Cordwainers: Experts in the Fine Art of Shoemaking


Shoemaking in the United States

The first English cordwainers came to the United States around 1610 and settled in Jamestown, Viginia. Financial investments by London cordwainers partly funded this early English settlement. The Secretary of Virginia recorded that the leather and shoe trades were flourishing by 1616. Shoemakers arrived at the settlement in Plymouth, Massachusetts around 1629. Shoemaking remained mostly a handicraft until the end of the 19th century, when shoes became mass produced in large factories.

The Cordwainer Shop

Fortunately, the art of hand-crafted shoes has survived; for instance, The Cordwainer Shop has been a family-owned business since the 1930s. What is fascinating about the history of the shop is that the original owner, Edward Mathews, was interested in foot health—clearly a man ahead of his time. He wanted to “make foot comfort the rule of fashion.”  He instinctively knew the “flapper” fashions of the early 1920s were not good for the feet, so he began unconventional yet comprehensive research at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Enlisting Antioch coeds as his subjects, he studied the ill effects of high heels on posture and foot health. He then designed the feet-friendly, yet beautiful “Antioch” shoe—Edward’s first design with low heel and wide, round toe box. Successive shoe styles receive their own names, often named after the customer who first ordered the design.

Paul Mathews, Molly’s husband, continued in his father’s footsteps and left high school in his junior year to design shoes. He and his brother, Lincoln, ran the workroom while their father was off  making sales to celebrities such as Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., Cesar Romero, Shirley Temple and Henry Ford (the first).  This successful business model continued for many years.

In the 1960s, there were few craft shows, but the Cordwainer shoes were being shown at national health fairs and beauty shows. The craft show movement took off in the 1970s. This greatly increased the awareness of arts and crafts, but not all craft shows are created equally. Cordwainer shoes were and are shown at the coveted “juried” craft shows, where the artists must present their craft before a selection committee. Paul and Molly worked together until Paul’s death, and now Molly keeps very busy multi-tasking her passions, which include making leather handbags and teaching workshops.

The Cordwainer Shop offers an apprenticeship program to people interested in learning shoemaking. The apprenticeship can last anywhere from one week to six months. Housing is provided at the Wild Orchard Guest Farm, which has miniature horses, chickens and an entertaining peacock family. Each apprenticeship is unique to the individual and he/she enjoys an experience in shoemaking and leaves with a pair of handmade shoes, created with Molly’s assistance. I met Molly’s apprentice, Emily Shaffer, who specializes in jewelry design (please check out her website below). Molly and Emily met at the Philadelphia Museum Craft Show, where Molly saw Emily’s interest in shoes and invited her to be an apprentice. Emily participated in a workshop, made a pair of Squire Boots for herself and spent the rest of her month-long stay at Wild Orchard gardening and helping out in The Cordwainer Shop.

Molly continues the Mathews’ shoemaking tradition with a variety of hand-crafted, classic, low-heeled and round-toed shoes. Molly uses kid leather, cowhide, pigskin, and the occasional tilapia (yes, from the fish) for decorative purposes. Her “Fake Snake” skin is patterned onto leather. Molly chooses not to use exotic leathers or even patent leather because it has little stretch.

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