The always wry Al Saguto discusses making 18th-century shoes in the shoemaker shop.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi! Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you will meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Al Saguto, who’s the shoemaker at Colonial Williamsburg, and the first question has got to be why did you want to be a shoemaker?
Al Saguto: My goodness, one day I really should think of a pat answer for that. My father had high hopes that I’d be a jeweler and a watch maker like him and his father and his father and his father before him, but I was a bit hard-headed and decided more people needed shoes than they needed their watches mended, so...
Lloyd: I guess I’m curious. I have read, been told, think to be trueâ€¦that shoes were not made left and right until the 19th century. Is that right?
Al: Well, you’re not alone. I would say there are millions of people that have the same idea. About Shakespeare’s day, the wooden forms that the shoes were made on went from being left and right to being straight as an economy, so you only needed one to make the pair of shoesâ€¦and about 1800 they started to go crooked again. So, for a period of about 200 years, most of the shoes are made on straight forms, but left and right shoes are back in style far before the 19th century.
Lloyd: Okayâ€¦no, 1800 â€“ that’s 19th century.
Lloyd: So, it just barely made it. In your shoemaking, do you make authentic 18th-century shoes?
Al: Absolutely. I think one of the things our visitors are most fascinated with is where we get the patterns and how do we know we’re making an 18th-century shoe. Colonial Williamsburg has about 4,000 18th-century shoes in fragments that have been dug up archaeologically â€“ both here in Colonial Williamsburg and ones that have been given to us from elsewhere, so there are more shoes to copy than I would ever be able to do in one lifetime.
Lloyd: Who do you make these shoes for?
Al: Primarily for the staff. If we got into selling the shoes in the outside world, a lot of our people would not get them, and that would probably not be the best use of our talent, so we try to keep our staff looking as real as possible by making shoes for them.
Lloyd: How many shoes do you make in a year?
Al: That’s a good question â€“ depending on the level of visitation â€“ 70, 80, maybe a 100 pairs a year, which is pretty small for a shop our size.
Lloyd: That brings up another thingâ€¦how long would it take you to make a pair of shoes if you weren’t interrupted?
Al: And if one man made the whole shoeâ€¦well, I don’t know, because the work is divided; it has been for 2,000 years. I suppose if you were going to sit by yourself and try to make a whole pair, it would take you the better part of two days, and you’d be right out of business.
Lloyd: What do people ask you when you are sitting there making your part of the pair of shoes?
Al: Well, the five big questions I suppose we all get are: How long does it take to make one of those? What do you do with the ones you make here? How much do they cost, and how long do they last?
Lloyd: Okay, how long do they last?
Al: It depends on the shoe and the man wearing them. Some of the shoes are pretty thin on the bottom, and some are thick; some of the men are kind of thin on the bottom and some are thick.
Al: I think in the 18th century, the best you can guess is perhaps a year. They do go out of style after all, and they start looking shabby after a while.
Lloyd: Thisâ€¦I’m cheating, because I know you hate the question. How much do they cost?
Al: Two shillings, six up to two pounds, tenâ€¦take your pick.
Lloyd: And that isâ€¦?
Al: For the common shoes, generally about a day’s wages for a man, perhaps a fraction of a day’s wages. But you could buy second-hand shoes out on the market for next to nothing, and you could buy the finest, most expensive shoes in Virginia and maybe spend a week’s wages. It just depends upon you and what you want to part with.
Lloyd: The problem is a week’s wages is different for a plantation owner than it is for the butcher.
Al: Absolutely, and, the shoe prices, like I said, range from about two shillings, six up to two pounds, ten, soâ€¦ Just like today â€“ men make their decisions what sort of shoes they want to buy based on how much money they’ve got or perhaps what sort of shoe they want. I mean you can buy shoes today, what, as cheap as $9.00, or you can buy $5,000 shoes â€“ same sort of variety of prices then as now.
Lloyd: All of your work is hand work, right â€“ no machines?
Al: Not yet.
Lloyd: Okay. You have to sew quite a bit, I’m thinking.
Al: Quite a bit. The whole shoe is sewn.
Lloyd: Oh, is it reallyâ€¦oh, no other way I guess, come to think of it. Do you ever stick yourself with the needle?
Al: Well, you hurt yourself occasionally, but you try to keep it to a minimum, or you are out of work. (Laughs)
Lloyd: (Laughs) â€¦do that too often, you’re not going to do it againâ€¦
Al: And, interestingly we don’t really use a needle, we use an awl â€“ a pointed tool on a wooden handle, and you know where to keep your fingers away from the business end when you are poking the holes, but occasionally it happensâ€¦
Lloyd: You can’t sew with an awl, can you?
Al: Well, you pierce the hole with the awl, and you sew with thread, and on the end of the thread is a boar bristle in place of a needle. They were cheaper, and they bent and followed curved holes, which we use a lot of.
Lloyd: Didn’t know that either. Why curved?
Al: Well, when you are sewing shoe leather together, especially in the top of the shoe in the uppers, you butt the leather edge-to-edge so there is no seam to rub your foot. So, the stitch path goes curving through the leather in one side and out the same side; it doesn’t stab straight through like a sewing machine does.
Lloyd: Hadn’t thought of that either. You don’t want anything on the inside that would rub against your foot.
Al: No, not at allâ€¦
Lloyd: What’s your favorite pair of shoes to make, or do you have one?
Al: Boots â€“ top boots.
Al: They involve a lot more stitches, a lot more technical finesse than common shoes do. They are sort of the top of our line as far asâ€¦the top of the skills is making boots.
Lloyd: So they would be plantation-owner regular wearâ€¦
Al: Or anyone who rides a horse. There’s a wide variety of prices in boots, too.
Lloyd: Oh really?
Al: Sureâ€¦including second handâ€¦
Lloyd: Now, that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense to meâ€¦
Al: â€¦and why is that?
Lloyd: Well, if you’ve got boots, because it’s the top of the line, why would people who didn’t ride horses want them?
Al: Well, you don’t need them if you don’t have a horse, but we reckon that about one man in six in the city of Williamsburg had a horse, and even if you don’t own one you can hire one, let’s say to ride down to Hampton, but boots are strictly for riding horses.
Lloyd: Second handâ€¦here you’ve got two straight boots. A man wears them because he has a horse. Don’t they sort of eventually kind of conform to his feet?
Al: Oh absolutely, within a few hours. They turn left and right just as crooked as if you made them that way.
Lloyd: Oh really.
Al: Same with the shoes.
Lloyd: That quickly? So, why would youâ€¦well I guess you’d buy a second-hand pair from a guy who was your size who had already worn them left and right.
Al: Absolutely, or you could buy them out in the market in Market Square where people have stalls set up selling all manner of second-hand stuff.
Lloyd: Have you ever been asked a question by a visitor that you just didn’t know the answer?
Al: I’ve been asked some where I’m not sure of the answer, but I’m pretty sure where to find out, and usually refer them.
Lloyd: Oh, okayâ€¦are there historians here, or trainers you could go to and say, “Here’s the question I was asked; how do I answer it?”
Al: Well, we have a top-box research department and a huge research library here that generally is the first stop in referral.
Lloyd: I am always amazed at the questions people can think of to ask people who are here, and I’ve always been curious how you found out the answers to some of these impossible questions. I guess you just go look it up â€“ or make it up, which works just as well.
Al: Well, we try not to make things upâ€¦but it’s funny, most of the questions fall into the five most common, and then there’s the second five most common, and every once in a while you get a flier from left field that you just have no idea, as you mention, but usually you can refer people to the library here, which is open to them to go and have a look.
Lloyd: You’re sitting there, and you’re making a pair of shoes, and a family comes through the door and they chat with you a while, and they leave, and you are back to making your boar bristle shoesâ€¦
Lloyd: â€¦and another group comes in, and they don’t say anything. Does that everâ€¦I meanâ€¦
Al: â€¦happens all the time.
Lloyd: Does it?
Lloyd: â€¦they just stare at youâ€¦
Al: â€¦just stare at you. You start a little conversation with them, and they’re just silent as a door post, and you just keep going and goingâ€¦
Lloyd: At some point, do you just get sick of the day, and making shoes, and what you’ve gone throughâ€¦
Al: Not really, I think anybody finds it a little frustrating getting the same questions over and over and over again; but the trick is toâ€¦you’re giving the same answer over and over again, by the way, but vary the answers just enough that it keeps you fresh. And most folks, they don’t seem like they notice that you’ve answered that same question 400 times that hour. You try to keep it freshâ€¦
Lloyd: You said the five most common questions, and then the second five most common questionsâ€¦what are the five most common questions?
Al: How long does it take to make a pair, how much do they cost, how long do they last, and what do you do with the ones you make here? Those are the first most common questions.
Lloyd: Okay, second mostâ€¦
Al: Well, you might find this hard to believe, but is that a real fire? What’s the wood for? Do you ever cut yourself or hurt yourself? And, is this a real job, or are you just a volunteer? I mean, are you a professional, or are you just here putting on a show?
Lloyd: Well, thatâ€¦actually, that’s not a bad question.
Al: No, it’s pretty logical, come to think of it.
Lloyd: But what is the fire for?
Al: Heat. To keep us warm.
Lloyd: Oh, okay, and therefore the wood is for the fire.
Lloyd: And, on hurting yourself, or cutting yourself?
Al: Every once in a while, but not any worse than carving up vegetables in the kitchen.
Lloyd: And you manage to stay fresh through a whole day?
Al: You do your best.
Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.