Occupational Hazards: My mother the shoemaker…

My mother was a nurse for most of my life, until she retired. Except at one point when I was a kid, out of frustration with some aspect of the nursing trade, she went to work in a local shoe factory. More than anything, I remember the smell of the glue on her clothing when she came home.

And you thought my grandfathers were my only link to the trades…

It’s probably just as well that I did not know at the time about n-hexane polyneuropathy, an occupational disease endemic to these shoe factories brought on by exposure to the very glue that I remember so well. Thankfully, factory life didn’t agree with her and she went back to nursing in pretty short order.

Nursing has its own hazards, just as sitting at a desk typing does, but occupational diseases are not a modern invention. Our repetitive strain disorders and bad backs and neuropathies born of the chemical age are nothing new. N-hexane polyneuropathy is just the modern equivalent of an 18th century disease known as ‘shoemaker’s colic’. Hatters were famously driven mad by the mercury they used, and so on and so forth…

Something we should probably talk about more often is the occupational hazards of the artisan life.

To get a bit nearer our period, let us wander off to Jamestown and take a gander at some scary-looking femurs that bear the marks of a lifetime of cobblers using their upper legs to pound on.  In the image at the right, you can get a glimpse inside a 16th century shoemaker’s workshop from my old nemesis Jost Amman.

Note the way the two men in the foreground are working with the shoe on their thigh. The strap you can see holding the shoe in place, running under the heel of the bloke on the left is the shoemaker’s stirrup I described last Sunday.

Image from the Jamestown.org
website’s “Written in Bone: 
Century Chesapeake” exhibit. 

Jost’s guys are sewing, but hammers were also used to condense and work-harden leather, especially soles, and if you do that on your leg for a lifetime, your body is going to defend you from the damage. When you damage a bone, it repairs itself — damage it enough repeatedly over a long enough period and your body will adapt, build up extra bone to protect itself from the next blow. Eventually, the layers of bone will build up and you end up with a sort of anvil attached to your femur.

Do me and yourself a favor: learn from their mistake.

It would make sense, in a way, for this to be more common for cobblers than cordwainers since sole repairs would’ve fallen to the cobbler. Though I should note that the Jamestown website doesn’t draw a distinction between the two, and on the frontier there might not have been one.  On the muddy reaches of the Virginia coast, I would think that pounding hobnails into soles was a more common task than not.

A bone spur like that must’ve leant itself to one hell of a limp.

It’s a cobbler’s life, I guess.

Not all occupational markers are skeletal or so terribly painful. Bakers and blacksmiths have burns, which would theoretically heal and leave your skin all the more impervious to future burns. As I mentioned, the scars and bone spurs were the result of the body’s attempts to protect itself.

On a side note, when I’m watching TV shows like NCIS or Bones, when they confidently describe the working lives of the men and women whose skeletons they’re examining, I often wonder how hobbyists throw wrenches into the works on such occasions. I may be a writer, but I have several that might confuse a forensics team if I ever ended up on the table in an episode of Bones. My left incisor has been worn down years of cutting thread with it and I have a shoulder thing that’s the result of a stint as a stockman at WalMart* in my youth preceded by a couple years in the pressroom of a local publisher. Compound that by all the adventures this project have led me on and I have to wonder what the CSI folks would make of my body.

That might seem a bit macabre, but ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Food for thought anyway.

~ Scott

* You know that thing you hear about where Wally World comes to town and before you know it they’re the only game in town? Yeah.


  1. I spent the better part of my life in my studio, flush with heavy metals in the glass paint, asbestos in the kiln, and of course lead by the ton. Then I absorbed plenty of MEK doing the fabric work on my home-built tail dragger. I may not reach my father and grandfather's century mark. We will see.


  2. My father in law is a glass worker and I often wonder what the long term effects will be of his exposure to the heavy metals used to color glass and the leading. MEK is some nasty smelling stuff. I Googled “tail-dragger” and it tells me that you built an airplane of a vaguely Sopwith Camel variety. I don't know much about airplanes, but wow, that's a project and a half.


  3. A really worrying thing indeed. Every job carries with it a coterie of in-built risks and attendant threats. It's best to minimize them and avoid them entirely, and perhaps re-evaluate production patterns to ensure that it is done with. 'Cos paying for work injury is bound to be worse for both employer as well as production count. Times have a tenacity to evolve things though, and upgrade, say, practices for the better, which is what is good about it.

    Omega On Demand


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