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last

A mold or form of the human foot, made of wood, on which shoes are formed. — Webster, 1882

The cobbler’s last will last until he has dropped his last coin into the till. – Exercise in identifying parts of speech, 1895.

     
Almanzo took off his moccasins and his socks, and stood on a piece of paper while the cobbler carefully drew around his feet with his big pencil. Then the cobbler measured his feet in every direction, and wrote down the figures… That day the cobbler had whittled out two wooden lasts, just the shape of Almanzo’s feet. They fitted upside-down over a tall peg on his bench, and they would come apart in halves. –Farmer Boy, Chapter 23, “Cobbler”

A last is a mold or form of the human foot, made of wood, on which the leather for shoes was formed. They are still used when custom boots are made. Until recently, the last was always carved out of wood (usually in one piece, not two, as Wilder describes), but now fiberglass is often used. While a cobbler could carve a pair of lasts for each order made by a client, he might also keep lasts in various sizes or re-use ones made for particular adult clients (whose feet had stopped growing) when new shoes or boots were ordered. In the handwritten Farmer Boy manuscript, the cobbler doesn’t carve new lasts based on the measurements of Almanzo’s feet; he makes adjustments to larger lasts he already has so that they are the size and shape he requires.

Almanzo Wilder made some of his own shoes as an adult. Cobbler’s tools and hand-made shoes belonging to Mr. Wilder used to be on display at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home & Museum in Mansfield, Missouri. It’s interesting to note that Almanzo’s feet were different sizes – his right foot was much smaller than the left – and this fact is sometimes mentioned when speculating that Almanzo had suffered from polio during his childhood. People who had polio can have feet that are two different sizes, especially if the polio affected only one side. Early De Smet resident Neva Whaley (1872-1978) recalled that Almanzo was crippled, and Wilder friend and Mansfield resident Neta Seal (1904-1996) said in a 1993 interview that she believed Almanzo’s foot deformity was something he was born with. Circled in the photo here you can see wooden lasts that belonged to Almanzo Wilder, both with pieces of leather upon them, showing shoes in the process of being made.

What the cobbler threw at his wife. While the construction of boots and shoes is discussed in Farmer Boy, this is not the only Little House book in which a shoe last is mentioned. In The Long Winter (see Chapter 14, “One Bright Day”), Caroline Ingalls makes a joke as she serves the last of the butter during the Hard Winter, saying it was “what the cobbler threw at his wife.” Carrie and Grace are puzzled, but the older girls think of two cobbler’s tools that fit Ma’s pun: his last (final) and his awl (all).

     

last (FB 23; TLW 14), see also cobbler