Shoemaking 1600 to 1850

In the late sixteenth century, welted shoe construction became standard whereby the upper was sewn to a welt with a second row of stitches made through the welt into the outer sole. From this development until the intro duction of machinery in the mid-nineteenth century there is very little change in the tools or methods used for shoemaking. And for hand shoemakers, changes in this tradition have been minimal. The tools to achieve this construction consisted of a knife, last, dogs, hammer, awl, and shoulder stick.

The first and most important step in making a shoe is to measure the foot accurately, translating these measurements to a corresponding wooden last. The word last comes from the old English word for foot and is the wooden form used as a mold for making the shoe. The last is made to the same shape and size as the client's foot, or a standard last is adjusted adding built-up layers of leather to attain the same measurements. The last is frequently made up of at least two pieces, so that it can be more easily removed from the finished shoe.

After measuring the foot and translating those calculations onto a pattern, cutting out, or clicking, the leather is the first step in constructing a pair of shoes. The round, or moon knife is an early tool that can be seen as far back as ancient Egypt. Used by most workers in leather until the nineteenth century, the skill to use it to its full advantage was acquired during apprenticeship. Straight knives were also used but it was only with the

Tool Nineteenth Century

An eighteenth-century shoemaker's shop. This diagram from the Dictionary of Sciences (1770) depicts the shoemaking technology and tools of the day. Standardized measurements helped ensure a good fit for length in shoes, and pre-made footwear may have already been in production by the late 1700s. © Historical Picture Archive/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

An eighteenth-century shoemaker's shop. This diagram from the Dictionary of Sciences (1770) depicts the shoemaking technology and tools of the day. Standardized measurements helped ensure a good fit for length in shoes, and pre-made footwear may have already been in production by the late 1700s. © Historical Picture Archive/Corbis. Reproduced by permission.

mass entry of workers into the shoe factories of the nineteenth century that straight knives and scissors were preferred by the less-skilled labor force, resulting in the extinction of the moon knife.

Lasting pincers or dogs are used for pulling the top of the shoe, or upper, tight around the last so that it may be secured with tacks to the underside. Most dogs have serrated teeth that help to pull the upper taut and often have a hammer's peen on the other side to set the tacks so that the welted shoe can then be sewn. A hammer is rarely used to set the tacks into the last but rather is used for peening the leather. Once soaked, leather is hammered to flatten the fibrous tissues creating a surface that is more resilient to wear and dampness.

Shoes are traditionally not sewn with a needle, but rather holes are created using awls through which a waxed linen thread is inserted with a pig's bristle. The shapes of awl blades vary according to their intended use. A stitching awl has a straight blade and is used for making holes through multiple layers of leather. The closing awl has a curved blade and is used for joining the sole to the upper.

The shoulder stick, made of wood, burnished the welt and edge of the sole after the shoe was sewn, trimmed, and waxed. The shoulder stick was displaced in the nineteenth century with the use of heated irons, which did the same job but more quickly.

Heels began to be added to footwear beginning in the 1590s. Lasts are required to obtain the correct slope of the sole to accommodate the lift of the heel and as it is too expensive to have a huge inventory of lasts representing the various heel heights as well as for each foot, so most footwear would now be made without left or right definition. This practice of making shoes with straight soles would remain for the next two hundred years, gradually falling from favor throughout the nineteenth century and only finally disappearing in the 1880s. Many surviving examples of lightweight leather and textile footwear from this period show evidence of wear on the uppers where the widths of feet have splayed the upper onto the ground where the sole was insufficiently narrow. However, sturdy leather footwear, like riding boots, continued to be made to order with left and right foot definition for fit and comfort.

With standardized shoe measurements well established and the ease of production for shoemakers of straight soles, it became profitable for shoemakers to pre-make quantities of footwear. No doubt when the shoemaker was not employed by client's orders, he created shoes for speculative sale. Extant shoes dating as early as the 1740s and increasingly toward the end of the eighteenth century display sizes written on linings, suggesting pre-made footwear, as well as shoemaker's names printed on paper labels, usually with their address, suggesting an attempt by shoemakers to encourage repeat business. Footwear had become the first ready-to-wear clothing article sold through shoemaker shops, and also haberdashers and "cheap shoe" warehouses, another name for off-the-rack retailers. Standardized measurements ensured a good fit for length, but it would not be until the 1880s that American shoe manufacturers introduced width sizing.

Shortages of military footwear, and in fact all leather footwear, were a problem in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. According to period journals, boots and shoes from fallen soldiers were usually taken for reuse at the battle's end. All sides suffered from a lack of product, and methods to bypass the long years of apprenticeship to make a proficient shoemaker were sought. Improvements in the pantograph allowed for mirror images of lasts to be made proficiently, allowing for sturdy leather footwear to be made economically on speculation. The English developed a sole-riveting machine for military footwear in 1810 and also devised a press for cutting out leather around the same time. The French improved quotas by streamlining elements of construction, using a factory method for cottage production. Americans devised soles attached with wooden pegs rather than stitching, a process that had been used since the sixteenth century for attaching heels and repairing soles. And in 1823, the metal eyelet was introduced, eventually displacing the more time-consuming task of hand stitching lace holes.

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