Leather-Working Tools

Early Jamestown and the surrounding area had some tanneries. The hemlock bark from the trees that were being harvested for lumber was an important ingredient for tanning hides. The tanned hides then provided the needed materials for leather workers. Leather workers could make numerous useful and needed articles for the early settlers. Leather work was also specialized. There were harness makers, saddle makers, as well as, the all -mportant shoe and boot makers. Each craft developed the tools which were used in the making of the particular item.

Just as the shingle maker of last week’s column adopted the “tool” with legs that allowed him to sit down while working, the shoemaker or cobbler developed a bench at which he could sit while working. The cobbler did not need the clamp to hold the wood like the shingle maker, but did need a flat surface on which to work and the addition of a few small compartments or drawers made a useful work bench. Small items such as tacks, nails, needles and thread and small tools such as the awl and the punch could then be kept close at hand and contained.

Another part of the cobbler’s tool kit was the “last” and the stand on which it was held. The last was shaped like a foot and came in different sizes. The stand was made so that it could be attached to the bench or other flat surface to hold it in place. Sometimes the cobbler would make, or have made, a wooden last that was the same as a customer’s foot. That customer then could keep the last, and the cobbler would use that each time the customer had shoes or boots made. Because the lasts were only certain sizes, the cobbler had to learn to adjust sizes to feet or the wearer wore the best fit available. In the collection of the Fenton History Center are sets of the lasts with the stand on which the lasts would fit. Some sets have only four sizes, and at least one set has seven sizes. Also in the collection are some of the tools used by the cobbler. We have a hammer, some awls and a variety of tacks, nails and threads that are part of a kit.

Some early settlers, in days when there were no shoemakers nearby, developed skills to make shoes and boots for their family and maybe even some neighbors. If they made passable shoes, they could become a cobbler that supplied the neighborhood as it grew. One important skill that was needed was the repair of shoes and boots and other leather items. Cobblers filled this need. As time went on shoes and boots were produced in shops where a number of people worked and then eventually mechanized factories began producing shoes and boots. Despite the fact that many pairs of footwear today are not made of leather, we still need to have cobblers that can repair shoes, boots and other leather and even non-leather items.

A leatherworker will be demonstrating the craft at the Fenton History Center’s Old Fashion Day on Saturday, Aug. 10, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The free event will feature many other old-time handcrafts, modern vendors, 1963 cars and admission to the Fenton Museum. For small fee one can take a carriage ride, have lunch and have items appraised. All are invited to help us celebrate our 50th year.

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The purpose of the Fenton History Center is to gather and teach about southern Chautauqua County’s history through artifacts, ephemeral and oral histories, and other pieces of the past.

Visit for more information on upcoming events.

If you would like to donate to the collections or support the work of the Fenton History Center, call 664-6256 or visit the center at 67 Washington St., just south of the Washington Street Bridge.