A belief in the power of concealed shoes
Investigating the age-old superstition of hiding footwear within the structure of a building.
Image © Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
Imagine that you have been tasked with replacing some rotten floorboards in the attic of an 18th century townhouse somewhere in England. You lift the old wooden planks and are surprised to find in the void beneath a single woman’s shoe, covered by the dust and grime of centuries. As you examine the footwear, you wonder why it was left in such a concealed location and just how widespread such discoveries are.
Many shoes that were deliberately secreted in the fabric of a building have been discovered in Britain, but they have also been found in a number of other countries, including Belgium, the Czech Republic, Finland, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, Spain and Sweden, as well as in Australia, Canada and the United States. Although hidden footwear has been noted from around the USA, such discoveries are particularly concentrated in New England and the north-eastern states – especially in those regions that were colonised by immigrants from England’s East Anglia region.
The UK’s Northampton Museum maintains a ‘Concealed Shoe Index’, which currently contains some 2,000 reports of discoveries. The shoe sizes logged in these records represent all ages (from babies to adults), although almost half of the shoes discovered belonged to children. There is little difference in the ratio of adult male to female shoes.
Northampton Museum and Art Gallery
Most of the finds are of single shoes, although pairs have also been discovered. Most of the secreted shoes found have been made from leather, although wooden clogs and rubber boots have also been found. Almost half of the shoes date from the 19th century and nearly all were well worn, with many of them exhibiting signs of repair. It is no surprise that so many of these centuries-old shoes show signs of wear, as until the 1960s, tanned leather was rarely discarded if it could be re-used. Footwear was traditionally an expensive commodity, usually costing at least an average week’s wage for a pair of shoes and more for boots. Like clothes – which were also kept in service as long as possible (unlike in our throwaway society) – they were repaired, passed on for others to wear, modified to fit and even altered to keep up with changes in fashion.
Most hidden shoes had repairs made to their heels and soles, had patches sewn onto the uppers, or were ‘translated’ (when old footwear was cut up and the components re-stitched to make ‘new’ shoes). Much of the footwear had been cut to provide increased comfort, particularly over bunions and corns, or at the throat. Other shoes had pieces of leather, buckles, buttons and lace removed for re-use, indicating a time of poverty.
Where they were concealed
Secreted shoes are typically found within chimneys, fireplaces or hearths, under floors, above ceilings, around doors and windows and in roofs. The majority of this footwear appears to have been put in its resting place during the building’s construction. Shoes have also been found under stairs and within foundations. Some footwear has been found actually embedded in plastered walls. For example, an adult shoe from the 1620s was found in the plaster halfway up a wall in a house in Devon – something that could not have been done by accident.
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Hidden footwear has been discovered in many different types of building, including barracks, breweries, country cottages, factories, film studios, hospitals, hotels, manor houses, museums, orphanages, pubs, railway stations, schools, workhouses and even two prestigious colleges in the English city of Oxford.
Religious buildings did not escape the attentions of the people who deposited shoes, as concealed footwear has been found in a Benedictine monastery in Germany and an English Baptist church. The oldest secreted shoe so far discovered was behind the choir stalls in Winchester Cathedral, which records show were installed in 1308. Four shoes found hidden in the Czech Republic date from around 1360.
Photo by DAVID ILIFF. License - CC-BY-SA 3.0
It is not always the case that a single shoe may have been concealed. In Wales, building contractors working on the external walls of a 400-year-old cottage discovered nearly 100 single shoes secreted under a fireplace.
Why were shoes hidden?
Most archaeologists and historians are in agreement that superstition was involved. One suggestion is that certain items were concealed in a building’s structure in the hope that they would act as magical charms to protect the occupants against evil influences. From at least the early ‘modern period’ (beginning in the 16th century), it became a common custom to secrete objects in buildings.
While a variety of objects seem to have been used for this purpose, hidden shoes are by far the most common items discovered. One explanation for the particular use of a shoe is that it is the only garment which retains the shape of the wearer (and, as it was believed, his or her personality) and so would attract the evil presence rather than the person being attacked. A popular teaching stated that witches were attracted by the human scent present on footwear, and found themselves trapped after entering into a shoe. Archaeologists call concealed objects of this kind ‘spiritual middens’.
It has been suggested that the very shape of a shoe was significant to the superstitious people of past centuries, as outlines of shoes and the shape of soles have been found scratched on the walls of buildings.
While lasting for several centuries, the general custom of secreting shoes appears to have virtually died out in the UK by about 1900, although in the USA it continued into the 1930s.
There appears to be a long-standing connection between footwear and fertility, and an alternative idea is that shoes served as charms that were hidden in an effort to encourage childbearing within the household. The nursery rhyme about ‘an old woman who lived in a shoe and had so many children, she didn’t know what to do’, is held up by some scholars as an example this belief.
For many years, wedding guests had the custom of (carefully) throwing shoes towards the bride and groom and later, tossing shoe-shaped confetti or tying shoes to the happy couple’s car. While one suggestion is that the shoe in this case originally represented a transfer of authority to the groom, another scholarly interpretation is that it derives from the centuries-old belief that footwear will somehow deter barrenness. In line with this, a popular belief in the northern English county of Lancashire saw women who wished to conceive wearing the shoes of a mother who had just given birth.
An unusual choice of shoe
Some shoe deposits are quite appropriate to the building in which they are concealed. A well-worn pair of army Blucher boots dating to around 1840 was found under the floor of a British military prison at Weedon Barracks in Northamptonshire, and a similar boot from 1863 was discovered in Fort Wellington, Ontario, Canada.
Some footwear, however, seems to be totally inappropriate for the place in which it was secreted. For example, a fashionable woman’s late 17th century shoe was found hidden within a wall in Ely Cathedral, and a pair of children’s shoes (dating to around 1850) came to light in the roof of a monastery.
Concealed in times of fear
It can hardly be a coincidence that most shoes in Britain seem to have been secreted during periods of war, when superstitious practices generally increased in a hope for supernatural protection. These conflicts included the war with Spain in the 16th century, the English Civil War some 55 years later, the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of 1688, the Seven Years War (1756-63), the late 18th century French Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars of 1803-15 and the Crimean War, which began in 1853.
A variety of accompanying articles have been found hidden with shoes, most of which have been other items of dress. These include aprons, baby clothes, belts, caps, corsets, cravats, dresses, gloves, hats, jackets, shawls, shirts, smocks, socks, stockings, trousers and wigs.
Other items found concealed with footwear include bottles, candlesticks, cats, chickens, coal, dolls, flowers, horse skulls, lamps, nuts, pebbles, rats, seeds, tobacco pipes, pages from a Bible, hymn books, prayer books, tools, toys and wineglasses. ‘Witch bottles’ (ceramic or glass vessels designed to draw in and trap harmful intentions directed at their owners) and written charms have also been discovered, as has a doll’s eye fixed into the gable of a house built in 1578 – perhaps as hoped-for protection against the ‘evil eye’. As with the shoes, most of these objects are broken, incomplete or worn out. When wineglasses have been discovered, their stems appear to have been deliberately snapped.
Occasionally – almost like a modern-day ‘time capsule’ – there are papers which contain names. These have included a list of army deserters, a newspaper report of a court case, and a scrap of paper on which was written ‘Mary Nichols 1819’.
Superstition still a powerful force
It is a fact that the old superstition of secreting shoes in an effort to gain protection or hoped-for fertility – long after the custom fell out of favour with the general population – is still done on rare occasions today.
One shoe manufacturer is said to have incorporated a pair of women’s high-leg boots in the foundations of a new factory built in 1964. In 1983, a wellington boot worn by a builder was buried in the foundations of a development in the English city of York, and in 1991 an estate worker's shoe replaced an old item of footwear discovered in Knebworth House – one of the UK’s most famous stately homes.
In another example, a builder who was restoring a late 17th century fireplace in an English farmhouse found a child's shoe wrapped in thick paper lying on a brick ledge above the lintel. However, rather than having been put in place when the building was constructed, the shoe appeared to have been hidden when the fireplace was covered up during the late 19th or early 20th centuries.
When word spread around the village, an elderly man approached the homeowner and warned her not to take it out of the house, as it would ‘bring back luck’. However, the woman ignored the advice and, in her own words, “Nothing’s happened.”
Northampton Museum receives two or three notifications each month from as far afield as Australia, Canada and the USA. However, many homeowners are unwilling to donate their finds to the museum – ‘just in case’.
This article was originally published on page 50 of the May 2018 issue of SATRA Bulletin.