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History of the shoe trade

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Shoemaker - Cordonnier - Schuster - 19th century

Cobbler, stick to your last! We probably all know this proverb. We use it to clarify that someone should stick to their trade and do what they know how to do. The saying originated in an exhibition by the famous painter Apelles in ancient Greece. A shoemaker criticised that a shoe was drawn incorrectly in the painting, an eyelet was missing. Apelles was happy to correct it. The next day, the shoemaker came back and criticised the leg’s shape and other little things. Then the painter cried out angrily: Ne sutor supra crepidam! (Do not judge beyond your last). A nice anecdote that shows us that shoemakers already existed at that time and that one of the essential tools, the last, was also already firmly connected to the making of shoes. We have taken a closer look at the shoemaker or cobbler and would like to tell you a little history of the shoe trade.

Where does the term shoemaker come from?

Shoemaker and cobbler both refer to the same craft. The official designation is a shoemaker. In Ancient Greek, where our anecdote of the little story of the shoe craft is set, people spoke of leather workers or leather tailors. In Latin, too, the shoemaker is called a leather sewer. This is because the shoemaker’s leading work in Roman footwear was to sew together the upperparts and the shoes’ upper and bottom. This is how the real shoemakers distinguished themselves from the sandal makers, who were not held in such high esteem. Later, from the Middle Ages onwards, the cobblers only mended and tried to save what could still be saved. The senior makers bought old shoes, mended them and sold them again.

Tasks and tools of the trade of a shoemaker

Shoemakers make shoes, repair them, and offer general shoe care, recolouring shoes or advice on fit. Some shoemakers also carry out saddlery and bag-making work. The tools of a shoemaker’s trade have hardly changed over the centuries. Machines have replaced some hand tools. Pneumatic presses replace tapping the sole with a cobbler’s hammer and tapping stone. A cobbler also needs various pliers, such as pleating pliers, to set the upper leather pleats at the toe and heel. A pincer knife for trimming soles and heels, tack lifters for pulling out nails or different awls for piercing the seam holes in the leather are also part of the equipment, along with many other tools and aids.

A short tour through the history of shoemaking

Even ancient cave drawings show that people had something like shoes to protect their feet from the elements. In the colder regions, skins and leather were probably wrapped around the feet. Over the years, today’s boots will evolve from these makeshift Neanderthals. In warmer regions, leaves served as protection against the hot ground. These were the sandal precursors, first documented to have been made in Egypt 5000 years BC. The Egyptians’ typical footwear can still be found today in thong sandals, also called flip-flops. However, archaeological finds show that shoes were indeed worn in the period between feet wrapped in animal skins and Egyptian sandals. The oldest evidence dates back to about 40,000 years ago. Whether there were already shoemakers at that time is not known precisely, but in copper-age finds such as those of Ötzi, there is evidence of clearly manufactured shoes with soles and shafts.

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The history of the shoe craft up to machine shoe production

As our anecdote about the painter Apelles shows, the first documented shoemakers were in ancient Greece and Rome. The profession of shoemaker began to distinguish itself from that of tanner about 5000 years before Christ. However, this process lasted until the 18th century, as shoemakers also made their own leather. Until then, the tanners probably also made the leather shoes, which were undoubtedly worn.

For the most part, however, people wore sandals or fur boots in the colder regions. The Romans had the first job title for those craftsmen who made the calceus, the typical Roman footwear. This was an ankle-high boot that could be closed or toeless and was worn outside the home. In the house or with a simple tunic, people wore sandals, which were not particularly heavy to make. The Calceolarii, as the first Roman shoemakers liked to be called, wanted to distinguish themselves from the sandal makers (Sandeleres) in order to point out the clearly higher level of craftsmanship they performed.

 

As the influence of Christianity grew, more and more closed shoes replaced sandals. This is related to the sin of displaying the body, which includes the feet. So showing bare feet was not only considered ungentlemanly but a great sin that a good Christian naturally had to avoid. This was fortunate for the shoemakers, who were now more and more challenged. While many people were still able to make simple footwear such as sandals or slippers themselves, the situation was quite different when it came to real closed shoes.

The professionalisation of the shoe trade in the Middle Ages

In the Middle Ages, the craft was professionalised by guilds. The purpose of the guilds was to represent the interests of the crafts in the cities and to promote them. There were great side-effects, such as prescribed training to become a craftsman, catalogues of activities that belonged to a profession and the observance of professional standards and ethics. From the 14th century onwards, there was even compulsory guild membership. No craftsman was allowed to carry out his work without belonging to the guild responsible for him. Our training, professional associations and guilds are still based on the guild system today. Just as shoes are among the oldest items of human clothing, the shoemaking trade is one of the oldest guilds. As early as the early 12th century, the shoemakers’ guild was founded.

From the 16th century onwards, after the 2 to 3-year apprenticeship as a shoemaker, it was compulsory to go on the road. The journeyman’s period lasted three years, during which the shoemakers hired themselves out in other towns and countries. They increased their knowledge and craftsmanship during the wandering years, learned other techniques, cultural peculiarities, and styles. This was followed by a period of apprenticeship with one or two masters. Only then could the journeyman take the master’s examination and the shoemaker open his own business.

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In some towns, this was hardly possible even with a master craftsman’s certificate, because one had to prove ownership of a house. This was because the workshops, storerooms and living quarters were housed in the shoemaker’s house. Also, there had to be living quarters for the apprentices and the appointees, who lived in the master’s house. Thus it was not uncommon for shoemakers to work as journeymen for a master until the end of their lives.

Closeup of shoemaker workshop with shoes, laces and tools

History of the shoe trade from the late Middle Ages to industrialisation

As we have already mentioned, leather’s manufacture was also part of a shoemaker’s work until the 18th century. Until then, shoemaking also remained virtually unchanged. The shoemakers then beat the leather over the last that had been precisely made beforehand. Then the blank was put into the sewing iron, and the front and back parts were sewn together. The lining was pulled in, and the insole was attached. At the very end, the cobbler attached the heel to the shoe. Heels have been attached to shoes since the 13th century. Exactly why shoemakers added heels to shoes is not known. One explanation is that the heels were supposed to protect the dirt and manure shoes on the medieval streets. Another reason is that the heels could be snapped well into the stirrups when riding and thus sat more securely.

 

In the 18th century, the guilds’ power began to wane, and the guild obligation was abolished. The state now took over the supervision of trades. A few decades later the sewing machine was introduced, and around 1870 factory production of shoes began, and more and more people migrated to the shoe shops. Factory produced shoes were much cheaper, and so our respected shoemaker became a cobbler. Only orthopaedic shoemakers remain as a specialised trade.

The shoe trade today

Having arrived in modern times, our little history of the shoe craft also comes to an end. Whereas until the machine production of shoes as mass-produced goods, all shoes were handmade, production by hand has become very rare today. It is very time-consuming. It can take up to 40 hours to make a custom-made shoe. The shoemakers who still make shoes properly in their manufactories also distinguish themselves from their colleagues’ cobbler shops with the term custom shoemaker. But they still exist. In the Gisy shoe shop, you will also find handmade shoes by well-known designers from the UK, Germany and Italy.

Apart from orthopaedic shoemakers, only theatre and ballet shoemakers still work as real shoemakers in the old traditional art. Most shoemakers work in repair shops. They need less knowledge of making good shoe and more knowledge of many different materials and glueing techniques. Mastering the art of sewing is also essential. Creating a custom-made shoe is still part of the journeyman’s examination, so even with glued mass-produced goods, the old craft is not unlearned.

An elderly shoemaker in studio
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