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There's No Last Any More

Did your house have a last in it? Ours did. So did most of our neighbours' houses. A house without a last in it was rare indeed. And if your last went missing, you could borrow one from next door or across the street.

Nowadays there's no last in my house, apartment actually, and there hasn't been for years and years, more years than I care to count.

A last? A cobbler's last. A shoemaker's last. A last, a hammer, an awl and a knife were standard tools in most households when I was a youngster.

Footwear was made of leather and made to last, no pun intended. True, there were summer sandals with spongy rubber soles and heels, but the tops were still made of leather, light leather, usually cut in strips, the spaces between the strips providing welcome coolness on hot summer days. But sandals enjoyed just a short life and were worn only by children and a few women. Came September and the beginning of the school year, sandals disappeared from view and, by the time the following summer came around, generally young feet had outgrown them.

Not everyone bought sandals each year. They were too expensive.

Canvas topped shoes fell into the same category of summertime footwear. If worn during a shower of rain they quickly became sodden, feet became wet, and socks became smelly.

"You wore socks then?"

No, not really. Wee boys and girls wore stockings, stockings that reached to below the kneecap, were folded over and were held up with garters, white or black bands of elastic circling the leg underneath the stocking fold.

The stockings were hand-knitted by our mothers. Good, substantial stockings. Warm, woolly stockings which, along with sandals or canvas shoes, were gladly discarded in favour of bare feet on warm pavement or cool grass.

Running in bare feet in a grassy field at the end of a hot day's play--that was heavenly, and if an early dew came down you got your feet washed into the bargain! Of course, nothing could compare with bare feet at the seaside, in the water or on the sand. That was real happiness.

How did our mothers have the time to knit socks and stockings, gloves and scarves, pullovers and cardigans, for us all? Simple. There was no television pre-World War II, and, in Ireland, no television for a long time afterwards. And not all houses had radios, or wireless sets as they were then known. Mothers and fathers had time to do things, all sorts of things, like talking and knitting and repairing shoes, and a host of other things that parents no longer have time to do.

It was cheaper to knit than to buy ready-made, and less expensive to repair shoes and boots than to buy new, although such work done at home didn't prevent local shoemakers and drapery shops from having their own place in the local economy. Wool had to be bought somewhere, patterns and knitting needles, and local shops offered wide selections. Similarly, leather had to be bought, and the proper nails, and wax, and spadgets, and whatever else was required, and the local cobbler sold them.

Sheets of shoe leather came in varying sizes. One common size provided enough leather for one pair of half soles and heels. A larger sheet could provide enough leather to halfsole and heel two or more pairs of shoes. Smaller bits, spare bits, scraps, could provide enough leather to replace just the worn front portion of a sole or the back portion of a heel.

The sheets themselves were thick, stiff, and not easily worked. The first task was to outline the size of the soles and heels on the leather. Next came the cutting, and here a curved sharp knife determined the outcome. One errant slip and a sheet of leather could be ruined. In memory, one of the leather-cutting knives resembled the half-moon knife used by Arctic dwelling peoples, as seen in television documentaries to this day.

Next, the shoe to be mended was placed on the last, and the old sole removed. This usually left a ridge of tacks and nails standing upright, which had either to be drawn out or hammered flat before the new sole could be attached.

Keeping the shoe firmly positioned on the last was a delicate chore. If the shoe moved on the last, a nail could skew and create an unsightly hole in the sole. Tap, tap, tap, bang; tap, tap, tap, bang; that was the rhythm to the work when all went well, and tap, tap, tap, "Damn!" when it didn't.

Following one very early effort I was banned from making a second attempt.

After the sole and heel were affixed, the knife was used again, this time to slice off any slight irregularities along the sides and from the front. At this stage the shoe had a golden leather sole on it which had to be waxed to provide a weather coating, and then polished black or brown depending on the colour of the shoe. If it was wintertime, a few strategically placed spadgets might be hammered on to provide traction when walking on icy streets. The end result was new shoes, or as new as Dad could make them.

When I was about seven a new product came on the market that promised to eradicate all the woe and drudgery associated with repairing shoes. This was a sludgy composition that came in a tube. No more cutting, no more tapping, no more hammering. No more "Damn!" Just clean the old sole, run a rasp over it to roughen the surface, squeeze the contents from the tube, with an ordinary kitchen knife spread the sludge evenly and thickly over the sole, and step back and wait. When it dried, presto, a new sole better than the old one!

Dad bought it, squeezed it, spread it, and waited. And waited. Did it dry in two hours? Three hours? Five hours? Over night?

It still wasn't dry when, at last, impatient as only a small boy can be, I stuck a used match in it to see if it had dried, and left one big gouge in the middle of the sole. Sadly, Dad scraped off the sticky mess, bought another sheet of leather, and went back to the tried, tested and true ways he had learned from his own, no doubt, long-suffering Da.

"Where did the old last go?"

Sure there's nothing lasts any more except the memories. Tap, tap, tap, bang; tap, tap, tap, bang!

By the way, those stockings I was telling you about, I once learned how to darn holes in them. But that's another story.

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