Home Business and Labor 7 Fun Facts About the Ten-Footer

7 Fun Facts About the Ten-Footer

They were once ubiquitous in Massachusetts. Then they weren't.


The ten-footer, once as ubiquitous in Massachusetts as a garage or an Amish shed, has pretty much disappeared from the landscape.

They measured 10 feet by 10 feet – hence the name – and stood about six-and-a-half feet high. Families used them as backyard shoe shops in the 18th and 19th centuries. Massachusetts dominated the shoe business then, and shoemaking was a lucrative side hustle for a lot of people who also farmed and fished.

At first, people came to a nearby ten-footer to order a pair of shoes or boots. The master cordwainer or journeyman measured their feet. They then found a last that corresponded to the measurements and cut leather pieces accordingly. Their wives and daughters stitched the uppers inside the house. Back in the ten-footer, the men tacked the uppers and soles to lasts and then sewed the uppers and soles together. Children and apprentices ran errands, lit the fire, waxed thread and did other mundane chores.

After 1820, the industry got centralized. Shoe shops sent cut leather to the ten-footers, which returned the finished shoes to the central shops. The shops then shipped them in barrels to Boston. From there, Massachusetts shoes and boots went to shod the feet of Europeans, Australians, West Indians and westward-migrating Americans.

Here, then, are some more fun facts about the ten-footer.

1, The ten-footer didn’t always measure 10 by 10.

Sometimes they measured 12 by 12, or even a palatial 14 by 14. They had no attic, but an open garret or “cock loft” reachable by a perpendicular ladder. A shoemaker typically believed everything comes in use once every seven years, and he filled the cock loft with all sorts of odds and ends: 50-year old lasts, candle rigging, old umbrellas, broken chairs, old hats, the bottoms of boots used as wax receptacles. “A mitigated museum,” noted one student of the ten-footer.

In winter the ten-footer often stank from a medley of tobacco smoke, burning leather, shoemaker’s wax and wood smoke.

2. The ten-footer started in Lynn.

In 1750, a Welsh shoemaker named John Adam Dagyr came to Lynn. Back then, people cobbled homemade shoes by the kitchen fire. Dagyr changed all that. Into a ten-footer he put four men – the shop “crew” — each at a bench, or “berth.” He then taught them how to divide up the work of making fashionable ladies’ shoes. His technique caught on. People called Dagyr “the celebrated shoemaker of Essex.” But he had trouble with booze, and he died broke. His legacy lived on: By 1795 Lynn had 200 master workmen and 600 journeymen who produced 300,000 pairs of shoes annually. By 1850, Lynn produced 4.5 million shoes a year.

A kid fox button ladies’ shoe

3. Every shoe town had a different specialty.

Towns in southern and western Massachusetts produced men’s shoes, brogans and high boots.

In Reading, just west of Lynn, nearly every family made shoes. They specialized in dancing pumps in the 1830s, then made infant and children’s shoes, some with fancy hand stitching.

Men’s work shoes, called brogans

Women’s pegged and common sewed shoes were made in Abington, Stoughton, Weymouth and Randolph, which also made heavy boots sold as far away as Australia. North Bridgewater had a reputation for making shoemaking tools.

Brockton led Massachusetts in men’s shoes. Many men in Brockton learned the craft in British prisons during the American Revolution.

4. The ten-footer hosted a school and a debating society.

The work of shoemaking didn’t require much mental effort, and so the men sitting in close quarters all day found a lot to talk about. Delivery men brought newspapers from Boston. Fishermen stopped by on stormy days with tales of the Grand Banks. Peddlers, preachers and politicians often swung by to contribute to the day’s agenda of discussion topics.

David Johnson, in his 1880 book, Sketches of Lynn, attributed the success of many shoemakers to their love of debate. “It has been remarked that more men have risen to eminence from the seat of the shoemaker than from the ranks of any other class of mechanics, except that of printers,” he wrote.

Henry Wilson, the “Natick Cobbler”

5. The 18th vice president of the United States started out in a ten-footer.

Henry Wilson started out as Jeremiah Jones Colbath, a poor farmer’s son born in Farmington, N.H. His father indentured him as a farm laborer when he turned 10. For a decade the boy toiled on a farm, apparently hating it. At the end of his indenture he received a yoke of oxen and six sheep, which he sold. He then went to look for a job. He couldn’t find one, so he walked 100 miles to Natick, Mass. He met a shoemaker willing to train him. By then he had changed his name to Henry Wilson. Some say he did it because he hated his nicknames, “Jed” and “Jerry.”

Henry Wilson’s ten-footer. Image courtesy Library of Congress

The name change brought him luck. In Natick, he found a shoemaker willing to train him. He hired himself out to learn to make brogans, bought out his contract and opened his own shop. In a ten-footer, of course.

Wilson started a shoe manufacturing company and eventually had more than 100 workers.

He then got into politics. He won election to the Massachusetts Senate and then the U.S. Senate as a radical Republican. “Radical” because he wanted to end slavery and empower workers.

He then served as Ulysses S. Grant’s vice president from 1873 until his death in 1875. All that debating in his ten-footer paid off.

6. The Civil War killed the ten-footer.

So many sons of St. Crispin went to fight (and die) in the war that a shoe shortage resulted. A South Attleboro man, Lyman Blake, invented a machine that sewed uppers to soles, speeding production so the Union Army could have enough shoes. Soon, automation took over the other stages of shoemaking. Enormous shoe factories then sprang up, and the ten-footer faded into obsolescence. They got moved, repurposed or torn down.

The Smith Shoe Shop in Reading, Mass.

7. A few remain.

The ten-footer behind the Stoneham Historical Society has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984. Henry Wilson’s, at the Natick Historical Society, since 2000. Daniel Hunkins Shoe Shop stands behind the Haverhill (Mass.) Historical Society. The campus of the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem has one. And, happily, there’s one at the Lynn Museum in Lynn.

With thanks to D.N. Johnson (1880),. Sketches of Lynn, Or, The Changes of Fifty Years. United States: T.P. Nichols, Printer, and P.G. Faler (1981) Mechanics and manufacturers in the early industrial revolution : Lynn, Massachusetts, 1760-1860. United States: State University of New York Press.

Images: Stoneham Ten Footer (featured image): By User:Magicpiano – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30063541. Smith Shoe Shop By John Phelan – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31199558. Hobnailed boots By Anthony Appleyard at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2560338.



Jerry Ballou May 26, 2024 - 8:43 am

Thank you for this article! While I grew up in a then rural corner of New Hampshire and have a deep acquaintance with the culture, this aspect is new to me. In the village that I now reside, there was a tiny building adjacent to an old homestead. I had glanced at it and wondered many times as I passed it and even as I helped an elderly woman who lived in the homestead. I travel for work, but upon the return from one trip, I happened to be lending he a hand, and noticed the cute little building was gone. I questioned her and it turned out that the building had in fact been the cobblers shop for the village, and she had owned it, but a “friend” of the family had informed her that it was structurally unsound and offered to demolish it and dispose of it for her. As an engineer who grew up in a multigenerational construction family whose hobby is architectural archaeology, I can testify that the building was at least structurally sound and at least very restorable. I suspect that this building was either parted out for the value of the lumber, or reconstructed elsewhere. The historical aspect of the village is starting to become recognized however since I moved in (almost forty years ago), there has been a 70 – 80% turnover in the population. The verbal history of the village now resides with myself a a couple of older neighbors. Sad to see the changes.

Laura Eisener May 26, 2024 - 9:08 am

Saugus Historical Society also has a 10-footer on its premises, although it was altered for other purposes before being brought to the present location. For many years it was used for sawing wood at Berthold Farm in Saugus, then when the farm was sold the shed was moved to the historical society’s back yard.

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