logo - Join me in the 1900s early C20th
Florence Cole as a child

Mending the family's boots
in the early 1900s

YOU ARE HERE: home > work

Children's boots in the early 1900s

Detail from an early 1900s photo showing how children wore boots rather than shoes. Shoes were for Sundays and special occasions. In very poor families children often went barefoot, and there would be collections of cast-off shoes for them.

My father, like most working class fathers at the time, saved money by repairing our family's shoes - or rather, boots, as that was what we all wore, apart from on Sundays and special occasions. It was cheaper for him to do it rather than to use a local 'cobbler' [shoe mender].

My father did the repairs in his shed outside in the back garden of our Edwardian terraced house.

He always seemed ready to repair my boots once he knew that they needed it, but he usually did not know. I well remember him asking to look at my feet, and lo and behold! There was a hole in the sole of my foot. There was a lot of "tut-tutting" and "Didn't you know there was a nail sticking up?". Of course I did, but one did not readily complain in my childhood.

to top of page

The leather

My father mended our shoes with leather.

First he soaked the leather in water to soften it and make it more pliable.

Then he took off the worn leather, put on the new and cut it neatly to shape.

to top of page

Tools for boot mending and how they were used

Old tools for mending boots and shoes in the early 1900s.

Tools for mending boots and shoes in the early 1900s. To the back left is the hobbing foot and at the front are what appear to be shoe lasts of various sizes..For the difference between a last and a hobbing foot see the page on cobblers.

A form of hobbing foot, suitable for using with a range of shoe sizes

A form of hobbing foot, suitable for using with a range of shoe sizes.

My father had his own hobbing foot. This was a length of wood about 6 inches in diameter and about three feet high with a hole in the top to hold a piece of metal in the shape of foot.

There were three sizes: men's, women's, and children's.

When he had a boot or shoe to repair, he chose the best size of last, put it onto the hobbing foot and then put the boot or shoe on top of that. Finally he placed the whole contraption between his legs, and sat down using his knees to support it. He would have looked rather like the main in the drawing.

His other tools and implements were a bradawl for making holes, a hammer and nails and a very sharp knife for cutting the leather to shape. There was also some black stuff that he put round the outside of the sole, which he finished off with a small, hot tool. I think this was waterproofing but I'm not sure. He polished the boots and shoes with a hard beeswax polish, sold for the purpose.

Man in the early 1900s mending a boot.

A man in the early 1900s mending a boot.

Adapted from a sketch provided by Rosemary Hampton from her book: A Jersey Family: from Vikings to Victorians, (2009), published by Channel Islands Family History Society.

If the man used a bradawl, he would have been stitching on soles, using pitch tar for sealing.

For nailing on soles, he would have had to have the special pincers used by cobblers. These had sharp jaws for getting a grip on headless nails. At the end of one handle was a nail puller and at the end of the other a small ball for hitting with a hammer to punch the nail heads below the level of the leather to avoid getting worn through - see my sketch. Not shown is the loop of string or leather that went over the arch of the boot and under one of his feet to hold it in place, so freeing both his hands. One hand positioned the nails which were stored in the his mouth and the other used the hammer.

pincers as used by old cobblers

Desmond Dyer

If you can add anything to this page, I would be pleased to hear from you.

Pat Cryer, webmaster

to top of page

facebook icon twitter icon

This website Join me in the 1900s is a contribution to the social history of everyday life in 20th century Britain from the early 1900s to about 1960, seen through personal recollections and illustrations, with the emphasis on what it was like to live in those times.