What is a Cordwainer?
In Irish folklore there are singularly interesting beings, not human but having a human though rather diminutive appearance. They are said to hold great wealth and keep it well hidden. They avoid direct contact with humans, although they enjoy playing tricks on humans. If a human captures one of them, he must surrender his treasure to his captor. These creatures are fairy shoemakers known as leprechauns.
The word leprechaun supposedly has two roots in the Gaelic language. The first possible derivation is from the word "laucharma'n" which means pigmy. This seems plausible since the leprechaun is said to be only two feet tall but properly proportioned. The other possible origin is from the phrase for shoemaker, "leath bhrogan". (1) To me this is the most probable source since the leprechauns are supposed to make shoes for the fairies, but "only one shoe, never a pair". (2)
All that said, it is really the human shoemaker, not the leprechaun, we are most concerned with.
Shoemaking is an ancient and honorable profession. It dates back many centuries; probably to the time when men first realized it was much better to protect their feet from the rough ground and stones and the cold weather. Originally, most families probably made their own footwear. As time passed, some people became more adept at making certain types of implements and cottage industries began to appear. For this reason most early shoemakers are depicted as individual workers, which was the case through medieval times and into the eighteenth century.
Until the early 1700s most craftsmen, shoemakers included, would live and work in the same place. They would feed their family, meet their customers and make the product all in the main room of their living quarters. Most of them could not afford to buy a house so they would rent the first floor. (3) Some of the master craftsmen made enough to buy property and would hire apprentices to help with the work. Usually the master would deal with the customer, measuring the foot and selecting the leather and the last. For an explanation of what a "last" is, please see the Tools article below.
Many people believe that a shoemaker and a cobbler are the same, however, this is not correct. Shoemakers work only with new leather to make new shoes. Cobblers work with old leather to repair old shoes. They will sometimes tear apart an old shoe and re-cut the leather to make a totally different shoe, but they are still working with old material. Though the distinction seems rather arbitrary, the two were separate professions and each profession had its own guild.
Actually, they are the same. The term cordwainer was preferred by the profession. It is based on the French word cordonnier which came from the Spanish town of Cordoba. In the 12th century some of the finest leather in the world was made in Cordoba. This leather was called cordouan in French which was anglicized as cordwain. It was very much in demand for custom made shoes. Since a shoemaker made shoes only with new leather and leather from Cordoba, cordwain leather, was what they used, they adopted the name cordwainer to designate their profession. (4)
A last? What is a last? Perhaps this would be a good place for a discussion of cordwainers' tools. And the first shall be "last". This is a wooden foot-shaped form used to stretch and shape the leather. Most shoemakers had a collection of lasts in various general sizes. Of course, the shoemaker would have custom-fitted lasts for their special customers. When the master craftsmen formed their companies, they would maintain collections of lasts. The making of lasts became a specialty as did other tasks in the shop. Patterns were necessary for cutting the leather. Some of the workers specialized in pattern-making. Others became cutters, also known as clickers, who cut the leather to the pattern shape. There were closers who sewed the upper part of the shoe together. After the closer finished the upper portion, the maker would attach the sole. Finally, the finishers would line the shoes and dye and polish the finished product. (5)
Each of these people required tools to perform their tasks. While most of the tools seem fairly common, there are specific differences. The maker used hammers, but hammers come in different sizes and shapes. Those used by the maker had longer handles and larger striking surfaces. Clickers used knives, but, again, there are different types of knives. The most unusual of these knives was the half-moon knife. This is a half-round blade used for cutting the leather. Archeologists have discovered a half-moon knife that dates back to 1500BC. It is almost identical as the half-moon knives used in the 18th century.
With thanks to the following websites for filling in some of the details:
(1) Irelandseye.com - The Leprechaun
(2) Irish Folklore - Leprechaun (This website is no longer available.)
(3) Canada Hall - The Shoemaker's House (This website is no longer available.)
(4) The Honourable Cordwainers' Company
(5) The Virtual Tool Museum