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This article is about the occupation. For the science-fiction writers, see Cordwainer Smith and Cordwainer Bird.
A cordwainer making shoes, Capri, Italy

A cordwainer (/ˈkɔrdˌwnər/) is a shoemaker who makes new shoes from new leather. The cordwainer's trade can be contrasted with the cobbler's trade, according to a tradition in Britain that restricted cobblers to repairing shoes.[1] This usage distinction is not universally observed, as the word cobbler is widely used in American English for tradespersons who make or repair shoes.[2][3][4] A major British dictionary[5] says that the word cordwainer is archaic, "still used in the names of guilds, for example, the Cordwainers' Company"; but its definition of cobbler mentions only mending,[5] reflecting the older distinction.


The term cordwainer entered English as cordewaner(e), from the Anglo-Norman cordewaner (from Old French cordoanier, -ouanier, -uennier, etc.), and initially denoted a worker in cordwain or cordovan, the leather historically produced in Moorish Córdoba, Spain in the Middle Ages, as well as, more narrowly, a shoemaker.[6] The earliest attestation in English is a reference to “Randolf se cordewan[ere]”, ca. 1100.[6][1] According to the OED, the term is now considered obsolete except where it persists in the name of a trade-guild or company, or where otherwise employed by trade unions.[6]


The terms cordwainer and cobbler have often been considered not interchangeable, according to a tradition in Britain that restricted cobblers to repairing shoes.[1] In this usage, a cordwainer is someone who makes new shoes using new leather, whereas a cobbler is someone who repairs shoes.[1] Medieval cordovan leather was used for the highest quality shoes, but cordwainers also used domestically produced leathers and were not solely producers of luxury footwear.

Cordwainers in the British Isles[edit]

In the historic London guild system, the cobblers and cordwainers were separate guilds,[7] and the cobblers were forbidden from working in new leather. Historically, cobblers also made shoes but only using old leather recovered from discarded or repaired shoes.[8] Modernly, many makers of bespoke shoes will also repair their own work but shoe repairers are not normally in a position to manufacture new footwear.

A statue of a cordwainer in the Cordwainer ward of the City of London.

In London, the occupation of cordwainer was historically controlled by the guild of the Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. They were granted a royal charter of incorporation in 1439, but had received their first ordinance in 1272.[7] The ward of the City of London named Cordwainer is historically where most cordwainers lived and worked. [7]

Until 2000, a Cordwainers' Technical College existed in London. For over a hundred years, the College had been recognised as one of the world's leading establishments for training shoemakers and leather workers. It produced some of the leading fashion designers, including Jimmy Choo and Patrick Cox. In 2000, Cordwainers' College was absorbed into the London College of Fashion, the shoe-design and accessories departments of which are now called "Cordwainers at London College of Fashion".

In Scotland, in 1722, the cordwainers petitioned “to be incorporated and separated from the shoe-makers ‘or those who make single-soled shoes’”.[6]

Cordwainers in America[edit]

Cordwainers were among those who sailed to Virginia in 1607 to settle in Jamestown. By 1616, the secretary of Virginia reported that the leather and shoe trades were flourishing. Christopher Nelme, of England, was the earliest shoemaker in America whose name has been recorded; he sailed to Virginia from Bristol, England, in 1619.[1]

In 1620, the Pilgrims landed in Massachusetts near the site of modern Provincetown. Nine years later, in 1629, the first shoemakers arrived, bringing their skills with them.[1]

The Honourable Cordwainers' Company, a modern guild, was founded in 1984 by a group of shoemakers and historians, and drew up its charter in the following year. In 1987 it “incorporated as a non-profit, tax-exempt educational organization in the state of Virginia, the home of America's first shoemakers”, and was granted official status through recognition by The Master of The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers, London, England.[9]

Cordwainers in Canada[edit]

Cordwainers were also among the early settlers of Canada. On 14 June 1749, the newly-appointed Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, Edward Cornwallis, arrived off Chebucto Head, Nova Scotia in the sloop-of-war HMS Sphinx with the objective of establishing what is now Halifax. By 27 June, the thirteen transport ships following the Sphinx reached the harbour with the initial 2576 British settlers; among them were nineteen cordwainers.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "What is a Cordwainer?". The Honourable Cordwainers’ Company. Retrieved 19 Oct 2015. 
  2. ^ Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 
  3. ^ Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster. 
  4. ^ Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster's Unabridged Dictionary, Merriam-Webster. 
  5. ^ a b Oxford Dictionaries, Oxford Dictionaries Online, Oxford University Press. 
  6. ^ a b c d "cordwainer". Oxford English Dictionary (3rd ed.). Oxford University Press. September 2005.  (Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  7. ^ a b c "What is a Cordwainer?". The Worshipful Company of Cordwainers. Retrieved 19 Oct 2015. 
  8. ^ Goubitz, Olaf; van Driel-Murray, Carol; Groenman-Van Waateringe, Willy (2001). Stepping through time : archaeological footwear from prehistoric times until 1800. Zwolle [Netherlands]: Stichting Promotie Archeologie. 
  9. ^ "History of the H.C.C.". The Honourable Cordwainer's Company. Retrieved 19 Oct 2015. 
  10. ^ Akins, Thomas Beamish, ed. (1869). "List of the Settlers Who Came Out with Governor Cornwallis to Chebucto, in June 1749". Selections from the Public Documents of the Province of Nova Scotia. Halifax, NS: Charles Annand. pp. 506–557.