Hampton Reminiscences -- Part X

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By Enoch P. Young

(July 3, 1824 - January 11, 1910)

The Exeter News-Letter

c. 1899

The Shoemaker Sixty-Five Years Ago - Part X -

Editor, EXETER NEWS-LETTER. -- Shoemaking 65 years ago in Hampton was done by those who had to serve an apprenticeship of several years, and be able then to draft their own patterns, and from the leather in the bulk build their shoes and boots to such sizes as they themselves must get the measure, hardly two pairs for different sets of feet exactly alike. Nearly every shoemaker was the tanner of a large part of the leather he used, as the tan pits at Garland's, Young's and Elkins' tan yards of those days will bear witness.

For pulverizing or granulating the bark a large circular stone was used, larger than the ordinary ox cart wheel, and weighing nearly a ton, sitting upon edge, so arranged as to revolve around an axle confined to an upright shaft, upon a circular bed of plank work, which held the bark in the process of pulverizing, thus preparing it for its use in the pits, where the hides were packed away with it to stay through the process of tanning. About this time, the bark stone, the revolving of which was by horse power, was replaced with the cast iron arrangement, the bark mill, a contrivance similar to that now used by some millers for cracking corn or cob meal. The tan pits containing the pulverized bark and the hides were so arranged as to have placed separately the different grades while in process of curing, the heavier ones for sole leather requiring many months.

The shoemaker's pegs were then his won make. Wooden shoe pegs, made by machinery and kept for sale by the quart, were unknown. Blocks of maple wood, which was selected for its straight rift, were sawed off to suitable length, and then with tools kept for that purpose rift into three ribbonlike pieces with one edge sharpened. Then placing several of these ribbonlike pieces together, sharpened edges uppermost, with a long knife, the point end securely fastened, proceed to split, and you have the shoe pegs. An adept at the business would make them fast.

For much of the heavier work, like men's cowhide boots, and the long up to the hip fishing boots, of which there were man in use here then, long before the rubber boots came into existence, the shoemaker's fastening was the waxed thread, with hog's bristles on the ends. When the shoemaker was using the large waxed thread necessary for such heavy boots, those who often lounged in his shop must be careful to give him elbow room.

When one of us thoughtlessly approached too near and was hit a blow that nearly knocked him senseless, the man at work upon the big boot told him he wasn't in his way and kept right on with his sewing as if nothing had happened. Such practical hints were not often repeated in that shop.

The shoemaker that can now take the leather in the bulk, and with patterns of his own make, take you measure and build you a pair of shoes or boots, such as used to wear and last for years, cannot now be found in this town. The careful, patient curing of the leathers no doubt added much to their lasting qualities. Hardly is there one now, who dares even attempt the cobbler's part, so much shoddy is mixed with the foot gear of to-day. It will hardly hold together while he has a chance to try the skill that is in him. The cobbler of those times often played the part of itinerant peddler, taking his kit of tools and going from house to house to repair the footwear of families at their own home. Often they would visit other towns.

Great is the contrast in the lasting qualities of shoes and boots then and now. Many years ago business called me to Boston to look after the whereabouts of an insane person who was believed to be there. I called to my aid a man, a former resident of this town, Archibald E. Towle, then a prominent police officer of Boston. He was acquainted with the one I was in search of, but insisted upon my taking dinner at his home. After dinner he went to a closet and, bringing forth a pair of long top cowhide boots, said "There is a pair of boots your father made for me sixteen years ago, when I first came to Boston. I have worn them ever since when I needed boots for wet and snowy weather." They looked then as though they might last many years longer. One more sample and I will trouble no farther. Many years ago (for my father has been dead more than 50 years) one of the then prominent citizens of Hampton, Josiah Page, showed me a pair of calf skin shoes, saying "Your father made these shoes for me 21 years ago, and I have worn them for my go-to-meeting shoes ever since."

The custom shoemaker, who served an apprenticeship and learned the trade in all its parts, where is he? He had not been in evidence in this town the past two decades. To what condition of things is all mechanical labor drifting? It takes now more than a dozen different pairs of hands to build a shoe. No one of the great army of shoemakers is supposed to be able to build a shoe complete in all its parts, taking the leather in the bulk.

Then one brain and one pair of hands did it, taking the hides as they came from the creature's back. Such a man could face the broad world and defy competition. Capitalized monopoly did not enslave him. He was ready to open shop anywhere. How is it now? With not more than a tenth part of the knowledge required to build a shoe, he is out of work much. Oftentimes his discharge is so sudden that he is left without so much as a dollar, with his landlord close after him for rents, and family at home looking to him for bread; working altogether dependent upon a corporate body, managed by capitalized power, the rich growing richer, and the poor growing poorer, very much like holding your nose to the grindstone while monopoly turns the crank.


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