before he was sent to Canada at the age of 13 to do his trade, but ended up at a farm in Ontario

  • Val jenkins


    October 28, 2015

    interesting to me

  • Debra L. Gould


    October 28, 2015

    My great-grandfather, Artemis Gould, was a shoemaker. My sister inherited all of his equipment, including the sewing machine he used. She makes and repairs harnesses for horses.

  • John Burrows


    October 28, 2015

    My great great many greats grandfather was a cordwainer I always understood that he made soft leather shoes not working boots

  • Dianna


    October 28, 2015

    I have used a shoemaker in my time, mind you it was a few decades ago, but he did a great job on my shoes. I wish they were still around, when my cowboy boots need fixing.

  • B Wray


    October 28, 2015

    Cordwainer – cordwaner and other near titles date back to before 1272 in UK when first ordinances of the Cordwainers’ Company were drawn up, establishing the rules that governed the trade of shoe making in the City of London.
    It took 120 years before Cobblers agreed to be governed by the rules of the Cordwainers’ Company. Since that date most shoemakers & cobblers who wished to be recognised by their peers became members of the Company, usually by being an apprentice and showing their worth to the Company’s masters.
    The Company had large buildings and a school in the early 20thC after 4 previous Halls (one destroyed in The Great Fire, another in the Blitz! They are now represented in the London College of Fashion by their Court I believe.
    It is possible to see some records in London at the LMA. I have traced my own family back to 18thC in this profession. My father made shoes for many male USA celebretes.

  • anny van veen-coenen


    October 28, 2015

    vanaf 1750 waren mijn voorvaders schoenmaker
    vooral in vestings steden.daar waren veel soldaten.
    ze woonden in namur(belgie)maastricht en bergen op zoom

  • John Burrows


    October 28, 2015

    My Great (Several generations back!} was a cordwainer in Ockbrook England in the late 1600’s

  • John Ryan


    October 28, 2015

    My 4 great grandfather, James Saunders (1770-1852) was a shoemaker in Peterhead, Scotland. His son George, 3 great grandfather, (1798-1872) also became a shoemaker in Peterhead. One of his sons, James Robertson Saunders (1843-1872), appears to have been an apprentice shoemaker in the 1871 Scottish census. As James would have been about 27 at the time, he seems a bit old to be an apprentice but given he died in 1872, maybe there is a story there. In the 1861 census, James R was described as a saddler.

  • Anne Hunter


    October 28, 2015

    My great great grandfather, Adam Syme (b. circa 1837), was a Master Shoemaker in Larbert then in Dunblane, in Scotland. His wife, Jane, née Honeyman, is also listed on censuses as a Shoemaker.

  • JennyAshton


    October 28, 2015

    My g,great grandfather was a shoemaker in Warrington, England, in the mid 1800’s. His name was John Maloney and he was married to Mary Savage. His son Patrick or “Parr” Maloney came out to
    Australia in the latter part of the 1800’s but don’t know why or when. He became a sawyer here so don’t know if he had followed his father’s trade.

  • Pat Masters


    October 28, 2015

    My father Grayson M. Burkett was a cobbler in OK, Tx. W/ his brother-in-law in the late 1930s 1940.

  • George Mc Dougall


    October 28, 2015

    The tradition still lives on particularly in the orthopaedic industry where bespoke footwear is made for patients with problem feet

    Buchanan Orthotics in Scotland make bespoke footwear and tartan brogues which are made to order with the tartan of your choice under the Buchanan Bespoke brand

  • Cecelia


    October 28, 2015

    Yes, my father-in-law was a shoemaker by trade. He apprenticed in Poland and brought his skills and equipment to Canada with him. Besides being a fisherman and farmer, he made many pairs of shoes for friends, his wife, himself and the whole family. For a number of years, he supplied footwear for the dancers at the Villages in Brantford, Ontario, after he retired from farming. Making shoes from scratch was certainly an art. I can still recall the smell of real leather in his workshop.

  • Lilian Alderding


    October 28, 2015

    My Great Grandfather William Kinch Church was a Master Bootmaker to the Royal Household Cavalry.

  • Derek


    October 28, 2015

    The early origins of Cordwainer actually go back to North Africa in the grand days of the Caliphate. They were made from camel skin which, I believe was dried and oiled and not tanned. Thus it was very soft. Until that time and to around 1900, Europe was dependent on wooden clogs. The leather shoe came across to Spain when a good portion of it was conquered by the arabs. Gradually fine leather was substituted and the method of preserving using oak bark (tanning) developed. Despite the arabs being long since driven back across the Med’ & the change to leather with tannin, the name cordwainer remained in common use up to about 1900 (see various censuses in West Yorkshire). The name’s retention was largely used by the shoemaker to grant himself a little esteem, probably in the hope that he could charge a touch more!

  • Jennie


    October 29, 2015

    I too am proud to have had cordwainers & shoemakers in my family albeit many years ago in the UK

  • Anderson Hill


    October 29, 2015

    Very interested information from the past,this generation will never have the opportunity to learn this trade.

  • Richard G


    October 29, 2015

    I was taught by my grandfather to repair my own shoes, and still do, that was over 55 years ago, 71 now and still active in saving my own shoes.

  • jan anderson


    October 29, 2015

    my dad was a boot clicker, he cut uppers by hand with a knife. his dad and brother followed the same profession. I also had great uncles who had boot repair business in Brisbane in the sixties. there were two boot factories at the time f t morris opposite lang park and dixons at west end, they moved to wacol but soon closed. both factories once made boots for the Australian army

  • Bruce Flood


    October 29, 2015

    My ancestors were shoemakers in Nortumberland England. The Gent family sailed to Sydney Australia in 1882 where they established a boot factory and shop in Botany Road Redfern.

  • Matthew Antuzzi


    October 29, 2015

    My grandfather, Matthew Antuzzi, was a shoemaker who learned his trade in a small mountain town in central Italy and continued his profession in New Jersey, USA. His cousin, from the same Italian town, was also a shoemaker (born in the 1880’s), must have been from a line of shoemakers.

  • Lynda Chilvers nee Deegan


    October 29, 2015

    Lynda Chilvers oct 29th 2015

    My Ancesters on my mothers side of the family produced 2 generations of shoemakers.
    William Tomlinson born 1796. John Tomlinson born1825. They lived and worked in Guilsborough, Northamptonshire England.

  • Janie Cook


    October 29, 2015

    My ancestors were Shoe makers, boot closers & cordwainers from Lincolnshire . My understanding of a cordwainers is that they made ‘posh’ shoes from lamb & kid skins. Cordoba is lamb in Spanish where cordwainers originated from.

  • Colin Stretton


    October 29, 2015

    I was surprised to read that my grandfather enlisted in the British army in 1891 at the age of 15 yrs 9 months and stated that he was a shoemaker. Within a year he was posted to India and spent 5 years there. He returned home and in 1899 until 1902 was part of the Boer War in South Africa, ending up as a bandsman.
    His father was also a professional soldier and also states “shoemaker” on his enlistment papers. I presume my grandfather learned his trade at the knee of his father at that early age, and I assume that “Boot makers” were a very necessary part of any army in those days.

  • Cheryl Cockrum


    October 29, 2015

    My grandfather Mark Rudman was a shoemaker in Indianapolis, Indiana from the early 1900’s until his death in 1958. He was born in Sosice, Croatia when it was part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. He and his wife Maude held a patent for a type of heel on womens shoes.

  • Tony Farrington.


    October 29, 2015

    My Family The Farrington’s, were Shoe Makers, reparers, from the early 1800’s through to the mid 1900’s. They were based in Hertfordshire, Buntingford, Royston, Ware, Hoddesdon etc and then in London.

  • Margaret Eldridge


    October 29, 2015

    My great grandfather in Wales was a shoemaker and my grandfather was either a shoemaker or a shoe repair man.

  • WAYNE


    October 29, 2015

    i know how to build shoes, im a clicker/stuffcutter. during my Apprenticeship.i made two pairs of boot,s for myself BEST BOOTS I EVER WORE.

  • Doris Cleek


    October 29, 2015

    My father trained as shoe repairman, the term he preferred for his profession, in Little Rock, AR before WWII. He considered the term “cobbler” an insult, being one who did an inferior job of patching up something. He continued to hone his skills in leathercraft, repairing virtually anythingmade of leather, becoming certified in orththotic applications. After moving to Amarillo, TX, he learned bootmaking and had a thriving business of custom-fitted handmade boots, with customers all over the U.S. and one notable in Europe. He tried to teach my brother, who was just too bullheaded to appreciate the art. He also tried to teach me but said I didn’t have “the feel” for it. My son remarked just the other day that he wishes he’d had the chance to learn the craft. I do miss the smell of the leather and polish and seeing the flat hides of cows, alligators, water buffalo and ostriches transformed into a beautiful, serviceable boot.

  • Dan Hooper


    October 29, 2015

    Very interesting reading. Sounds like my profession. Watchmaking. Another trade that is slowly disappearing. Cheap, fake junk on the market has people paying good money for very poor guality products. Cheers from Canada.

  • Ginny Leedholm


    October 29, 2015

    My father. grandfather and great grandfather were shoe repairmen. My father was very talented with leather, he would make the most beautiful and interesting purses for my mom. I also miss the smell of tanned leather and the polish. My uncle had a shoe repair shop in Van Nuys California.

  • Carol(Stevens) Leetham


    October 29, 2015

    My grandfather, Robert Hiscox was a homechild sent out from Endland about 1870 and apparently was a shoemaker. Still trying to find info on him in the Caledonia area in Canada.

  • SHIRLEY WEIHING


    October 29, 2015

    NEARLY EVERY TOWN IN NORTHEAST NEBRASKA HAD A SHOE REPAIRMAN BEFORE WWII. IT WAS VERY COMMON TO GO IN , HAVE HIM REPLACE THE HEALS AND oh YES PUT ON METAL CLICKS. THERE WERE STILL SOME IN WESTERN NEBRASKAIN THE 1970’S. THEY REPAIRED MEN’S BOOTS, NEW SOLES AND HEALS.

  • Ngaire Denne


    October 30, 2015

    My Great )many times over) Gramdfather was a Cordwainer in England at the end of the seventeen hundreds and his family also worked with him

  • Valerie


    October 30, 2015

    My paternal Grandfather was a Master Shoe Maker in England’s and his father before him. Most of my great aunts and uncles were connected in some way to the industry, from a young age.

  • Yvonne Palin


    October 30, 2015

    Very interesting!
    My friends son is a shoemaker in Saskatoon Saskatchewan his name is Adam Finn and he is very good at it!

  • Terry Frost Jones


    October 30, 2015

    My family were boot and shoe makers inSouth Wales from around 1820 in Newport Tredegar &Monmouth untill the stick a sole closed up in 1952 I can still remember the smell of the hands of new hide in the shop its a very effective reminder of my child hood a beaut smell

  • Joan Aspinall


    November 1, 2015

    The word cordwainer derives from Cordova (Spain I think) where
    the very soft leather for shoes in early time was made. One of my ancestors Henry Carey imported this, and conducted his business in Birchington in Kent.

  • Betty Wilson


    November 1, 2015

    My maternal great great (James Brown) and greatgreat great grandfathers (John Brown) were shoemakers in Dumfries although the latter was said to be born around 1822 and came to Scotland from somewhere in Ireland.John was described as a cobbler in 1842 census aged 19 years old but ,shoemaker or bookmaker in subsequent censuses . James was a (Head) shoemaker in 1881 and 1901 with his younger brother ,John,described as Shoemaker journeyman,1881.

  • Susan Keller


    November 1, 2015

    My great-grandfather, Henry McLaughlin, 1857-1929, born in County Derry, No. Ireland learned the trade in Ireland and continued his business in the US. I still have a sample shoe 4.5 inches long that he made and although the leather is dried out the quality of his craft remains over 100 years later. It really is a disappearing art. I believe his uncle, before him, was also a shoemaker.

  • Eric


    November 2, 2015

    Just after the War, a friend of mine went to one of those military orphan schools. I think it also catered for the military on transfer, and they were taught to be independent and were taught to make their own shoes.

  • Eric


    November 2, 2015

    My Father and his family came out from Ireland to NZ in the early 1900’s, along with his aunt and uncle and cousins. His uncle was listed as a master bootmaker, and he set up shop in Wellington, where he remained for many years.

  • Brian Hilton


    November 2, 2015

    A number of my Hilton ancestors were Cordwainers in Yately, now spelt Yateley Hampshire England in the 1700/800’s.
    My understanding was that Cordwainers made high quality new, while Cobblers repaired old?
    An earlier posting was about shoemakers in the Army, the shoemakers/Cobblers in the British Army at one time were still fighting soldiers, but repaired or made boots while on the March, there are many books written about the Peninsular War in Spain & Portugal during the early 1800’s that refer to the fact.

  • H Wagner


    November 2, 2015

    South Africa needs such ancient and scares crafts for the millions of jobless and unskilled people. On the craft markets in the big cities you do find some Springbuck skin sandals, and they are very popular, but no handmade shoes or slippers. I am in possession of the patterns for sheepskin slippers my mother and father made during the hard times of the Second World War. I think I can use it to teach some slipper craft to the poor. Your article really made me think.
    Thanks for the interesting information.

  • Jeffrey Clardy


    November 2, 2015

    Great article, I am a shoemaker myself and have bee for more than 40 years started apprenticing at age 13. Bought the shop I started in when I was 18, we raised 3 sons in the business ( told them you do not have to do it as a living but…you will know how to repair shoes as a craft) and now 2 of them own their own shops, and the 3rd considering opening his own. The trade has indeed changed over the years, we learned to adjust, sad to say many of the “old timers” refused to change with the times and as a result, those shoppes are no longer around. Thank you for being thorough in your article. “We doctor shoes, heel them, attend to their dyeing needs, and save their soles”

  • susan otoole


    November 3, 2015

    My maiden name (family name) is Shoemaker… Though we do not know how far back the last Shoemaker by trade made his living.

  • Donald Guest


    November 8, 2015

    my late wifes is descended from Thomas Oliver Jones a Cordwainer born in Cornwall in 1830.T.O.Jones came to South Australia and established a foot wear business, he became a wealthy man and was Mayor and magistrate . he returned to Cornwall and eventually started another business in Toronto Canada where he died in 1911

  • Dave


    November 9, 2015

    My mothers family came from Leicester where my grandfather Robert Stapled & his brothers served apprentices with Thomas Crick & Co. They emigrated to NZ in 1873 and became a major boot factory in Wellington.

  • Shirley


    November 13, 2015

    My Grandpa, Stanislavs Kikuts, was a shoemaker in my great-grandfather Richards Ritt’s shop in Jekabpils, Latvia. They made shoes by order for stores in Latvia. After my great-grandfather’s death, my grandpa owned the shop until the Russians overtook the country and confiscated all businesses about 1938. The family ended up WWII refugees & grandpa repaired shoes & taught shoemaking in DP camps prior to coming to the United States in 1949. He had his own shoe repair and upholstery shop in Iowa until he had to retire because of health when he was in his 80’s. I loved his shop & the smell of all the leather. Spent a lot of time there growing up. Sweet memories.

  • john mortimore


    December 11, 2015

    johnmortimore My grandfather and Father were shoemakers.Ilearnt the trade but mostly repaird.We werein business for 103 years here in Sidmouth. Cordwainerswere the old name for shoemakers.Cobblers were mjn who pass their Citiy and Guides trade exam therefore used inferiormaterials..The name for shoemakers in the Navy were called Snobs.

  • john mortimore


    December 12, 2015

    Sorry I meant to say that Cobblers were men who failed their City & Guilds exam !

  • Joan Aspinall


    December 13, 2015

    Did you know that shoe makers, or repairers, were called
    CORDWAINERS in the 1500/1600’s? The name came from Cordova in Spain, which supplied a very soft, mostly, goat’s skin. Items of clothing were also made of this. eg jerkins.

  • Colin Birrell


    December 14, 2015

    My Great Grandfather was a Master Shoemaker and I found that to be something of a shock and it appears that he was the last in a line of men in my family who were quite adept at doing this job. Sad to see a lost art disappear.

  • june mp hawker


    March 27, 2016

    my g g grandfather was a shoemaker his name was Edwin Golding born in Bristol and was living in Dartmouth Street Westminster in 1841 His son George Golding was also a shoemaker

  • june hawker


    November 21, 2016

    Edwin Golding born in Bristol in 1812 a shoe and bootmaker lived in Westminster london and married Sussanah Wink in 1830 They went on to have 4 children Edwin ,George (my greatgrandfather) Susannah and Emma Maybe this blog may link with another Bristol family who can be my Golding link

  • Keith


    August 2, 2019

    A shoemaker is NOT a cobbler it was considered an insult to call them a cobbler. Cobblers repaired shoes. Shoemakers were masters, therefore, called master shoemakers.