The record is clear. During the last half of the 19th century, my second great grandfather, Lawrence Keen, supported a large family as a shoemaker. So, you say! Was that a big deal in that era? Well, maybe he isn’t that different. But the timing and the circumstances raise several questions for me. For instance, what’s the story on how shoes were made in those years? When and how was the shoemaker’s independent workshop eliminated by mass production? Why did Lawrence choose to setup shop in certain towns? What kinds of issues did he deal with during 50 years in the trade? Maybe I can’t fully answer all the questions. But I might more clearly focus on Lawrence’s situation and have more answers to contemplate. So, I started digging into shoemaking.
Lawrence Keen (born Lorenzo Kihn/Kien in Michelbach, Bavaria in 1823), came to America as a young man of 17. He arrived in Baltimore, Maryland, with his father, Valentin, and two older sisters on August 20, 1840. The Chilo’s passenger list indicates that his father was a shoemaker. I don’t have a photo of Lawrence or his father. But, in the photo on the left from the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov) I could imagine the young Lawrence standing in the back of his father and two of his fellow tradesmen. The men seated are holding the “lasts” used to fashion shoes.
I’m speculating that Lawrence worked with his father making shoes in Baltimore for a few years before he married. But the years of 1840 to 1848 remain hazy in this Keen story. What is clear is that by 1848 Lawrence is married to Elizabeth Kraut when the baptism of the first of nine children was recorded in the St. Nicholas Catholic Church in Zanesville, Ohio. This location isn’t a big surprise as the town is on a major route (National Road) for many immigrants leaving Baltimore to pursue opportunities.
Shoemaking provided a livelihood for Lawrence’s family from the mid 1840s to the late 1880s. Lawrence is found in the 1851 Zanesville Directory as a shoemaker at 57 Main Street. He was able to carry his craft with him from Zanesville, Ohio, when he moved his family to Indianapolis, Indiana in the mid 1860s. The 1870 to 1889 Indianapolis city directory gives the following information on his business: Lawrence Keen, boots and shoes, 167 Virginia Avenue. Lawrence died in 1889 at the age of 66. It appears that he was involved in shoemaking to the end of his life.
Looking into the history of shoemaking is helping me to shape a better image of Lawrence’s experiences. The span of years he devoted to this trade coincidentally matched the movement from simple hand tools to machinery to industrialization of his chosen trade. Can you see Lawrence working at his shop in Zanesville in the 1850s with the tools in this image below? I found this in the History Picture Library at www.lookandlearn.com.
With these tools in mind, read the following Wikipedia information that brings the making of the shoe into sharper focus:
“The traditional shoemaker would measure the feet and cut out upper leathers according to the required size. These parts were fitted and stitched together. The sole was next assembled, consisting of a pair of inner soles of soft leather, a pair of outer soles of firmer texture, a pair of welts or bands about one inch broad, of flexible leather, and lifts and top-pieces for the heels. The insole was then attached to a last made of wood, which was used to form the shoe. Some lasts were straight, while curved lasts came in pairs: one for left shoes, the other for right shoes. The 'lasting' procedure then secured the leather upper to the sole with tacks. The soles were then hammered into shape; the heel lifts were then attached with wooden pegs and the out-sole was nailed down to the lifts. The finishing operation included paring, rasping, scraping, smoothing, blacking, and burnishing the edges of soles and heels, scraping, sand-papering, and burnishing the soles, withdrawing the lasts, and cleaning out any pegs which may have pierced through the inner sole.” (James Paton (1902). "Shoemaking". Encyclopedia Britannica.)
Picturing Lawrence constructing the shoe as explained above, I wanted to remind myself what the finished product might look like. At the www.shoeinfonet.com website I found “The History of Your Shoes.” And here’s a little help from that history to visualize what he provided to his customers:
“As late as 1850 most shoes were made on absolutely straight lasts, there being no difference between the right and the left shoe. Breaking in a new pair of shoes was not easy. There were but two widths to a size; a basic last was used to produce what was known as a "slim" shoe. When it was necessary to make a "fat" or "stout" shoe the shoemaker placed over the cone of the last a pad of leather to create the additional foot room needed. “
So, here we are in the workshop with Lawrence again. He’s expertly using his tools of the trade to produce shoes for the men and women of Zanesville. But then…..around 1850 shoemaking was dramatically impacted with the invention of the sewing machine. That began a new phase in Lawrence’s occupation. Maybe it would take a few years for these changes to move to Ohio from the east coast factories where shoemakers were now working for wages, with a wholly different outlook for their futures. Some good, some not so good. And, maybe Lawrence bought his own machine in the 1850s and adjusted to this new mechanization. All we know is that he did continue in the shoemaking trade.
Walking the shoemaker’s path with Lawrence Keen reaches a fork in the road at this juncture. He’s under 30, having spent around half of his life in the shoemaking trade. He’s a husband and father of three. I’m sure he had to scrutinize his circumstances and make a decision about what would be best for himself and his family. What changes should he make in his business? Should he pursue a job in the shoe factories? Could he maintain his business as-is and support his family? Can’t you imagine the conversations between Lawrence and Elizabeth?
I think I’ll pause here in my story to give the history time to settle, continuing next week with the saga of Lawrence Keen, The Shoemaker. We’ll look at interesting developments in the labor movement and the movement of the family. Come back for a discussion of Lawrence’s career changes and choices.
If you have suggestions on this twisting and turning tale, leave me a comment below. And I am, of course, willing to share the resources for this history upon request.
Thanks for visiting Indiana Ties!
You may want to read:
More 52 Ancestors Stories
Fun Reading: Boot and Shoe Recorder, June, 1906, Google eBooks
Copyright © Nancy Niehaus Hurley