Meet the Cordwainer

Greetings, folks – and welcome to the latest installment of the Paul Evans NY Blogging Experience. Come aboard as we weigh anchor and set a course for the Isles of Rumination, Information, and Half-Baked Nautical Metaphors. With more twists and turns than a Shyamalan flick, it’s sure to keep you off Perez Hilton for twenty minutes here and there.

In this entry, we’ll be kickin’ it old school as we give a shout out to the waning art of the cordwainer – a word so archaic and near forgotten that Microsoft Word insists on throwing squiggly red lines under it. Every. Damn. Time.

Bear in mind that the word selfie is squiggly free. So is swag. But I digress.

Once upon a time, when people still developed their selfies by burning mercury, the cordwainer was a central fixture of society. Whereas cobblers repaired shoes, cordwainers had the distinction of being the makers of fine leather footwear. Cordwainers were typically highly literate men with strong jaws and predilections for the company of married women. Cobblers, on the other hand, were known for their poor hygiene and dull dinner conversation.  

So where did these bastions of manliness and expert craftsmanship come from? Turns out the road to fine footwear is paved in blood.

Our story begins in 1066 with the Battle of Hastings.

Bayeux Tapestry

Time and time again, history reminds us that nothing can bring two cultures closer together than a good old fashioned all-out, no-holds-barred war. Such is the case with the Norman invasion of England, when we first see the French word “cordonnier” crop up in the English lexicon. Before long, the French word – which refers to a shoe maker from the Cordoba region of Spain – would be anglicized to its current form.

For the next six centuries or so, cordwainers had it made. They typically worked alone in private shops, taking specialized orders from wealthy citizens and hand-sewing leather footwear of uncommon quality. Cordwainers had to be well educated in order to take exact measurements and keep accurate records of business transactions. Apprentice shoemakers aspired to attain the status of cordwainer, as it was pretty much guaranteed to net you a decent income and a leprosy-free wife.

Then, in the nineteenth century, a second war would change the course of cordwainer history.

Shoe Lasting MachineThis time, the war was waged by everyone’s favorite half-pint megalomaniac with a nervous complex named after him. The Napoleonic wars demanded an unprecedented amount of footwear to support Britain’s force of roughly 250,000 soldiers. This would serve as the impetus for the mechanization of shoe making.                                                                                                                     At the time, like achieving perpetual motion or observing temperatures at absolute zero, many people believed that manufacturing shoes with machinery was impossible. Before long, however, the heretic Jan E. Matzeliger of Lynn, Massachusetts would invent the shoe-lasting machine – an Industrial Era device capable of cranking out as many as 700 shoes per day.                                                                                                 Cordwainers were, unsurprisingly, not happy with this threat to their livelihood. In England, groups such as the Northampton Boot and Shoe-Makers Mutual Protection Society (NBSMPS for short) cropped up in more-or-less hopeless attempts to combat the influx of mechanization. 

Meanwhile, in Philadelphia, lawmakers passed the Cordwainer Doctrine of 1806 which vilified the local shoemakers’ labor union as an illegal conspiracy to restrict trade.

“This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang but a whimper.”

Alright, so T.S. Eliot might not have been referring to the plight of the nineteenth century cordwainer here – but what’s poetry really about anyway, man? It’s applicable, and we’re sticking to it.

The cordwainer, as mysteriously as he arrived, soon vanished from society’s spotlight. Modern adhesives allowed soles to be glued rather than sewn onto shoes - eliminating the need for careful hand craftsmanship. Before long, the once revered profession of the cordwainer was largely replaced by the labor of underpaid tweens in Taiwanese factories.

But the story doesn’t end there.

Today, shoemakers are fighting another war – this time, for the hearts and minds of the twenty first century consumer. Troops are amassed at the border, looking downright fabulous in their cap-toe oxfords and armed with nothing but measuring tapes and leather awls, their sights set on reminding us of the value of finely crafted footwear. A decisive victory will call for a paradigm shift in values, away from the doctrine of convenience and toward the veneration of time-honored craftsmanship.                                                                                                               At Paul Evans NY, we’re proud to follow in the footsteps of the cordwainer, bringing high-quality, hand-crafted footwear to a new generation of consumers. We know that as soon as you take one look at yourself in a fresh pair of Italian penny loafers, you’ll wonder how you spent all these years with those inferior, factory made abominations strapped to your paws. 

Stop in today, and experience for yourself the unique style and comfort of hand-crafted Italian leather footwear at a price even cobblers can afford.