Advances in shoes in the eighteenth-century included the invention of right and left shoes, and a rise in the availability of ready-made shoes. However, most customers purchased made to order shoes. A visit to the shoemaker included taking measurements, and lengthy discussions about the design, choice of materials and crucially, the price.
Once a design had been determined the shoemaker set to work by first cutting the shoe uppers, in either leather or fabric, before sending out the piecework to ‘closers’ and ‘clickers’ who would sew and shape them. Back in the shop, ‘makers’ assembled soles using multiple layers of leather supplied by curriers. The nearly complete pair of shoes were then sent out once more for final burnishing, including paring and smoothing using hot burnishers to rub soles and heels to a fine shoe.
Discerning shoppers in Georgian York had a wealth of shoemakers from which to choose; the most fashionable of whom were located along Coney Street. As in London or any other British city, consumers could be assured of the quality of their footwear by patronising a shoemaker registered with one of the associated guilds – the Cordwainers, Patternmakers, Leathersellers, Tanners or Curriers. Such guilds offered a regulative framework for the industry, setting standards for quality and price of raw materials. However, whilst guilds could fine a maker who used substandard materials, shoemaking was exceptionally hard to regulate owing to the artisanal and often itinerate nature of the profession.
This led French guilds to stipulate that makers had to label their products in order to distinguish them from unregulated producers. British shoemakers adopted this early branding technique in the 1790s. This allowed them to identify their unique shoemaking skills and craftsmanship in the face of increasing competition and decreasing effectiveness of the guilds. Changes in fashion also impacted guilds’ power, as style and fashionability, as much as the quality of materials used, became the influencing factor in the customers’ choice of maker.
www.vam.ac.uk/collections – searchable database of the V&A’s collections, including examples of 18th-century shoes
www.the-shoe-museum.org – Clarks Shoe Museum, history of shoes
Source: A Century of Shoes: The Rise and Fall of the Georgian Heel