I did not have three thousand pairs of shoes, I had one thousand and sixty. ~ Imelda Marcos, 1987
No one will ever know exactly when mankind first thought about protecting their feet from the natural hazards of weather and the rough ground they walked upon. History does reveal, however, that the importance of doing so was recognized very early in the course of human civilization. Records from ancient Egypt and China all contain references to footwear. Shoes are also mentioned repeatedly in the Bible, and for the Hebrews shoes signified legality, notably in binding a bargain.
Sandals were the earliest and most common footwear. Records indicate that making them was a highly recognized art in ancient Egypt. Among the relics of that civilization are some sandals constructed from plaited papyrus leaves, beautifully and artistically designed. Sandals worn by royalty were distinguished from those of commoners by a long peaked toe. In Mesopotamia (c.1600-1200 BC), the mountain people who lived along the Iranian border wore a type of soft shoe. Made of wraparound leather, it was similar to a moccasin, but there was no difference between the right and left shoe. (It also has no kinship to the soft shoe of vaudeville, which found its way to New York City at the turn of the 20th century on a whole other boat altogether!)
Besides the obvious need for protection, shoes tell a specific story about their wearer, revealing economic and social status as well as personality. (This goes for Goody Two and her brother, the old soft-shoe as well. Remember him? Hes the one who said, "Well, if the shoe fits
") Character is revealed by a reaction to fashion and the condition of the shoe tells how a person stands and walks. Therefore, stand back when Elvis warns about stepping on his blue suede wonders and Dorothy cavorts along the yellow brick road to Oz in her slippers of ruby red.
Shoes figure prominently in all the folklore known to modern man. Consider Mercurys winged sandals (Talaria Crepida), Puss in Boots and Cinderella, whose glass slippers soared her from a life of drudgery into a world of handsome princes who were never toads. Shoes have always been an important aspect of costume and fashion. The custom of throwing shoes after a newly wedded couple was supposed to bring luck. (With the 50 percent divorce rate today, it seems doubtful that even the finest shoes could help much.)
In many countries, the sandal has not changed since mans early development, while in others it has evolved as an art form. It is still the primary footwear in the warmer regions of the world. For some, like the Japanese, sandals reflect the social status of the wearer. Each profession and class has its own distinctive type and pattern, ranging from the Imperial Household to merchants, samurai of old and the like. For the Greeks, the sandal was beauty, for the Romans a practical military vehicle for travel on foot. In the golden days of the Roman Empire, many a sandal was wrought with gold and fine jewels.
The moccasin is the all-purpose shoe in those countries where feet grow cold (not only before weddings and other special occasions, but every day, rain or shine). The puckered seam is its one odd feature, and it appears in moccasin footwear everywhere. The word moccasin comes from the Cree or Algonquin word, maskisina, meaning shoes or footwear. Native Americans fashioned them from the skins of elk, deer and buffalo, and some of the designs incorporated on their surfaces were beautifully wrought and colorfully designed with beads and other materials.
Down through the ages, little attention was devoted to the aspects of proper fit or comfort. (In this case, if the shoe didnt fit, wear it anyway.) This was especially emphasized during the age of the medieval guilds in Europe where workmanship and extravagance reigned supreme. Two of the oddest creations from this colorful epoch were the peaked shoe or Crackow and the Duckbill shoe in Elizabethan England. The former was made with a toe so long that walking was extremely difficult if not impossible. Despite this, believe it or not, it wasnt discontinued until a law was passed prohibiting its wearing. Later idiocy followed with the introduction of the Duckbill shoe. Its maximum width could not exceed five and one half inches, leaving one to ponder about how to enact laws demanding maximum widths of human feet! At this time in sunny Italy, the Chopine, a 13-inch pedestal shoe, became all the rage among powdered ladies of class, and is considered the great grandmother of todays high-heeled shoe. (It was practical too, because when you got tired of walking along the Venetian canal, you could stop and eat some fruit on the shoes provided pedestal that doubled as a small coffee table!)
Throughout the centuries, up to 1850 in fact, the hand tools used by craftsmen barely changed. The 14th century shoemaker used the ancient Egyptian curved awl, chisel-like knife and scraper. However, the 1300s had added pincers, lap stone, hammer and rubbing sticks to the mix.
It would be the shoemakers and inventors of the good old US of A (as Archie Bunker used to say) who would be the first to create successful machinery for producing shoes. The Rolling Machine of 1845 replaced the lap stone and hammer used for pounding sole leather by compacting the fibers. The following year brought the sewing machine by Elias Howe (of cotton gin fame). The year 1858 brought even more innovations and inventions. Lyman R. Blake, a shoemaker, invented a machine that sewed the soles of the shoes to the upper parts. A man named Gordon McKay later purchased Blakes patent and improved on it, creating a new shoe known intelligently as a "McKay."
At the time, the shoes made on this new machine were thought to be a boon to the burgeoning war effort. They counterbalanced the shortage of shoes brought about by the induction of cobblers all over America into both the Confederate and Union armies. But that was not to be, for "McKays" were very difficult to sell. Undaunted, McKay reinvented himself and his shoes as he gingerly approached the shoemakers of America who needed to increase their production. He offered to put his machines in their factories in exchange for a small percentage of what the machine would save on the production cost of each pair. He issued Royalty Stamps, and this soon became the accepted practice of introducing machines into the industry.
McKay very quickly discovered that if he wanted to get paid, his machines had to be operating properly. He made the parts interchangeable and trained a group of experts on their proper operation. The Goodyear Welt Sewing Machine of 1875 became very successful under the management of Charles Goodyear Jr., son of the inventor of vulcanizing rubber fame. He developed many auxiliary machines to aid in shoe production as well.
The dawn of the twentieth century brought little change to the world of shoe fashion. The prim, trim black boots of Queen Victorias time were still seen everywhere, and skirts still demurely brushed the tops of womens feet. Between 1900-1910 (aka The Edwardian Era, Belle Époque, Gilded Age, Beautiful Age), Paris became the matrix of the fashion world. Charles Dana Gibsons Gibson Girl was the ideal of beauty, and there was also the odd preference for narrow feet, which was believed to be a sign of gentility and breeding. (Back to that old Duckbill shoe again!) Wanting to fit in, most people regularly wore shoes that were a full size too small. (Ouch!) In an intense need to belong, some women even opted to have their little toes removed to achieve narrow feet! (Double, no triple ouch!)
Day footwear was typically boots while shoes for nights out on the town were more diverse, the most popular being a court shoe with a small, Louis heel. The toes, which were usually the only part of the shoe to peek out under voluminous skirts, were often adorned with embroidery, metallic, jet or glass beading. Satin and kid were the most common components of evening boots, which had rows of beaded straps embellishing the shin.
Many men of this era often limited themselves to just one pair of shoes that lasted for several years. With the Industrial Revolution, individual craftsmanship gave way to mass production techniques. Soon only the ultra rich could afford custom-made shoes. At the same time, factory shoes meant lower prices and shoes became an affordable accessory for both rich and poor. Things would remain sedate and dainty until 1914. The onslaught of World War I wrought many cosmic changes, not the least of which was in the fashion realm.