David Johnson Recalls the Shoemakers' Shops of Lynn, Massachusetts
home | many pasts | evidence | www.history | blackboard | reference
talking history | syllabi | students | teachers | puzzle | about us
search: go!
advanced search - go!

David Johnson Recalls the Shoemakers’ Shops of Lynn, Massachusetts

Traditional craft production centered around an independent master artisan, his journeymen, and the apprentice helpers who worked together in small shops. Apprentices worked alongside masters and received training in the “mysteries of the craft” in exchange for their labor. Journeymen looked forward to becoming proprietors when they accumulated sufficient capital and skill. In his Sketches of Lynn (1880), David Johnson recalled the masculine work culture and small-scale setting of the shoe industry in early-19th century Lynn, Massachusetts. With transportation improvements and growing commercial activity, manufacturing moved from small shops engaged in custom work to larger-scale production of ready-made goods. No area experienced greater dislocation than Lynn, where shops multiplied, the division of labor increased, and some masters opened larger central shops. Less skilled workers, including women and children, replaced journeymen, apprenticeship declined, and the world that Johnson described faded.


The shoemaker’s shop, to which allusion has been made, and of which we have a few specimens still extant among us, cannot boast of a great antiquity. It came into use about the middle of the last century or a little earlier. The size of these shops varied from the “ten-footer”, as one measuring ten feet in length by ten feet in width was called , to those measuring fourteen feet each way. These last were regarded as of almost palatial dimensions. The average was nearer twelve by twelve. They were generally finished six and a half feet clear in height, a few being below that figure and a few above it, so that a tall man with a tall hat on ran no small risk of damaging his head gear on entering the door, as the stove-pipe hat was then generally worn. The garret was left unfinished, and was the common receptacle of all kinds of litter and of everything not wanted for use, or wanted only occasionally...

A boy while learning his trade was called a “seamster;” that is, he sewed the shoes for his master, or employer, or to use one of the technicalities of the “craft,” he “worked on the seam.” Sometimes the genius of one of these boys would outrun all limits. One of this kind, who may be called Alphonzo, worked on the seam for a stipulated sum. He seemed to regard his work as an incidental circumstance. When he left the shop at night he might be expected back the next morning: but there were no special grounds for the expectation. He might drop in the next morning, or the next week. He left one Saturday night and did not make his appearance again until the following Thursday morning. On entering the shop he proceeded to take off his jacket as though there had been no hiatus in his labor. His master watched him with an amused countenance to see whether he would recognize the lapse of time. At length he said, “Where have you been, Alphonzo?” Alphonzo turned his head in an instant, as if struck with the preposterousness of the inquiry, and exclaimed, “Me? I? O, I’ve been down to Nahant.” The case was closed.


It may be interesting at some future time to know what constituted the “kit” of the shoemaker of the olden time. The following tools and appliances were regarded as essential: A lap-stone, hammer, stirrup, whet-board, pincers, nippers, sometimes, shoulder-stick, (one or more), longstick, pettibois, toe-stick, fender, bead, scraper, knives of different descriptions, such as skiver, paring-off knife, heel-knife, etc., awl, bristles, tacks, wax, a piece of sponge, paste-horn, bottles for blacking, gum, and acid in later times, chalk, dogfish skin (till within the last fifty years when sandpaper took its place), stitch-rag, grease, channel-opener, usually called an open-channel, and apron. As might be supposed some workmen required a more elaborate outfit in the way of tools than others. Some would be satisfied with two knives, while others thought it needful to have half a dozen. The ambition of some would be satisfied with one shoulder-stick, while others had quite an assortment. The lap-stone, which is so often considered the emblem of the shoemaker’s craft, was frequently a possession having a local interest and value that gave to its possessor the reputation of unknown wealth. It may have been brought by a near relative from the coast of Java, or from some of the beaches washed by the Pacific Ocean. It was so perfect in shape, so smooth upon its face, and so completely adapted to its purpose, that it was the envy of the whole neighborhood. Nobody had any clear idea of the wealth of the man that owned such a lap-stone. It was never computed, but remained in a shroud of mist until the owner passed beyond the reach of prices current, and the executor, in administering upon the estate, brought the incomputed treasure within the range of measurable values.

Other pieces of kit would sometimes be invested with an historic value unknown if indeed computable. One would possess a “shoulder-stick” made from a club with which a sailor uncle had knocked down a Sandwich Islander when Commodore Porter visited the Pacific Islands in the war of 1812; or, possibly, some other owned one that was made from a tomahawk brandished by some red Indian in the colonial wars. These men died in the possession of unestimated wealth.

In almost every one of these shops there was one whose mechanical genius outrun that of all the rest. He could “temper wax,” "cut shoulders,“ sharpen scrapers and cut hair. The making of wax was an important circumstance in the olden time. To temper it just right so that it would not be too brittle and ”fly“ from the thread, or too soft and stick to the fingers, was an art within the reach of but few, or if within reach, was attained only by those who aspired to scale the heights of fame, and who, ”while their companions slept, were toiling upward in the night."


The man who had an “eye” for cutting “shoulders” occupied a niche of distinction among his fellow-craftsmen. If it was not necessary that he should have a “microscopic eye”, which Mr. Pope tells us man does not need because he “is not a fly,”, it was needful that he should have a “geometric eye” when called upon to adjust the “shoulder” to “convex” and “concave” edges. To do this successfully required little less than a stroke of genius. Two cents was the usual price for cutting a “shoulder,” and an experienced cutter would gather in each week quite a pile of the large-size coppers of those days, whose purchasing power of many things was twice as great as at present.


As already hinted, some were much better provided with “kit” than others. A man with three or four boys at work was often obliged to economize in this particular, and certain tools were passed round from one to the other as each had occasion to use them. Accordingly one would hear, “shoulder-stick, Joe,” "long-stick, Jim,“ "paste-horn, Jed,” which had a marked effect in breaking up the monotony, if there ever was any monotony in a shoemaker’s shop. At such times it was unsafe to cross the shop, as the danger from flying “kit” varied according to the size and weight of the tool that happened to be in the air at a given time.

The apron of the old-time shoemaker was made of leather,sometimes of calf-skin, but generally of sheep-skin. The old settlers in Lynn who came from Marblehead , and there were many such here,called these aprons “barvels” (pronounced “borvul.”) Most of these workmen were fishermen in early life who made their summer trip to the “Grand Banks,” or up the “Straits,” —and employed their winters in working at the “craft.” The “barvel” was a short apron worn to protect the knees from the splashing of water in washing out the fish preparatory to curing them or drying their upon the “flakes.” As might be supposed, there were a good many sea phrases, or “salt notes,” as they were called, used in the shops. In the morning one would hear, “Come, Jake, hoist the sails,” which was simply a call to roll up the curtains. When it was time to “quit work” in the evening some one would say, “I guess it’s about time to ‘douse the glim,’” which meant in more classic English to put out the lights. This phrase is used by Walter Scott: Webster marks it as slang. “Glim” is provincial German for light or spark. “Douse,” Webster says, is from “dout,” an old word signifying to extinguish. These “salt notes” were adapted to all occasions. If a boy got upon his “tantrums,” and displayed his enthusiasm in too marked a manner, he would be suddenly checked with the authoritative cry, “Avast there; avast!” If debate ran high upon some exciting topic, some veteran would quietly remark, "Squally, squally to-day. Come, better luff and bear away."

The long winter evenings were considered equal to half a day. Work was often continued as late as ten o’clock, and not unfrequently the glimmering light would be seen in the dim distance at a much later hour. The light was obtained in early times from tallow candles, then made in almost every household. In later times, as whale oil became cheaper, lamps were used to some extent. Snuffers were indispensable to keep the wicks “snuffed,” and when the lights were in good trim, all that were burning in one of these shops would give nearly as much light as one good kerosene lamp. When the candles needed “snuffing” a man with good eyesight could see all the way across the shop. How work, requiring the nicety of the shoemaker’s art, could be carried on in those days of candles and dim-burning oil lamps, is a mystery to those living at the present time.



As might be expected, boys working in a shop together would often “skylark.” One of this sort of boys was seated “upon the shop-tub.” This “tub” was a tall, firkin-shaped vessel, about one-third full of water at the date in question. By careful managing the boy kept himself from going down too far. Boy number two, seeing the precarious-ness of the situation, made a dive for his comrade, which resulted in seating him so far into the tub that he could not start without taking the tub with him. In the tussle he was rolled over with the shop-tub, and the boy, and all the surrounding “berths” were drenched with a gallon or two of nasty water. In such cases the “ stirrup” generally settled the matter to the satisfaction of all except those most interested. The “stirrup,” as an emblem or instrument of authority, held the same place in a shoemaker’s shop as the horsewhip or cowhide maintained on a more extended scale on the farm, and in agricultural districts generally; and probably for the same reason, it was near at hand. Boys are generally flogged when it is most convenient, and with what comes handiest. Accordingly a “stirruping” frequently made up a part of a day’s programme, and when “down in the bill” could more generally be depended upon than the more dainty items on a bill of fare. A boy in the eastern part of the town was once murmuring some re-pinings over his earthly lot. “What do you want?” asked his master. “ I want something else,” said the boy, in a high tenor voice. “I’ll give you something else,” said the master, and taking a stirrup made the case so plain to the boy that he could see no flaw in his master’s statement.

Boys were sometimes sent on errands in those days, as now. Occasionally a domestic crisis would arise demanding haste on the part of the boy. Perhaps the tinder was wet, and he was sent after a “brand’s end;” or some other article was wanted, indispensable in a well-regulated family which had entered upon the second quarter of the nineteenth century. The reader can imagine any number of such cases, more or less momentous, that have come to his own knowledge. In some such an emergency a boy was sent on an errand some time during Jackson’s administration. No tidings were heard from him, at least by those most interested in his safe return. If a boy was ever known to do such a thing when he was strictly charged to “make haste,” he might have stopped to have a game of marbles, or “two old cat.” His father thought it was time to hunt him up: and taking his stirrup and stowing it away in the outside pocket of his green jacket, started in pursuit. In his haste he had left the end of the stirrup hanging out of the jacket pocket. The boy espied from afar somebody who had a familiar look, and whose movements showed that he was not out for a stroll, or to observe the beauties of nature. He also espied at the same instant the end of the stirrup hanging out of the jacket pocket aforesaid. This was a signal showing a low barometer and approaching storms. Without stopping to finish the game, or appoint a substitute to take his place, he started and reached home by a route whose boundaries had not been marked out by the selectmen as a public highway. He never told what were the precise terms of the final settlement after reaching the paternal roof; but in after years he used to relate with great gusto how the signal of danger streaming from the jacket pocket had given him timely warning of impending peril. He had escaped the humiliation of a public castigation in the presence of his juvenile peers , and what humiliation can be greater in the eyes of a boy?

Sometimes a high degree of despotism was maintained over the boys working in some of these shops. They were regarded as having no rights that the men were bound to respect. They were expected to build the fire, “shift the tub,” go for the black-strap, and run all the errands which the changes of circumstances required as the whirligig of time rolled on. If he objected, or remonstrated, he was called an “old man,” prefixing an adjective the use of which is not countenanced in any manual of good behavior. An old veteran, now living and well known in our city, relates the following chapter in his own experience:

He was then a boy whose fourteenth birthday was near at hand. He had been domineered over and imposed upon by the shop’s crew where he worked, and he resolved to end his degrading vassalage. He was a stout, muscular boy, and had a grip in his hands like that of a polar bear. When his birthday arrived he resolved to declare his independence. He informed the crew that henceforth he was not to be at their beck and call, and he gave them very emphatic warning that if they attempted to drive him he was ready for any emergency. One of the crew had the temerity to make the trial; but before he had proceeded far, he found himself laid out upon his seat, his throat in the grip of the left hand of the young athlete, who informed his prostrate victim that no quarter would be given until he promised to respect the rights of his juvenile assailant. The workman, half choked and wholly frightened, made all the promises demanded. He was then allowed to get up. “Now,” said the boy, “if there are any more who want to try their hand at this experiment, come right on.” None felt like coming on. “From that day,” said the old veteran, “I was free.”

Source: David N. Johnson, Sketches of Lynn (Lynn, Massachusetts: Thomas P. Nichols, 1880), 23, 30–39, 62–66.