The Elves and the Shoemaker

Elves and the Shoemaker

The Elves and the Shoemaker is a tale from the Brothers Grimm.

In it, a poor shoemaker has only enough leather for one pair of shoes. He cuts the shoes out and leaves them ready to make in the morning. In the morning when he gets up, he finds (usually) two pairs of completed shoes. He sells them and buys leather enough for two pairs of shoes, and the next day he finds four pairs of completed shoes. In some tellings of the story, the elves just make the shoes he has cut rather than doubling them. Things continue in this way until the shoemaker becomes rich. At that point, he waits up to see how the shoes are being made, and sees that it is a couple of elves who are doing the work. He and his wife make the elves some clothes as a thank-you gift, and the elves dress up and take off in a happy ending.

Brownielocks has a version of the story from the “Fractured Fairytales” series. Pull out the [amazon_textlink asin=’1604181605′ text=’Venn Diagram’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’us-1′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’950b25cc-8555-11e8-88de-45a75043ba55′] and compare it with the original.

Paul Galdone has done a very nice picture book version of  The Elves and the Shoemaker. Fair warning: the elves are naked at the beginning of the book. When Kathy used this in her classroom, she gave the elves some britches with a marker. You know your class and community, and can decide the best approach for your students.


  • There is no evidence that the Brothers Grimm wrote this story for the purpose of teaching multiplication, but they sure could have. The number of shoes produced (whether the elves magically increase the leather in the version you read or not) doubles each day. Then, since the shoes come in pairs, the total number of shoes is double the number of pairs. This is perfect for studying doubling, the 2s fact family, and the difference between addition and multiplication. For young students, provide a stack of [amazon_textlink asin=’159441596X’ text=’shoe cutouts’ template=’ProductLink’ store=’us-1′ marketplace=’US’ link_id=’d82b4a1b-8555-11e8-9988-6504953fd094′] and let them count out the shoes as they listen to the story.
  •  Here is a PDF file with a modern retelling of the story and a reproducible worksheet that could be used with the traditional story just as well. It includes charts to lead students to notice the pattern.
  • Here is a kindergarten lesson on graphing that happens to involve shoes. If you need to do some graphing, why not bring the shoes in?

Social Studies

  • Comparing clothing from different times and places is in the frameworks, and the Bata Shoe Museum is one way to meet that requirement. Not only are there lots of cool pictures, but they are labeled with excellent new words like “kabkab,” “bachouche,” and “mokhwa.” Students will have a great time exploring this site, and there are some fun lesson plans, too. Add some shoe drawings to your classroom timeline or world map.
  • Here is a five-minute promotional video showing the process of making custom shoes. This shows how the flat leather pieces are made into shoes, something that students in a modern classroom might find hard to imagine. The video shows hammering and sewing, but it also shows the use of computers. This video could provide a starting point for an interesting discussion on how the use of computers has changed the work world. Here is a description from Colonial Williamsburg of the work of an 18th century shoemaker for comparison.
  • Shoemakers still exist, and so do cobblers (generally nowadays a cobbler repairs shoes), but most shoes are made in factories.That doesn’t mean that there aren’t plenty of people working in the field of footwear! Here is a brief reading on what it takes to become a shoe designer. Other workers in the field include tanners, plastics or leather production workers, machine operators, cutters, managers, clerical workers, transportation workers, and retailers. Here is a chart from the U.S. government showing what these folks earned in 2000.
  • Elves are found in Scandinavian and Germanic folklore, where they can be kind and helpful or mischievous. Challenge students to think of other, similar creatures in the folklore of other countries. This could be a good library research project, but is less suited to online research, as searches will tend to turn up computer game and Lord of the Rings sites more often than traditional folklore. If you are teaching older students, though, this could be a good time to compare traditional folklore and modern folklore-based games.


  • Some of the social studies connections lead into discussions of economics, particularly with regard to labor and resources.
  • EconEdLink has a lesson plan using the story to convey the concept of capital resources.
  • Modern machine-made shoes can be made in less than one man-hour (which is to say, the total amount of time all the humans operating the machines spend on one pair of shoes, added together, totals less than one hour), while the traditional method discussed in the story produced less than one pair of shoes a day for each worker. Except elves. Divide your class in half. Let one side make elf puppets individually while the other half does the same project as an assembly line. Here is a PDF template of an elf puppet to cut and assemble. For the assembly line, “hire” one student to color the pages, one to cut them out, one to one to put them together with paper fasteners, one to check the quality of each step of the work, one to gather the finished puppets and stack them, and so on until each student has a job. There can be more than one worker in each position, of course. On the “cottage industry” side of the room, just have each student make a paper bag puppet. Compare the output of both sides. For example, was one side faster than the other? Is one set of products more uniform? Is the quality level the same? Were the workers equally happy with their jobs? Did one group end up with more puppets per worker than the other? Have older students write about their experience with the division of labor. With all the puppets completed, have the the class consider how they might best plan a play. Would the assembly line method work for that as well? If so, repeat the assembly line vs. cottage industry experiment with the preparation of the play. Ask older students to write essays based on their experience.

Character Education

  • The elves are helpful and hardworking. The shoemaker is hardworking (most versions of the story specify this, and say that he is poor “through no fault of his own”) and grateful to the elves. The shoemaker’s wife is generous and thoughtful. This story is just full of good examples for character lessons. Make awards in the name of each of the characters (human-shaped cutouts would work, and the students can make them) and give them to the students when they show generosity, gratitude, helpfulness, diligence, and so on throughout the unit. Take this a step further and have students give the awards to one another. Maybe they’ll give one to you, too!
  • One of the keys to the story is that the elves do their good deed secretly, without expecting a reward. Have the students put all their names in a hat and have each pull out another kid’s name. Each student is the Secret Elf for the classmate whose name they chose. Explain that the object of the game is to do kind and helpful things for the other student without letting him or her know who is doing it.  Continue this for a week, a day, or the length of the unit. At the end of the activity, discuss how the game affected the atmosphere of the class.
  • At the end of the story, when the elves find the clothes that the shoemaker and his wife made for them, they conclude that they are now so rich that they no longer need to work, and they dance away. The shoemaker, who was also rich at this point in the story, must have continued working, because the story says that “everything he did prospered.” As a writing prompt, ask students whether they would have quit working if they were in the elves’ place.
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