Sunday, April 19, 2009

Just a Little Sole - Part Three

Cork Sock-maker, a cutter of soles of cork for shoes.

The Dictionary of Trade Products, Manufacturing, and Technical Terms: With a Definition of the Moneys, Weights, and Measures of All Countries, Peter Lund Simmonds, G. Routledge, 1858

The coverings of cork soles are put on by women with sewing machines. A good hand, we were told, can make eight dozen pairs a day, and is paid eighteen cents a dozen. I suppose it requires at least a day to cut out and baste on the covering of that number; so the compensation is not as great as one might at first suppose. Some can baste five dozen a day, and could stitch from twelve to twenty dozen a day. Girls are paid 10 cents a dozen for basting, and 6 cents per dozen for stitching them on machines. A cork-sole manufacturer in the upper part of the city, pays for basting covers on, 10 cents a dozen. Some women baste five or six dozen a day. It requires care and a little skill. If not properly done, it is almost impossible to stitch them correctly. He pays 6 cents a dozen for stitching, and an operator can stitch from twelve to twenty dozen a day. He has often sold two hundred dozen in a year.

The Employments of Women: A Cyclopaedia of Woman's Work, Virginia Penny, Walker, Wise & Co., 1863

I prepare thick cork soles and heels, hooped or not, round the edge with leather or gutta percha coated with an adhesive surface, to attach to boots, shoes, or galoshes for wear during wet weather. Any of these descriptions of soles and heels I prefer to ornament by printing or stencilling various designs with adhesive cement upon the wearing face, and applying thereon either coloured flocks, powdered colours, metal powders, or leaf.

The Repertory of patent inventions [formerly The Repertory of arts, manufactures and agriculture]. Vol.1-enlarged ser., vol.40, 1854

A pair of men's cork soles offered on eBay.

No. 13,286.—William Johnston, of Brooklyn, (E. D.) N. Y.— Improvement in Cork Sole Stuff.—Patent dated September 29, 1857.— This improvement is described by the inventor as follows : I construct the cork cloth of cotton muslin, silk, leather, or other suitable material, which material is stretched on a solid frame ; on the surface of the material is laid a priming of boiled oil, over which I sift a quantity of fine pulverized cork, and press it in with rollers before the oil is dry, and allow it to remain some time to dry. I then apply another coat of oil and sift another quantity of fine cork over it, which is pressed in as before, repeating this process until I obtain the substance required. The pulverized cork is made by grinding solid cork in a burr stone mill, or any other that will reduce it fine.
The claim is thus stated : I claim the making of cork cloth by the aforesaid process for inside soles and lining of boots, shoes, and other articles for which solid sheet cork has hitherto been applied, using for that purpose the aforesaid materials, or others substantially the same, to produce the same results.

Senate Documents, Otherwise Publ. as Public Documents and Executive Documents: 14th Congress, 1st Session-48th Congress, 2nd Session and Special Session, 1858

No. 34,437.—Henry L.yon, of Brooklyn, N. Y.—Improved Cork Sole for Boots and Shoes.—Patent dated February 18, 1862.—Cork being ground or cut into small pieces, is mixed with gum-elastic dissolved in oil of turpentine or otherwise; this composition is spread upon cloth having a facing of soft gum-elastic; the sole being cut from the cloth is placed inside the boot or shoe, to which it firmly adheres.
Claim.—The improved water-proof cork sole made from fine or granulated cork, as set forth in this specification.

Report of the Commissioner of Patents, United States Patent Office, 1864

The following is an interesting reference, does she mean soles made as above? Or is the “cork meal” loose inside a sewn insole? In either case, they were not what she expected.

“I went into one shop, a shoemaker's, to buy a pair of cork soles for my boots. The man did not seem at first to know what was wanted, but afterwards he brought forward some which he said were lined with – “Cork made into meal,"—pounded, I suppose he meant. They were the only things I could find, so I was obliged to buy them.”

Journal Kept During a Summer Tour for the Children of a Village School, Elizabeth Missing Sewell, Appleton, 1852

And here is a reference listing some prices:

As the Hydromagen is becoming more known, its sale is increasing to an almost incredible extent. Last year, in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Liverpool, Glasgow, Leeds, Dublin, Paris, Antwerp, Hamburgh, and Berlin, our sales reached 1,732,450 pairs of cork soles. This year the number will far surpass that.
Ask the Faculty their opinion of their value as a preventive for coughs, colds, bronchitis, asthma and consumption.
The Hydromagen is offered, by retail, at the following prices: Mens’ size, per pair, 35 cents; Ladies' size, per pair, 30 cents; Boys' and Misses' sizes, 25 cents.
NoticE.—From the retail prices, we make a very liberal allowance to jobbers and wholesalers, so that any storekeeper may make a fine profit on their sale, while they are an article that may be kept in any store, among any class of goods.

The Southern Business Directory and General Commercial Advertiser: Vol. I., John Paul Campbell, Walker & James, 1854

The above references tell us that more than one type of cork sole existed:

1.) Soles cut from solid cork, then covered with fabric. Eliza Leslie refers to “cork soles covered with flannel”, flannel during the period usually referring to wool flannel. Wool flannel would aid in keeping the feet warm and dry, which appears to be the main use of cork soles.

2.) William Johnston claims an improved method, cork cloth, for which “solid sheet cork has hitherto been applied”. The cork cloth consisting of ground cork pressed with boiled oil and applied to fabric, etc. Other makers follow similar procedures, using a variety of substances. This type appears to have been used only as insoles, as there are mentions of “gum elastic” and an “adhesive surface” to keep them in place inside the boot or shoe.
Based on the dates of the references, both types one and two were being produced within the same time period.

3.) Maybe a third type (but I’m not totally convinced) consisting of loose cork inside a fabric sole. While these might conform to the foot, it seems there’s much potential of sore feet if the loose cork moves about.

We also can tell that cork sole manufacture was a viable industry, with improvements in production and equipment actively being pursued. If an advertisement can be believed, at least one producer sold over a million pairs in a single year!

Coming soon – Part Four: Modern resources to recreate mid-19th century cork soles.


  1. A long post, very interesting though. I skimmed it!

  2. THANKS so much for all the great info on cork!!!! Now I just have to find the materials and get crackin'!!! :O)