Cordwainer vs. Cobbler vs. Shoemaker: What’s the difference?

Humans have needed shoes since time immemorial, and the types of shows through the ages show how the art and practicality of our mobility have given us sandals, wooden clogs, and moccasins all the way to the Nikes of today.

Something that many people probably don’t think about is who made those shoes. Shoemakers have had an impact on human history for its entire course, so let’s look at the history of the shoemaker and the cobbler.

Let’s take a walk and talk about the shoemakers and of yesteryear.

Cordwainer vs. Cobbler vs. Shoemaker

Getting the Lingo Right

Before we get started, we need to know what we are discussing:

  • Cordwainer: The English term for shoemakers, which originated from France
  • Shoemaker: Artisan who works with new leather to make shoes
  • Cobbler: Forbidden to work with new leather. They are the shoe repairmen, who must make their repairs with old leather

While nowadays the terms may be interchangeable, it was considered a major insult to call a shoemaker a cobbler! After all, it is believed that Cobblers got their name from the phrase “to cobble things together,” which meant to work clumsily.

Walking through history

Shoemakers have existed all through human history, whether it’s been:

  • Working with cord and leather or grass to create the first sandals to
  • Carving out the insides of the wooden clogs used in the Medival Europe (yes, those famous shoes from Holland) to
  • Working on leather moccasins to
  • Working with new leather to create soft slippers for royalty

They’ve been one of the most important trades in the history of the world.

They even helped with the creation of the new colonies in America:

  • In the first American colony of Jamestown, VA, 1607, a cobbler was abroad the ship to the new world. Since importing new materials was expensive, the cobblers were able to get people’s shoes going until the Cordwainers could come to the colony later in 1629.
  • Shoemakers and Cobblers were such important trades that they started the first unions in the country! The Shoemakers of Boston, of 1648, and The Daughters of St. Crispin (the patron saint of Cobblers) was the first female union in the US.
  • Cobblers were also important because, as they traveled around to the rural towns and cities of the American colonies, they took the news with them as well.
  • Eventually, the shoemakers and cobblers were able to settle down in cities and have their clients come to them. They were able to have apprentices and have tiers of labor, which helped lead them right into the storm of the Industrial Age.

Surviving the Industrial Age

Industrialization was not a kind time for many people and the makers and cobblers were no different. The 4 people who helped usher in the fall of these men were:

  • 1812: Marc Brunei created a tool to help affix leather uppers to the shoe outers with metal pins
  • 1846: The creation of the sewing machine made sewing leather faster and in need of fewer laborers.
  • 1850 Thomas Crick created a rolling riveter and cutter for shoes
  • 1864: Lyman Blake creates a sewing machine for shoes

Thus the factories were able to mass-produce shoes at cheaper prices, taking the shoes out of the hands of the people who had been making them since civilization began.

It was around the 1850s when, as work became scarce, shoemakers had to turn to the lowly art of shoe repair to make ends meet. This was when the distinction between shoemaker and a cobbler began to fade, until today they are almost synonymous to most of the public.

So, What Now?

While shoemakers and cobblers are not common anymore, there are still some trying to keep the trades alive. The recession in 2008 did spurn customers back towards the cobblers to keep their shoes lasting longer as money was tight.

The younger generations, like Millenials and Gen Z, are trying to live a less wasteful society so there is a chance that shoes repaired and well-kept will keep the cobblers in business in the future.

Shoemakers seem to be doing well in the fashion industry since both Bruno Magli and Jimmy Choo are trained cordwainers.

History is not over for these long-lived trades; as long as they can adapt and think quickly on their feet, they should be able to continue long into the future.

One Last Question…Why is there a dessert called a ‘Cobbler’??

Well, a cobbler is a fruit dish with a crust on the bottom and, instead of a crust on top like a fruit pie, the flour mixture for the dough is dropped in random places on the top, making an uneven surface.

It’s believed the name either comes from its resemblance to uneven cobblestones or that it comes from the same phrase “to cobble together” since the dessert is much messier than a normal fruit pie.

About Old Timey

The Old Timey contributors are a team of collectors, vintage lovers and history nerds. We love researching the stories behind unique collectibles, and finding retro inspired products with modern functionality.