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Rise of Industrial America
Work in the Late 19th Century
The Impact of Machinery on Making Shoes

In 1939, a WPA writer interviewed the so-called "Shoeworker of Lynn," Massachusetts. In the excerpts from that interview below, from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 , the Shoeworker offers his opinions about what happened to the lives of shoe makers after the introduction of machinery. What are the most important changes the Shoeworker points out for the workers' lives generally and for the making of shoes specifically?

View the entire interview with the Shoeworker of Lynn. Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.


The machines in the shoe shops din't only change the way shoes wuz made but it changed most the hull way that people lived. Before they come in strong, and before they come in atall, people usta do a lotta other things besides shoemakin' ta help feed their families and ta get along. Fur instunce, along about 1869, a few years after the Civil War , when there wuz only aroun' [28,000?] people in Lynn, most a the people owned a pig, an' some a 'em kept a cow. There wuz most always a barn er a shed in the back a the yard fur 'em. An' 'most everybody had a garden. Usta raise 'most enough potatoes ta see ya through the winter, an' onions, tomatoes, an' other things. An' a good many people 'ould cure their own salt fish too. Cod and herrin' 'ould be salted an' strung up on a string behin' the kitchen stove. An' then it 'ould be stored in the attic with the onions. In the fall the pig killer 'ould come aroun' Lynn. He'd shave your pig a few inches at the neck befor' he'd stick the knife in him, an' before night that pig 'ould be ready ta eat. Most folks usta go aroun' among the neighbors and give 'em some. Wan't considered bein' a good neighbor 'less ya did that.

Not every person 'ould own a cow, but at least one man on a street 'ould own three er four and he'd sell milk ta the rest. Most always he'd hire a boy ta take the cows ta pasture in the mornin' an' bring 'em home at night. I usta drive four cows up near Goldfish pond every mornin' 'fore I went ta school fur a man, and I drove 'em back again ta his stable after school. He drove a wagon in the day time fur some brewer and he got his hay from him wholesale fur his cows. So I guess he made something on 'em, even though he only got 6 or 7 cents a quart fur milk. People'd come with their pails aroun' milkin' time, ta get their own milk. Milk wan't delivered then like it is now, in bottles. It wuz jest measured out with a quart or a pint measure, soon after it wuz milked.

. . . There wuz a central market in Lynn, but it wan't nothin' like the markets taday. There wan't the fresh vegetables fur instunce, mostly meat an' potatoes, onions.

Suger and crakers an' the like come in barrels loose, an' if people wanted ta buy vinegar or molasses they took their jug ta bring it home in.

. . . It wuz soon after the Civil War that the machine age begun an' the shoe business grew. The first that come was the Howe machine. No power to it at first. It wuz run by the foot. The first McKay machine fur stitchin' soles wuz also run by a foot pedal. The McKay machine drove the hand workers out. Before it come the hand workers 'ould wax end the shoes. A thick thread 'ould be waxed, an' a pig's bristle 'ould be fastened on the end. Then the hand worker 'ould make a hole through the shoe with his awl, an' use the pig's bristle fur a needle ta draw the thread through. The wax wuz used on the thread fur two reasons, ta strengthen the thread, an' ta give it a coatin' so it wun't slip. Them old hand shoes wuz made with a welt. The inside innersole wuz sewed ta that welt, and then the outside sole wuz sewed ta the welt. But when the McKay machine come in, the shoe wuz made diffrunt and it drove the old hand workers out. They never come back. With the McKay machine the innersole was sewed down ta the upper sole. There wuz a channel it wuz sewed in, sa the stitches wun't show on the bottom a the shoe. The welt shoe wuz a hand made shoe until a long time after the McKay machine come in though. Later the welt machine come in. But all them improvements din't make sa much misery fur them workers that got out could get somethin' else ta do. There'd be some men get tagether and call themselves teams, and they'd rent one a the old ten footer shops an' make shoes on consignment fur some manufacturer. There'd be a cutter, a heeler, and so on, ta make up a team. Some a the hand shoe workers 'ould jest hire a seat in a shop too, and make certain kinda shoes complete by hand fur some manufacturer. One fella in a shop 'ould be makin high class fancy shoes, anuther 'ould be makin cheap shoes -- accordin' ta the kind he contracted ta make. When he got his work done, he'd take it down town ta the shop and get his pay fur it. But when the lastin' machine come it, that caused considerable resentment 'cause them fellas cun't do nothin' else, and they wuz out. Might as well cut the throats a them men as put a lastin' machine in their shop. Taday there's reems a tacks right in a lastin' machine, but I remember when the old type a laster had a hull mouth full a tacks in his mouth. [A?] tack eater we'd call him. He'd take one outa his mouth at a time, ta nail it.

A couse, even after the machines come in, there wuz some people that 'ould rather have their shoes made by hand. Custom made, they called it. Even taday there's a few shops left in Massachusetts where a real rich guy who has his own last, has his shoes made. An' a guy that has a bum leg or a bum foot, has ta have his shoes made special by hand still. But that costs a lotta money.
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View the entire interview with the Shoeworker of Lynn from American Life Histories: Manuscripts from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936-1940 . Use your browser's Back Button to return to this point.