From Corrections to Creation
The Kingston Penitentiary, Canada’s oldest federal correctional institution, was a maximum security prison operating from 1835 until its closure in 2023. Since its inception, labour has been an integral part of the Kingston Penitentiary’s operations. From the institutions opening in 1835 to the late 1980s the Kingston Penitentiary operated a shoe workshop. While the workshops remained consistent in structure, the shoe workshops evolved with the introduction of industrialization and changing technology of the trade. The tools below were used by Prisoners in the Kingston Penitentiary shoe workshops in the 1950s and 1960’s to construct, mend, and deconstruct shoes.
The workshop was intended to reform and rehabilitate prisoners. Reform programs aimed to build hireable skills that would help inmates find suitable employment after their release and provide an alternative to returning to crime. However, the systems and structure of the workshops show that the focus of the shoe workshop was production and efficiency. The workshop used an assembly line system, where one man only completed one to two tasks within the trade. The use of an assembly line did not provide opportunity to develop the hireable skills necessary for employment within the trade after release.
The division of labour within Kingston Penitentiary was marked by classism and racism. Guards assigned work placements to inmates. Trades training and desirable positions such as the prison print shop were assigned to white inmates and first time offenders, while minority inmates were typically assigned hard labour or facilities positions including stonebreaking, prison maintenance and laundry (The K.P. Telescope vol..5, August 1955, 24) The policies were very exclusionary and made it difficult for many of the inmates to attain desirable positions. The shoe workshops were seen as a mid level assignment, preferred over hard labour within the yards but not as prestigious as print shop placements.
1960s Wooden Shoe Last
Markings on the wooden lasts within the Kingston Penitentiary shoe workshops offer intriguing details. Among them are inscriptions such as “Vogue/Last,” “Robin Last,” and “CL” accompanied by a maple leaf design. Shaped to resemble a foot, these lasts serve as the foundation around which a shoe is moulded. It is worth noting that these lasts bear extensive wear, which speaks to the high level of production of the workshop. Marks of nails are visible on the bottom of the lasts from being hammered to attach the shoe soles during the shoemaking process.
Courtesy of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Fashion Research Collection. 1960s
Kingston Penitentiary Shoe Workshop 1960s
A staff photographer illustrates a scene portraying an inmate constructing uniform shoes in the 1960s. Within the confines of Kingston Penitentiary, an inmate showcases craftsmanship as he fits a shoe on a last using the cobbler’s bench. Adding intrigue to the composition, the inmate sports a stylish haircut reminiscent of the 1950s, notably, the shoes on his person likely originate from this very workshop within the prison. His contorted posture conveys the focused and arduous nature required in this craft. Behind him, the orderly arrangement of shoes and lasts on the rack and bench draws a poignant parallel to the cells within the prison, symbolising the connection between the disciplined bodies of the inmates and the obedient nature of the shoes they painstakingly produce. The industrial prison complex is marked by themes of organisation, order, and obedience. Efficiency was the priority. In this context, it is evident that the inmate depicted likely contributed only 1-2 specific steps in the completion of these shoes.
Photo courtesy of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum
Ad for Hope Shoes in Kingston City Directory, late 19th century
Above is an advertisement for penitentiary-made shoes, boots and moccasins. Prior to the 20th century, penitentiary goods and footwear made in the Kingston Penitentiary were sold on the open market for profit, including local markets. Due to the cheap labour, local businesses saw the penitentiary-produced product as unfair competition since local trades could not keep up with the cheap prices offered by prison labour.
These tools used within the Kingston Penitentiary shoe workshops serve crucial roles in the shoemaking process. It is worth noting that while essential for crafting shoes, the tools also possess the potential to be used as weapons. This inherent danger necessitated a high level of organisation and strict control to ensure the tools were not misplaced or misused. For example, the curved knife served the dual purpose of preventing the knife tip from pulling through the leather and inadvertently cutting the cobbler while trimming soles.
Courtesy of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum.
Metal Anvil. Courtesy of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Fashion Research Collection. 1950s-1960s.
This foot-shaped iron Anvil was used with the Cobbler’s bench to repair or replace the sole of the prison-made shoes.
Metal File used in the Kingston Penitentiary Shoe Workshops. Courtesy of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Fashion Research Collection. 1950s-1960s.
Serrated Knife used in the Kingston Penitentiary Shoe Workshops. Courtesy of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Fashion Research Collection. 1950s-1960s.
Awl used in the Kingston Penitentiary Shoe Workshops. Courtesy of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Fashion Research Collection. 1950s-1960s.
Cobbler’s Wrenches used to maintain machinery. Courtesy of Canada’s Penitentiary Museum. 1950s-1960s. Photo by Ben Harley.
Bright yellow-painted stripes mark the handles of the rusted metal. Colour coding was used throughout the Kingston Penitentiary to identify the workshop the tools belonged to. Yellow was the colour assigned to the shoe workshops. These tools are thought to have been used to repair the machinery essential to shoe making.
Metal Funnel Made from Scrap Materials used in the Kingston Penitentiary Shoe Workshops to Oil Machinery. Courtesy of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Fashion Research Collection. 1950s-1960s.
Collection of Assorted Knives
This collection includes feathering knives, channel openers, and curved knives Prisoners used these tools for etching and precision cuts on shoe leather. Courtesy of Toronto Metropolitan University’s Fashion Research Collection. 1950s-1960s.
The Landis Aristocrat Shoe Stitcher. Montreal Shoe Machinery Co. (MSMC). Type 54. Serial. 1836. Courtesy of The Ingenium: Science and Technology Museum.
Private Collection. Acquired 1978. Photo by Camilla Leonelli Calzado.
Copper green backside of the Landis Aristocrat Shoe Stitcher. On the top side, a piece of leather appears to be patched onto the battered machine, hinting at the possibility that this machine was used until, or even beyond the end of its intended life cycle. This MSMC machine sews around the perimeter of thick, dense leather items and would have been essential to the production of shoes in commercial and prison shoe workshops alike.