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Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Shoe measurement: What's a foot?



Most people assume standards in foot measurement have been with us since earliest civilization. But an accurate and reliable measurement has only been available less than 200 years and an organized shoe sizing system, stemming from general measurements, less than one hundred years.



As early as the seventh century the ear of the barleycorn was used as a means to measure small amounts and it was considered three barleycorns placed end to end was the equivalent of one inch or the width of a thumb. This still left plenty room for variation but it took till 1324 (Brave Heart's battle was 1314) before scholars and tradesmen could convince Edward II (1284-1327) to accept three barleycorn laid end to end would constitute one inch, 39 to a foot, 117 to a yard. Still far from perfect the beginnings of standard measurements were begun.



Whilst Edward II is credited with introducing shoe sizes using the barleycorn this did not take place until 1688. During the reign of his son, Edward III (1312-1377), when pointed toes were prohibited to all who did not have an income of at least forty pounds a year. Pikes could not be worn more than six inches longer than the foot (18 barleycorns) for a plain commoner, twelve inches (36 barleycorns) for a landowner, and twenty-four inches (72 barleycorns) for a baron Princes could wear them as long as they liked.



When a standard shoe system was introduced in the seventeenth century fierce competition between shoe makers and the need to ensure customer loyalty meant many ignored it and continued with their own methods. However, most used the measuring stick.



Prior to 1850 and the introduction of modern manufacturing equipment and standard size footwear, shoes were made by hand using shoe making tools that have been used for centuries. A master craftsman worked the entire day to make a good pair of shoes. There were no left and right shapes per say and customers had their individual feet custom fit. For many century poor people made their own shoes and became quite expert which later facilitated shoe-making as a cottage industry. Workers collected raw materials and made the shoes at home before they were collected and sold. In the 18th and 19th centuries when European peasants migrated many were skilled in shoe and boot making which made them invaluable to the new pioneering communities.



The Industrial Revolution concentrated emphasis on economy and the cottage industry was replaced by factory based production. Greater need for standardisation and reduction of production costs encouraged closing shops (shoe making factories) which had little to commend them as safe working environments. Master craftsman (Clickers) selected and cut the hides for the uppers and soles but semi skilled workers and child labour was used to mass produce the footwear.



Most measurements, even those we use today, have their origins on the lengths of parts of the body or body actions. In Roman Times the foot was the length foot, no surprise there but one inch was a twelth of a foot and measured the span of the middle of the thumb. A yard from the English "gyrd" meaning stick or stick length was the measure of the length of an arm from shoulder to fingertips, or sometimes nose to fingertips. Some tailors still use this when measuring cloth. A furlong was abbreviated from furrow long, and measured about one eighth of a mile or 220 yards, a common distance in foot or horse racing. A mile or the Latin, mille passum meaning 1,000 double paces or strides. In Rome this equated to about 5000 feet, a little short of the imperial mile which measured 5,285 feet.



The human foot has always been prominent in measuring systems. The ancient Greeks used a step for a measurement. This was in actual fact a twostep stride equivalent of two imperial yards. A popular running distance was 100 steps or a stade. The amphitheatre where such races took place was called a stadium.



Retired UK podiatrist and archaeologist, Phyllis Jackson made some startling findings about the feet of Ancient Britons. She discovered on average an adult Saxon foot (male ) was 13.2 inches long whilst a Welsh foot was a mere 9.9 inches.

More Information
Jackson P (2007) Footloose in Archaeology Current Archaeology

Reviewed 21/02/2016

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