Saturday, June 02, 2018
Dating old shoes
When human remains are found it is a reasonably simple process to date them by using radio carbon. Scientists determine the approximate age of carbon-containing objects using the radiation rate of carbon 14. When old shoes are found it is a more subjective process. Dates can be found by discovery of similar looking shoes in dated paintings. or reference in dated literature. Often paintings are not dated and literature unreliable. There is such a dearth of contemporary reference to shoe styles, when they were actually made and how long they were worn that historians require to draw conclusions from the shoe style to the ideal type of the period. This process is not made simple due to the constant change of Western fashion.
To help historians there is a classification or list of key points to note about the shoes. Some are pretty obvious but others rather clever. When an old shoe is found the first thing to do is to name the style. According to Rossi, a respected shoe historian, there are only seven basic types of shoe. These are moccasin, sandals, mules, pumps, boots, clogs and oxfords (lacing shoes). All shoe designs are made up from these primary styles.
Was the shoe worn indoors, outdoors, or both? Many cultural habits such as not wearing shoes indoors can help those trying to determine the historical circumstances which affect the find. For example, in Ancient Crete, the habit was not to wear shoes (sandals) indoors, how this was validated was the amount of wear recorded on the paving stones and steps in ancient buildings.
The colour of shoes, i.e. upper, sole and heel are very informative. Colour or more particularly dying of materials had a cost implication in times past and certain colours such as purple were restricted by law to the clothing of royalty. Because footwear had such strong social implications there was a distinctive pecking order and gender difference within many societies, hence the historian can judge the artefacts using this criterion. Louis XIV wore red high heels on his pinching shoes are banned anyone else in his court from wearing them.
The material and texture of the shoes' upper is important and reveals much about who wore the shoe as well as when it was likely to have been made.
Another important distinguishing feature about footwear is whether they are left and right shoes or interchangeable. The idea of shoes made for either foot is relatively recent and dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century. Prior to this cheap shoes were made to be interchangeable. The shape of the toe of the shoe and the upper are important.
Throughout history as technology has advanced, shoe makers have been able to produce shoes with distinctive shapes. Examples are the long toed shoe was popular in the Middle Ages; the broad shoe a fashion of the Renaissance; and the chopine (platform) shoes from the 16th century .
In a similar way the style and type of heel can be very revealing. Modern high heels have only been available since the middle of last century up until then shoe heels were a means of arch support which elevated the heel. Platform shoes have specific times in history when they were popular and make them relatively easy to date.
The sole of a shoe can tell not just a lot about the shoe and its history but also a lot about the person(s) wearing them. Because certain manufacturing techniques or shoe making skills were distinct to historical periods the historian can use this to date old shoes. To the untrained eye a shoe may appear as a shoe but to the expert the way the shoe has been constructed such as welted, stitched, riveted cemented or moulded can tell a lot about the period in which it was made. If any repairs have been made can be illuminating as can the material the shoe lining is made from.
Special marks or inscriptions on the shoe may indicate the makers name or owner’s name. In the past shoe makers used special markings to remind them of the size of the shoe. This was often done in code to prevent the wearer from knowing his shoe size. This practice was a deliberate attempt to encourage customer loyalty.
Decorations and motifs sometimes appear on old shoes because of the symbolic power shoes had in times past. These make the shoe easier to date.
Rossi WA The brief history of footwear Journal of Current Podiatric Medicine 39:6 1990
Swann J 1977 Classification of footwear Costume vol 11