M996X.2.816 | Last
1894, 19th century
26 x 56.5 cm
Gift of Mme Aline Desjardins
© McCord Museum
Keywords: Last (1)
Keys to History
Wooden lasts like these were used to make shoes. Traditionally, they were among the working tools of the shoemaker, but they were also used in shoe factories.
The plant assembly process was not the same as the hand made process. However, it could be divided into five relatively similar steps: cutting the upper (the top of the shoes), sewing together the different parts of the upper, assembling and bottoming (binding the insole and heel to the upper). The wooden last is used during binding. The upper is then moulded over the last, which lends the shoe its size and shape.
A former specialty in Montreal, hand-made shoes gradually gave way in the nineteenth century to industrial production. Little by little, machines were introduced to facilitate certain production steps and a growing number of people were employed in the factories. Moreover, the work was divided into separate tasks requiring different skill levels. Some tasks could be done by unskilled workers, such as children and women who worked for meager salaries. A few skilled workers, such as "lasters", who moulded the shoes on the lasts, were a class apart, as Zéphirin Lapierre, a boot and shoe maker, said in front of the Royal Commission on Relations of Labour and Capital in Canada: "Outside of what we call lasters, in our business, skilled workmen are not required, for most of our work that skilled men would be required for, is now done by machinery."
The shape determines whether the shoe is for a left foot or right foot. This shoe was meant for the right foot. Even though shoes for left and right feet first made their appearance in the sixteenth century, some pairs of shoes were identical in the nineteenth century, in that they did not take into account each foot's natural curves.
In 1891, many children under 16 were employed in factories. In Montreal, they made up approximately 6% of the labour force. However, the largest number of children was employed in the shoe industry, the leading light industry, followed by the sewing, smelting, wool, cigar and bookbinding industries.
In 1888, Olivier David Benoît, a boot and shoe maker, discussed the topic of labour distribution in front of the Royal Commission on Relations of Labour and Capital in Canada: "(...) the boot and shoe men of old times could make a shoe or boot, make the uppers, sole it, or make the pattern and put it on the last, and then finish it and put it on the foot, whereas to-day, as a general rule, all the men working in factories, especially the large factories, are able to do only one kind of work, as to set the uppers, because to-day perfected machinery has replaced hand work."
Between 1860 and 1890, the average salary dropped considerably in the shoe industry, especially since many children, women and young single men were being hired.