The term “cordwainer” is an Anglicization of the French word cordonnier, which means shoemaker, introduced into the English language after the Norman invasion in 1066. The word was derived from the city of Cordoba in the south of Spain, a stronghold of the mighty Omeyyad Kalifs until its fall in the 12th century. Moorish Cordoba was celebrated in the early Middle Ages for silversmithing and the production of cordouan leather, called “cordwain” in England. Originally made from the skin of the Musoli goat, then found in Corsica, Sardinia, and elsewhere, this leather was tanned with alum after a method supposedly known only to the Moors. Crusaders brought home much plunder and loot, including the finest leather the English shoemakers had seen. Gradually cordouan, or cordovan leather became the material most in demand for the finest footwear in all of Europe.
The English term cordwainer first appears in 1100. Since this date the term cordouan, or cordovan leather, has been applied to several varieties of leather. Today cordovan leather is a vegetable tanned horse “shell,” and like the Medieval cordwain is used only for the highest quality shoes.
Since the Middle Ages the title of cordwainer has been selected by the shoemakers and used loosely. Generally, it refered to a certain class of boot and shoemakers. The first English guild who called themselves cordwainers was founded at Oxford in 1131. “Cordwainers” was also the choice of the London shoemakers, who organized a guild before 1160, and the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers has used this title since receiving its first Ordinances in 1272.
The benefits of utilizing dried animal hides were first recognized in prehistoric times when early man began to use early forms of leather for clothing and shelter against harsh conditions. The earliest recorded leather artefacts crafted by primitive societies date back to 1300 BC when man began to appreciate animal skins as much more than just a food by-product. Early civilizations across the world started to develop their own techniques to soften and preserve their animal hide by-products using methods traditionally passed down from father to son through many generations, such as smoke and animal grease. However, it is thought that the art of vegetable tanning as we know it today was originally discovered by ancient Hebrew peoples.
Wall paintings and artifacts in Egyptian tombs dating back to 5000 B.C. indicate that leather was used for sandals, clothes, gloves, buckets, bottles, shrouds for burying the dead and for military equipment. The Romans made extensive use of leather for footwear, clothes, and military equipment including shields, saddles and harnesses. Due to its durability and comfort, leather has been used for seating throughout the history of transportation and furniture. It has always been the ideal material for making saddles and tack, as well as footwear.
Leather was a crucial necessity in cladding and equipping troops of the Continental Army, with shoes at the top of the list of needed items. This was largely due to there being no suitable alternative to properly made footwear, and that every soldier needed shoes even for duty at a fixed post, more so when on the march.
Leather shoes, belts, saddles, and cartridge boxes were in such short supply and of such military necessity that in 1777, Gen Washington formed an entire regiment under the Quartermaster General of artificers or craftsmen. Colonel Baldwin’s ten-company regiment was to contain 40 foreman and 520 privates. Each company was slated to have 24 house carpenters, 4 ship carpenters, 4 shop joiners, 10 smiths, 6 wheelwrights, 2 saddlers and harness makers, 1 shoemaker, and 1 tailor. These men were so important to the success of the army that HUGE rewards were offered to recover deserters or escaped prisoners.
Thanks to Parliament and Lord Townsend, Leatherwork is not a free profession but is heavily regulated. By the time of the Revolution, the American Colonies were desperately short of skilled leather workers.
Leather touches every aspect of everyone’s life in Colonial America. It is the Cordwainer and Cobbler who makes all this wealth of material comfort and industrial necessity a reality.