And Gentlemen in England Now A-bed Shall Think
themselves Accursed They Were not Here,
And Hold Their Manhoods Cheap Whiles Any Speaks That Fought With Us Upon Saint Crispin's Day.
Henry V, Act IV, Scene 3
Boot and shoemakers are often commonly called "cobblers." But the word cobbler is more properly applied to shoe repairmen. Those who actually make footwear are known as "cordwainers." This term has its antecedents in the word "cordovan" which was a reddish leather produced in Spain. Hence, one who worked in cordovan was a cordwainer. Shoemakers who made custom, made-to-order shoes were known as "bespoke" makers.
Shoemaking has a long history and one that is rich in tradition. Within the trade itself -- among shoe and bootmakers -- the legends, the traditions, and the history really begin with St. Crispin. St. Crispin is the patron saint of shoemakers. Since medieval times, October 25th has been celebrated as St. Crispin's Day and the Shoemaker's Holiday. In the past, boot and shoemakers traditionally closed their shops on this day, in celebration and commemoration. I say commemoration because there is more to the story of St. Crispin than meets the eye. Actually there are two stories that seem to be the same... one in England, one in France. St. Crispin was born into a wealthy Roman family in the third century A.D.. Somewhere fairly early on, he converted to Christianity. Since this was not an approved lifestyle for a noble Roman, legend says that he was disinherited. Forced to fall back upon his own resources, St. Crispin (not yet a saint) became a shoemaker. Although teaching the gospel was his life's work, he made shoes in his spare time -- until he was put to death for his beliefs in Soissons, France in 288 A.D.. We know a little more about St. Hugh, the English counterpart to St. Crispin. Born Hugh, son of Arviragus -- king of Powisland (modern day Wales), St. Hugh married a Christian princess, Winifred of Flintshire. She quickly converted him to Christianity, with roughly the same results. Thrown into poverty, Hugh became a shoemaker who preached the gospel by day and plied his craft by night. Both he and Winifred were put to death, ostensibly for rabble-rousing, about 300 A.D.. Legend has it that his fellow shoemakers kept constant vigil and consoled him during the time of his internment. After his death, by hanging, his friends pulled his body from the gibbet and dried his bones. These were made into tools for making shoes. For many years, in fact, a shoemaker's tool kit was called St. Hugh's Bones.
As a class, shoemaker's have historically been regarded as having an innate philosophical bent. They have been writers, mayors, popes, and leaders of major social upheaval.
Northampton, England was, for many years, the center of shoemaking in England and Europe. June Swann, who was curator at the Museum there, tells the story of having heard, for years, the legend of "64 stitches to the inch" that was told about the Northampton trade. But during her tenure there she had never actually seen an example of such refined workmanship -- until she received a shipment of 19th century boots from the States.
After the American Civil War, many of the trades -- jobs that for centuries had relied upon skilled, highly trained craftsmen -- began to be industrialized. Just naturally there was great resistance to the very concept of the factory and wage slavery. Boot and shoemakers were some of the most vociferous in this resistance and their industry was, in fact, one of the last to be converted. During the late 1800's, many prize work competitions were staged to demonstrate that factory workers could not compete with skilled craftsmen. Some of the fanciest and most refined work ever to be done was created for these exhibitions. Ms. Swann tells of coming across boots made in Philadelphia for show that were stitched 64 stitches to the inch. Now just about the finest work that can be done on leather with a modern sewing machine is approximately 30 stitches to the inch. More stitches only tear the leather. Additionally, we know that this work was done by hand. James Devlin says in his book The Guide To The Trade that this work was done with an awl so fine that upon an accidental piercing of his hand, the wound neither hurt nor bled; and that a human hair was used for a needle.
Much of the footwear that is in common use today had its origins in the styles and fashions of Europe -- and, particularly, England. itself. Indeed, the "cowboy" boot, in its several variations, does not derive from Spanish or Native American influence as is commonly thought, but is, instead, a direct descendent of the boot style made popular by Arthur Wellsley -- the Duke of Wellington.
A common thread in these stories, and the many others that surround shoemakers, is the theme of nobility . Indeed the heel itself is a mark of nobility. The earliest information we have of the high heel being used for riding, describes invading mongol tribesmen wearing bright red wooden heels. Mongols were consummate horsemen and their easy victories left a mark on European society. Since owning and caring for a horse requires some wealth and since being horseback places a person physically above the common man, riders and, consequently, high heels became associated with nobility. To this day, we say well-heeled to describe someone who is wealthy or aristocratic. The Stuart cavaliers -- king's men all -- that immigrated to America during the Cromwellian Interregnum brought with them their thigh high riding boots... with high heels. Many settled in the south and indeed the bulk of the southern plantation class was descended from cavalier stock; a fact that played a big part in the unfolding of the American Civil War and the preeminence of the southern cavalry. Before and after the civil war many Southerners migrated to Texas or went west to escape the devastation of the war. Again their notion of high heels and nobility went with them. Many people have speculated upon the origins of the cowboy boot, but the Northhampton Museum in England has one of the largest collections of historical footwear in the world and in these exhibits can be found the true story of the western boot. Throughout the 17th and 18th century exhibits are examples of riding boots which, as with one particular pair made in approximately 1630, have high tops, pointed toes and 2" stacked heels. During this period of time, boots were made upon straights -- lasts that were neither left nor right. Rights and lefts had been common before this era but with the emerging fashion for high heels (some as high as 3") and the difficulty of producing paired lasts at the higher heel height, most footwear was produced on the straight last. Military styles had a great influence on boots during this time although for practical reasons the tops of boots gradually began to come down from the thigh high buckets of the cavaliers. In 1790 paired lasts were reintroduced mostly as a response to lower heel heights. And as the new century began, boots became very fashionable, even for women. In 1815, Arthur Wellsley, First Duke of Wellington, defeated Napoleon at Waterloo. In the wake of his victory and his ensuing popularity, Wellington boots became the style. The major difference in these boots from previous styles was that the heels were low cut and the tops were only calf high.
At Northhampton there is a pair of dress wellingtons made in 1817. They are a four piece boot --vamp, counter cover, front and back tops -- with beaded side seams (the same layout as a modern cowboy boot). The vamps and counter covers are black patent leather, the tops are maroon with an olive top binding and trim...and they have a fancy decorative stitch pattern on the front of the leg. With 1" stacked leather heels and inside canvas pulls they are remarkably like the western boots that later became part of the history of the American frontier. In 1847, S.C. Shive, in America, patented the patterns and crimping board for what we call a "full wellington" -- a two piece boot that found wide acceptance among the military, horsemen, and adventurers of the time. From the 1850's to the 1880's, the full wellington was the boot that military officers were issued. And although by regulation, foot soldiers and enlisted men were issued shoes (ankle high lace-ups -- predecessors of the packer), the full wellington was preferred and was the boot that went west with the army and the nation. In fact, the earliest examples of true cowboy boots -- the Coffyville and others -- are full wellingtons.
A Gentle Craft that hath the Art,
To steal soon into a Ladies Heart:
Here you may see, what Youth and Love can do,
The Crown doth stoop to th' Maker of a Shooe.
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