Strange Folklore: The Mystery of Concealed Footwear

Collection of St Edmundsbury Heritage Service, St Edmundsbury Borough Council – Image by Edmund PatrickCC BY-SA 3.0

A Very Peculiar Practice

Footwear such as shoes have been part of folklore and folktales for centuries and there are many tales and rhymes that refer to them.  For example Cinderella’s glass slippers, The Red Shoes, by Hans Christian Anderson, the nursery rhyme of The Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, and I am sure you can think of many other examples. There are also many traditions and customs concerning footwear and a very strange practice of concealing them in buildings.  Presented here is a brief discussion concerning this very peculiar practice of concealment.

Hidden Footwear

In many parts of Europe and other parts of the world footwear has been found concealed in the  structure of buildings for many centuries. They are often found hidden in parts of the structure such as under floors, in ceilings, roofs, chimneys and other structural cavities.  The reason for this is unclear.  Some people suggest  they may be lucky charms intended to bring good luck or ward off evil supernatural beings such as ghosts, witches and spirits. 

Another suggestion is that they were intended to bring fertility to the females in the home and may have been an offering to a household deity.  This may have been a deity or spirit of some kind such as Hestia, the Greek goddess of the hearth and home, the family, domesticity and the state.

Footwear has been found concealed within the structure of many different types of buildings.  For example, some but not all, public houses, country houses, a Baptist church and a Benedictine monastery and many other ordinary and less ordinary buildings have been discovered to hold hidden shoes.   

The Concealed Shoe Index

The English town of Northampton has a strong tradition of shoe making.  The local museum keeps a Concealed Shoe Index that has collected 1900 reports of findings of concealed shoes by 2012.  About half are believed to date from the 19th century.  It appears the majority of  finds had been worn or repaired and strangely most finds were of single items, rather than pairs and approximately half were children’s shoes.  The practice of concealing footwear  appears to have faded out during the 20th century.

Spiritual Middens

Since the late Middle Ages it was quite a common practice to hide different objects in the structures of buildings.  Many different kinds of objects have been found including such peculiar items as horse skulls, witch bottles, dried cats, charms written on paper and many other strange objects.  There is an idea that the items were intended as lucky charms to ward off evil or perhaps attract good luck. Hidden caches of such items are sometimes called spiritual middens.

Modern Practice

After 1900, the practice seems to have tailed off. Although it is rarely practised, documented, or  admitted today, there have been a few instances in recent years of such concealments.  The shoe manufacturer, Norvic deliberately placed a pair of women’s  boots in the foundations of its new factory in 1964.  More recently, after finding an old court shoe behind wood paneling, at Knebworth House, an English stately home in Hertfordshire,  it was replaced by one of the estate worker’s shoes to maintain custom.

Location of Finds

The custom of shoe concealment seemed to have been more prevalent in Europe and the USA, especially in New England and northeastern states.  There were many immigrants to these areas from places where the custom was practiced such as East Anglia, in England and other European regions.

A study by June Swann a British footwear historian,  revealed the Concealed Shoe Box Index, in Northampton Museum showed 22.9% of items found were hidden ceilings and floors and the same number accounted for roofs, while 26% were hidden in chimneys, fireplaces and hearths. Other places of concealment were around doors and windows, under stairs and buried in foundations.

Footwear has been found concealed in many different types of build used for many different purposes.  For example, thay have been uncovered in public houses, factories, warehouses, ordinary and stately homes and even in the Oxford colleges of St. John’s and Queen’s.  An English Baptist Church in Cheshire, England and a Benedictine monastery in Germany have also rendered up concealed footwear.  The earliest known find was discovered in Winchester Cathedral at the back of the choir stalls dated from 1308.

Characteristics of Hidden Footwear

There have been many different fashions, styles and types of footwear found that have been deliberately concealed.  Although the majority were made of leather;  rubber boots and wooden clogs have been found and others made from other materials.  From what has been found 98% appear to have been worn or repaired at some time prior to concealment.

All ranges of sizes have been found from babies to adult footwear. Slightly more female footwear has been found making about 26.5% against 21.5% of male and about 50% accounted for children’s footwear.  It is usually single items that are found rather than in pairs.

Although the custom of concealing shoes may seem quirky, finds do render up important information to archaeologists and historians.  As well as giving clues to what fashions and styles people from another time wore they also tell us about the different types of materials that were available.  They also give clues to the social status of the dwellers or uses of the building and the different types of occupation they were involved in and the local economy.

Explanations

Of course, the big question is why would anyone want to conceal such items in the first place?   There are many answers possible but one is that they were fertility charms.   There has been a long association between footwear and fertility.  For example, there is the custom where a shoe is thrown after the bride as she leaves or tied to the back of her car or carriage. Another example is the nursery rhyme called The Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe.  There are many versions similar to the one below,

Joseph Martin Kronheim (1810-) – Public domain
There was an old woman who lived in a shoe.
She had so many children, she didn't know what to do.
She gave them some broth without any bread;
Then whipped them all soundly and put them to bed. 

In the English county of Lancashire when a woman wanted to conceive she tried on the shoes of another who had successfully given birth.  This practice was called smickling.

Witch Traps

There is an idea that the hidden footwear was deliberately placed to act as a protective charm against supernatural beings such as demons, ghosts, witches and other undesirable entities. There was an old belief that witches were attracted to the human odour found in used footwear and attempt to enter the shoe.  However, once they entered they became unable to turn around or go backwards to get out and were trapped.

Another idea is that shoes had protective powers and may be associated with an unofficial 14th century saint named John Schorne.  He was the rector of the English Buckinghamshire village of North Marston. He was a very devout and godly man who was credited with a number of miraculous cures including toothache and gout.   According to legend, one year during a particularly bad drought he discovered a  well whose waters had wonderful curative properties.  He was renowned for his piety and dedication to God and there is a tradition that he trapped the devil in a boot.   Nevertheless, the idea of trapping the devil in a boot or shoe existed long before Shorne and gout was also sometimes called “the devil in the boot.”

Household Deities

Archaeologists and historians think that the custom of hiding footwear in buildings may be connected with ancient pagan deities and spirits and the legend of Shorne may relate to the protective power footwear was once seen to hold.  Therefore an old shoe under the floorboards or buried under the fireplace may be seen as an easy and prudent tactic to thwart malevolent beings just in case.

Substitute for Sacrifice

Another idea is that the hiding of footwear was a substitute for sacrificing something live such as an animal or even a child.  In some places around the world babies and children were sacrificed or placed in foundations.  From  Geofrey of Monmouth, in his pseudo-history, “History of the Kings of Britain,” we learn when King Vortigern was looking to build a stronghold the walls kept collapsing. His wise men advised the sacrifice of a child to put a stop to this.  The child chosen for this sacrifice was the young Merlin who persuaded the King there was an underground pool that held two fighting dragons.  Vortigern excavated the pool and found the dragons. Merlin was set free and went on to fame and glory with King Uther and King Arthur, while Vortigern had to find another site.  Certainly an offering of footwear is much more humane than a human or animal sacrifice and leather is an animal product.

The Essence of the Wearer

There may also be another reason.  Many types of footwear adapt shape to suit the wearer.  It is not unusual for new shoes or boots to have to be “broken” in by the wearer before they feel comfortable. They are seen as containers and were believed to contain some of the “essence” of the wearer possibly guarding against evil but perhaps also preserving that essence for the future.  Nevertheless, the concealing of footwear in buildings is still very much a mystery and will probably remain so.

© 12/08/2020 zteve t evans

References, Attributions and Further Reading

Copyright August 12th, 2020 zteve t evans

9 thoughts on “Strange Folklore: The Mystery of Concealed Footwear

  1. Pingback: Strange Folklore: The Mystery of Concealed Footwear — Under the influence! (Reblog) – The Midlode Mercury

  2. Possibly the most mysterious thing here is that we have no definite record of why the shoes were concealed despite how recently (in a historical sense) some were placed. We have records of good luck charms and rituals from well before the 1900s and it seems like the people who placed the 1964 Norvic shoes must have had some idea of why they were doing it. Perhaps there wasn’t just one reason and all of these proposed explanations played a role.

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