The Shoemaker

   During the late 1700s and early 1800s in Mother Bedford there were craftsmen known as shoemakers. I became interested in the craft when I was researching my Naftzger/Nofsker ancestors. Heinrich Naftzger, who lived between 1764 and 1823, was a shoemaker, as had been his great-grandfather and certain uncles before him. John Jacob and Jonathan Nofsker, sons of Heinrich, took up the profession and practiced it while they resided in Greenfield Township in the mid-1800s.

   The name for a shoemaker originally was Cordwainer. It was seldom used after 1700, but still appears in dictionaries and the guild of shoemakers in England retains the name of The Cordwainers Company. It has been noted that shoemaking was called "the gentle craft" because it does not require much violent, physical exertion. The shoemaker did most of his work seated at his bench and with his hands. The basic equipment he needed was a shoemaker's bench and tools. The shoemaker's bench was a piece of furniture engineering that had developed from the needs of the artisans over the centuries and had, in the 1600s reached the form that it would retain for the next two centuries.The singular aspect of the shoemaker's bench that made it different from other crafts benches and work stations was the combination of the bench with the tool box. Its self-contained design enabled the shoemaker to either set up a stationary shop that did not require much space, or he could become an itinerant craftsman hauling his "workshop" on a cart. The shoemaker's bench consisted of a regular bench, on one end of which was built a box structure. The box structure was actually a small chest of drawers in which to store the awls, marking wheels, sole knifes, small hammers and other tools along with pieces of leather and lengths of waxed hemp or linen "cord" that the shoemaker worked with. The bench itself might be constructed to permit one or more larger drawers beneath where the shoemaker sat. Larger pieces of leather and any number of wooden lasts could be stored there.

   The "last" was a mold around which the shoemaker fashioned the shoe. Carved from wood, the last would be made by first measuring the customer's feet at several particular points, then the last would be whittled out of a block of wood until the contours matched the measurements taken from the customer's feet. Heinrich Naftzger's great-grandfather, working as a shoemaker in the late 1600s and early 1700s would have made both shoes in a pair from a single last, their shape being exactly the same. In 1785, the shoemakers in England began to mate left and right shoes, making them slightly different from the squared-toe design of previous ages. (Children's shoes, though continued to be unmated.) The pair of lasts would be marked with the customer's name and often would be used for the life of the customer. If the customer's feet increased size or changed shape, the wooden last could be adjusted by attaching a piece of leather to the wood where necessary.

   The itinerant shoemaker might whittle out the last during his one and only visit to a frontier homestead, hold it between his knees as he worked on the shoes, and then leave the last with the homesteader to keep until some future visit. The shoemaker who set up a shop in a village would use a tool called a "lasting jack" which was a cast iron article that was fastened to the bench and supported the last, which also was fastened to it. The lasting jack, therefore, held the last in a more secure way than the shoemaker's knees could.

   Shoemaking tended to be what is known as "bespoke" work. This was any work performed by a craftsman by request of a customer. Rather than producing an inventory of shoes, and then setting up a store in which the customer would chose a pair, the shoemaker waited until a request had been made. This ensured a lower financial risk on the part of the craftsman. In much bespoke work, the customer could also provide the material needed for the job in order to cut down on the final cost of the manufactured goods. While seeming to benefit the customer moreso, this practice benefited the shoemaker by allowing him to avoid tying up much of his earnings in leather that might not be used. The only problem with bespoke work was that the shoemaker had to keep track of the leather provided to him by each customer.

   In the actual production of the shoe, the shoemaker started out by attaching the last upside down onto the lasting jack. He then stretched a piece of thin leather, called the "upper" over the last with a special type of pliers or pincers and tacked the leather temporarily to the wooden last. The upper would actually be made in two pieces, the one forming the vamp that covered the toe and instep and ended in the tongue, the other covering the heel and sides and ending in two straps. The upper would have been cut so that a little extra material would extend beyond the last. This extra material was turned outward (contrary to how it's done nowadays). The sole leather was thick and cut just a bit larger than the last so that the extra edge of upper leather would lay upon it as a flange through which the thread would be sewn. (Nowadays, the extra material of the upper is turned inward and glued and sewn in a blind fashion so that the sole's edge is even with that of the upper.) The thick leather that would be used for the tap (i.e. sole) was soaked overnight in a bucket of water to soften it up a bit. Then it would be placed on a smooth stone called the lapstone (because the shoemaker placed the flat, water-smoothed stone on his lap while seated on the bench) and the shoemaker would hammer it with a broadheaded hammer to further soften it up and make it take on the contour he wanted. The shoemaker would next coat the extra edge of the upper with a paste-like glue and place the tap on the top of the last so that it met that glue-coated, flanged edge created by the extra material of the upper. The glue was meant merely to hold the tap in place while the shoemaker sewed the two leather pieces together.

   The actual sewing of the upper to the tap started out by cutting a shallow channel (i.e. the feather) along the edge of the sole leather. This feather would allow the thread to lie away from the surface, where it would be easily worn down. Then the spots for the needle to go through were marked by running a marking wheel along the feather. At each point that the marking wheel's teeth pressed into the leather, the shoemaker would bore a hole with an awl. Through these holes his thread would pass easily. The thread that was normally used for shoes was made from flax which was waxed for greater ease. One might assume that the flax was then threaded onto a needle, but it was not. A hog bristle was used in place of a needle. The thread was attached to the hog bristle by means of a drop of wax, and the arrangement was called a wax end. This would take up less space in the hole than a threaded needle would with its doubled-over thread and the enlarged head of the needle itself. For whatever reason only a shoemaker might know, the shoemaker would pass two wax ends through each hole in opposite directions at the same time, the action being called "whipping the cat".

   After the tap or sole had been completely attached to the upper by sewing them together, the shoemaker would cut several pieces of sole leather in the shape that would be the heel. Each piece was fastened onto the tap by means of small nails hammered through them. The height of the heel would be determined by the number of heel pieces that were tacked on. A sole knife would be used to trim the edge of the shoe. The tap and the upper's joined edges, which flanged outward from the body of the shoe would be trimmed down so that the size of the flange was not so pronounced. Then the last would be loosened from the lasting jack. Because the leather upper had been stretched tightly over the last and sewn tightly to the tap, the last would be just as tightly trapped within the body of the shoe. The shoemaker used a special crosshandled hook to grasp the last and pull it out of the shoe. Except for some burnishing of the edge of the sole and heel with a curved iron heated over a flame, and blacking and waxing of the uppers for dress shoes, the work was completed. The shoemaker seldom attached metal buckles to the straps of the shoes, he would punch the holes through which the buckle could be passed, but the actual purchase and attachment of the buckle was up to the customer.

   By the 1820s a technique whereby sewing the uppers to the sole was changed to attaching the two together by use of small wooden pegs was being developed, and in 1833 a machine was invented to mechanically peg shoes together. The age of the cordwainer/shoemaker was on the wane.