A cobbler at work in his shop, May, 1907.
In the 19th century, every Ontario village had a shoemaker, sometimes more than one. These men were also known as cordwainers, although some sources say that only men who made more luxurious footwear out of softest leather truly deserved the name. In contrast, cobblers were men who repaired boots and shoes, but did not make them. As time passed, the distinction between shoemaker and cobbler became blurred as one man often performed both functions.
It does not take much imagination to perceive the autonomy which shoemakers enjoyed. They were masters of their own small shops and could decide their own hours. They could take on apprentices and get paid for the privilege. They knew everyone in their village and most of the farmers thereabouts. Conversation during a visit to the shoemaker was not limited to shoes, so they understood much about the politics and economy of the community.
In the 1860’s all this began to change. Better transportation, in particular, the railways, permitted centralized manufacture of footwear on a large scale in cities such as Toronto, Hamilton and Montreal. Newly patented machines made it possible to mechanize most of the process. Village shoemakers could not compete with mass manufacturer. At first, many of the employees in the factories were men who had been village shoemakers but had moved to the city. The regular wages offered seemed appealing in contrast to the struggle to survive in a village shop with a declining number of customers. However, city workers experienced a sense of loss — loss of autonomy and loss of control of their working days as well as loss of respect. Moreover, it was not long before manufacturers found that they could hire semi-skilled labourers to operate the machines. These were known as “green hands” to the older shoemakers and much resented by men raised in the apprentice-journeyman system. Manufacturers also hired women, because they would work for lower wages.
In the northeastern United States in the 1870’s, the Knights of St. Crispin became one of the first large scale labour unions. (St. Crispin is the patron saint of shoemakers.) Although they described their occupation as a quiet and gentle craft, the shoemakers believed that strong opposition was required if they were not to be pushed out of their own trade. Among other demands, the Knights of St. Crispin argued that shoemakers should be permitted to remain in the villages and work and not forced to move into cities although it was not clear how this could be accompished. After the rise and fall of the Knights, other organizations representing shoe workers appeared, including the Boot and Shoe Makers Union which was very vigorous in Ontario. In Toronto, female shoe workers lead their male colleagues into a mass strike in the 1880’s. The issue was the right of female workers to unionize and the right of equal pay. When the Toronto shoe industry began to loose out to factories in Montreal, of course the union was blamed, although the reasons were actually not quite so simple.
The elderly cobbler in the photograph is still working in his own shop. At right a window provides a glimpse of an unpaved road and the business across the street. However, on the wall a prominent card (shield-shaped, upper right) announces that he is a member of the Boot and Shoe Makers Union. The movement born on the factory floor has moved beyond the city and been embraced by local entrepreneurs.
Photograph from the collections of the Lennox and Addington Historical Society, Lennox and Addington County Museum and Archives.