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A pointed instrument for piercing small holes, as in leather or wood; used by shoemakers, saddlers, cabinet-makers, &c. The blade is differently shaped and pointed for different uses, as in the brad-awl, saddler’s-awl, shoemaker’s-awl, &c. — Webster, 1882

“I had to warm the butter,” [Ma] she said. “It was frozen as hard as a rock. I could not cut it. I hope Mr. Boast brings us some more soon. This is what the cobbler threw at his wife.”

While there were a number of places where Laura Ingalls Wilder might have mentioned an awl or the use of the tool, it only appears in a humorous play on words where “awl” is a homonym for “all,” meaning the whole quantity or amount. Carrie and Grace are too young to know what Ma means, and Laura and Mary each have a different word in mind. Do you remember what Laura guessed?

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Laura’s reply (the “last,” meaning the end of the existing butter, a “last” also being an item used by cobblers) is believed to be the usual reply to the joke, as “This is what the cobbler threw at his wife” was a fairly common joke in the 19th century and didn’t require knowledge of homonyms.

An awl was a pointed instrument used for piercing holes; they come in a variety of sizes and can have a straight or curved tip, depending on use. It pre-dated the sewing needle but never replaced it, although there are awls which have a hole in them and are threaded like a needle. The awl was widely used to punch holes in leather or canvas or hides, when sinews or leather thongs were used for lacing. A 19th century advertisement is shown at right.


awl (FB 23)
     “that was his awl,” describing the last of the butter (TLW 14)