If the shoe fit, a cobbler or cordwainer got credit

Mar 21, 2022
Connie Esbach of the Rochester Historical Society takes a look at the distinction between those who made and repaired shoes and the Rochester shop run by a Civil War veteran in the early 1900s.
In the early days of shoemaking in England, there was a distinct difference between a shoemaker, originally known as a cordwainer, and a cobbler.
A cordwainer made shoes and used good quality, thick leather. Legally, a cobbler was only allowed to repair shoes and only had access to used or inferior leather. These rules crossed the Atlantic to America with the early colonists and continued into the 1700's.
However, the tools used by both were very similar. Awls were used to punch holes into the leather to facilitate the sewing together of the upper and lower pieces of the shoe. Marking wheels marked where holes and needle should go. Hot burnishers rubbed soles and heels to a shine, while sole knives were used to shape the soles. There were also stretching pliers for stretching the leather uppers and size sticks.
None of these tools took up a great deal of space. A cobbler might have a bench and tools in a room or a small shed. In some areas of New England, the sheds were referred to as 10x10's.
Pictured with this article is a lasting jack which is part of our museum display. The base is the jack and it raises and lowers to make it easier to work on the shoe last positioned on the top. The shoe last was used to mold the shoe's shape.
Early shoes and even those made into the 1850's were not created as a left and a right. The straight sole would eventually mold to the shape of the wearer's feet, making the breaking in of a pair of shoes an uncomfortable process.
Up until the early 1900's, women's ankles were not to be shown in public, so they were hidden by long skirts or high button shoes or boots. These were fastened by a series of small buttons which necessitated the use of a button hook of which we have several at the museum.
In the 1903 book of area businesses, there is no mention of shoemakers or cobblers, but we know from other sources that Nehemiah Sherman had a shop. Nehemiah was a Civil War veteran and upon returning home, he shared a house with his sister, Susan, at 251 New Bedford Road.
He both farmed and worked as a shoemaker/cobbler. By now the two terms had blended. Nehemiah had a shop in the upstairs of the house. As a cobbler, he also could do repairs on leather items used by farmers and those with wagons, carriages and horses. Nehemiah died in 1908.