[Journal of a Cobbler’s Apprentice]. Luther Crocker.
[Journal of a Cobbler’s Apprentice].

[Journal of a Cobbler’s Apprentice].

Brewster, Massachusetts, 1839–1841. 8vo (21cm x 17cm), half blue leather and marbled paper over boards. 135 pp. of manuscript, additional blank pages.

A New England tradesman's journal kept by a young journeyman from a family of shoemakers, offering an intimate account of his apprenticeship as well as capturing the commercial scenes in Cape Cod and other New England locales amidst an economic downturn; the journal also includes considerable social-political commentary, reflecting Crocker's own social engagement.

This journal was kept by one Luther Crocker (1819–1908) of Brewster, Massachusetts from August 1, 1839–November 23, 1841. "I must pull the threads and drive the pegs," he writes of his life—and this journal chronicles his sincere efforts to learn the craft and more: "This journal shows, to a great extent, my true character," he declares. It also notably documents the dynamics of the shoemaking business in New England during the difficult business years following the Panic of 1837.

Crocker cuts his teeth making boots and "closing" shoes; as his talent develops, he begins to make misses' shoes, slippers, and cocks (infant shoes). "Cobbling puts me on the bench," he pens. Blistered hands and fingers—"as sore as I could wish them to be"—soon follow. Shoemaking requires skill and a good eye—both acquired with practice. As an apprentice, his scope of work beyond the bench is limited, but he does occasionally purchase horse skins for shoe work and—in one instance—takes a load of shoes to Truro, MA to sell. Customers can be challenging, and boredom frequently befalls Crocker. "A lazy fellow I have been today & so I was yesterday," he writes. "I should earn my salt, as the saying is, unless I perk up and stick to my awl more determined to work smart." His father, Elisha Crocker (1789–1880) frequently takes shoes for sale up and down Cape Cod and once even by ship to Maine. "I hope him success in getting clear of his ruff scruffs and various kinds of shoes." Nevertheless, Crocker writes that, by 1841:

The shoe business on the Cape is getting to be a far less profitable business than it was several yrs. ago. Formerly, when Father went down with a load, he met with ready sale, and some cash. Now, the reverse. The market is gutted by country peddlers and money very small.

His father’s lack of success redounds upon him; wanting to buy books and a portable writing desk, he laments, "I am as poor as a snake." Crocker turns 21 on November 24, 1840, at which point his apprenticeship ends. Now he has to make his own living. "A pretty figure too, I must make, having got hardly enough of the art to make anything better than a bungling old-fashioned cobbler," he pens. "Still, age does not prevent me from learning more. There is no stopping place in life." Crocker reflects on the trade: "Shoemaking is too sedentary a habit of life for me"; he desires a more active career but admits, "I am but a weak chap at best." He turns down the position of an assistant teacher in Boston; the seafaring life his brothers embrace is decidedly too taxing for him, and farming enjoyable but too strenuous.

Although Crocker laments his lack of an extensive formal education, he is observant, gregarious, a reader, and the possessor of a strong social conscience. Commenting on the early 19th century emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies, he writes, "Would I could say as much of this my country, this boasting land of liberty, and yet two and a half millions are in this land of literature & learning, toiling on from day to day without pay or but a scarce substance—shame." He recalls the example of George Washington who:

gave his dying example as he had his living voice to the cause of emancipation. In the Revolution, when the army was encamped at White Plains, he gave as a toast:

Health to the sick and wounded
Honor to the brave
Success to the American flag
Freedom to the Slave.

Elsewhere, he provides the words of a runaway slave: "No man fastens chains [on me] again unless I am guilty of some other crime than color & the love of freedom.”

While public antislavery activity was still limited in the late 1830s, Crocker recalls attending an antislavery lecture by Rev. Hiram Cummings (a lecturer and associate of the prominent abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison): "[Cummings] was suddenly interrupted by Mr. —. Strange, is it not, that people will not hear truth and reason, but must rather deprive if possible a free man from free use of his tongue." When Crocker’s cousin George takes on a crew at Mobile for a voyage to Havana, the sailors are all black. "May they be used as men," Crocker writes, "possessing the feelings of men."

The journal-keeper's awareness of the injustices of class society and his commitment to social justice are further revealed when he remarks:

Hard is the lot of the mechanic now and there seems no prospects for it to be easier. The laborer must now toil long and hard to maintain the great lazy portion of the community who do naught but eat the fruit of the working man's labor. Away with such injustices.

As part of his interest in public life, Crocker forms a Youth (also called a Juvenile) Lyceum whose aim is the intellectual and moral betterment of the community. It is rough going at first; at the initial meeting only one person accepts his invitation to attend. Later programs are boisterous and disruptive, but the institution grows steadily and in time comes to host worthwhile events.

This journal is first-rate on aspects of Cape Cod life, and even offers details of women's life in these parts. Crocker's cousin Martha "is looking at every vessel which comes in sight… The women are now looking for their husbands with longing eyes. They feel impatient to see the vessel heave in sight." Elisha, Martha's husband, returns from one voyage with 147,000 fish, which Crocker helps him cart away from the schooner. The sea takes away as well as gives, however—as the terrible storm of October, 1841 shows, which is known as the Deadly October Gale of 1841. "11 vessels are ashore at Point [of] Rocks," he reports; "The very old people say they have never known a storm so severe to continue for so long a time."

Among the other observations Crocker makes about the Cape is this interesting one:

Peat is a very convenient and excellent article for filet. It is calculated to be easier to get a cord of peat than a cord of wood. Without peat swamps, Cape Cod would suffer for wood or fuel. We should have to be parsimoniously ecumenical of firewood or soon be without. The peat swamps being scattered all about, they are accessible to all. Rightly has it been called Cape Cod coal.

Although Crocker’s full name does not appear anywhere in the journal, the name “Crocker” appears multiple times; moreover, the author notes the death of his elderly grandmother on Thursday, June 24, 1841, at Barnstable. These clues and Crocker’s mention of his birthday and age make it possible to identify him and his family.

All in all, a highly appealing and intimate journal offering windows into the various scenes of commercial, tradesman, and social life in early 19th century Cape Cod and greater New England.

CONDITION: Rubbed, front inner hinge broken and front cover separated from contents, but still attached to spine and back cover.

REFERENCES: Barnstable – Marstons Mills Cemetery 1840–1849 at capecodgravestones.com; Vital Records of the Town of Brewster, Massachusetts to the End of the Year 1849, (1904), pp. 51, 90.

Item #4330


See all items by