Jon de Vos: For want of a shoe |

Jon de Vos: For want of a shoe

I have a pair of shoes in my closet that I look at but never wear. They have a seam that runs vertically from toe to heel. The two halves meet with a playful upswept joint in a design heavily influenced by P.T. Barnum with a little Gandalf tossed in for whimsy. I look at them and shake my head; I have no idea what I was thinking when I bought them. I’m not an elf, yet these shoes would hardly be more distinctive if they had a sprightly sprig of bells on the toes.

In The Medieval Ages … dang! I hate when people do that. In Europe, during the mid-1400s, size mattered. The degree of your royalty was reflected in the length of the toe on your shoe. Longer toes meant a bigger crown. The King’s shoes had toes that extended two feet beyond his own foot. They were stuffed with hay and the tips were supported by chains that attached to the knee. This type of show, er, shoe, was called a crackowe, named after the Polish city of Krakow in honor of Queen Anne, the Polish wife of England’s King Richard II. The Polish court was renowned for it’s gaiety and all of Europe latched onto shoes that stuck way out to there. Lest folks get too frivolous, Edward III, who ruled England until 1377 laid down the law: commoners could only wear a six-inch toe, gentlemen were limited to fifteen inches and the Royal Family could do whatever they pleased. These shoes were also called “pistachios” and announced to the world that you were wealthy and had little interest in plowing or butchering.

One-third of the population of Europe succumbed to the bubonic plague known as the “Black Death” between 1347 and 1350. Survivors indulged themselves in gay and flippant fashions, like crackowes and the opulent braids and laces of the times.

Long toes had disappeared by the end of the Middle Ages, er, the early 1500s, replaced by round and squared-off toes. At first they were a sensible size but during the reign of Henry VIII, around 1540, shoes became absurdly wide and were called foot bags. Around 1570 heels emerged and by 1600 three-inch heels were common.

Women brought back pointy-toed shoes in the mid-1600s, declaring them, “more feminine.” Samuel Pepys, the British historian who chronicled the Great London Fire, wrote in his diary on the 22nd of January 1660, “This day I began to put on buckles to my shoes.” Buckles quickly caught on with women too, replacing their ribbon ties. In the mid-1700’s, women decided their shoes should match their dresses (go figure) and were embroidered and trimmed with gold and silver braids that could be moved from shoe to shoe. Men’s shoes and boots had always been crafted for a right and a left foot but women’s shoes were usually identical right to left. Leather uppers and wooden heels became fashionable about this time. Soles were made of pounded leathers.

Basically, shoes were made the same way for 3,000 years and it took the American Civil War to change things. The war consumed every boot and shoe that could be produced by both sides. Each pair of boots took many hours to fashion and assemble by hand and civilians were reduced to tying rags around their feet. Entrepreneurs and engineers came to the rescue by mechanizing the elaborate process of making footwear.

In 1871, Charles Goodyear patented a machine for sewing boots and shoes and the rubber heel was first patented in 1899, which brings me to the point of this column:

Where does a guy go for a sprig of bells?

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