Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Industrialists Vs. The Cobblers

One of the most charming of characters from history, the history of shoes especially, is the cobbler.

I used to hear the story about the cobbler and the elves, and I always thought it was great. I'm trying to remember how it goes. Something about a cobbler, and I guess he's having a hard time making enough shoes quickly enough. Then some elves make them for him in the middle of the night, and it's a very happy thing.

A cobbler is a man who cuts out leather from an animal hide. He has to cut it a weird shape, because once he starts snipping it and folding it, then sewing it, it's going to resemble a shoe, before he puts all the final touches on it. First the left foot, then the right.

There's a lot to the cobbler's tradition, I believe. I remember there's a character right at the beginning of Shakespeare's Julius Caesar who's a cobbler, making shoes for the poor soles of Rome. They're such a great bunch of guys they later even named a dessert after them, peach cobbler.

In the days before the Industrial Revolution there was a cobbler in every town, and two or three of them in major cities. They kept track of the styles of shoes that people wanted, tailoring the shoes then to match feet in a very pedestrian way. A cobbler was a romantic character, pounding nails into leather and hoping somehow it would all stick together.

In the '60s I had a nearsighted shoe repairman take apart a pair of shoes of mine that needed fixed. He got them back together, but barely. The thing about his incompetence was this, that industry had ruined the shoe business, and those of the cobbler tradition no longer were any good.

But it wasn't always that way. At first they were very good. Then industry stepped in. And the cobblers tried to keep up. But of course industry, with their mechanical arms and nail guns, could spew out shoes like weeds. Suddenly every town had an excess of shoes, so many that people could pick and choose, and of course the shoes became cheaper. But the human tragedy was the demise of the cobblers, who eventually killed themselves in large numbers. Industry had shoehorned them out of the business.

I wish we could go back. I wish we could get rid of the industrial powers and the way they make shoes, and get back to the days where a cobbler might make you a pair of shoes according to the old ways. Those were the days when a shoe was a shoe, whether your foot was a standard size 10, or one of the oddball sizes, like a 6 or a 13.

No comments: