Shoes and other kinds of footwear are not often encountered in archeological collections. This is because organic materials like leather and fiber typically decompose when they are lost or discarded. Sometimes, organic materials can survive in the archeological record if they have been preserved in an extremely wet – or extremely dry – environment. Here at NMSC, we have cataloged and rehoused our fair share of synthetic rubber heels, but coming across an intact leather shoe in an archeology collection is pretty rare. While rehousing collections from Salem Maritime National Historical Park, we were surprised to find quite a few examples of leather footwear. Historical archeologists are comfortable dating ceramics and glass because they are found in abundance. Since shoes aren’t encountered nearly as often, they can be problematic to date. Here are some helpful tips…
When ascertaining the date of a shoe, there are few basic questions to consider. What type of footwear are you dealing with (boot, slipper, etc)? Is there any evidence of manufacturing technique? And, what are the basic stylistic elements of the shoe?
Type of Footwear
If you can identify the type of footwear you are dealing with, you have already begun to narrow your date range.
Boots were popular for men in the 17th century. Charles I suffered from rickets and needed supports to help him walk. A shoemaker crafted boots for him to hide the supports, and boots quickly became the rage in fashion for men. They fell out of fashion by 1700, replaced by heeled shoes with ribbons or buckles. They did not become popular for men in general wear until the turn of the 19th century. Boots were not commonly worn by women until the 19th century.
Buckled shoes were worn by men and women during the whole of the 18th century. Women also wore mules during this period. By the late 1700s/early 1800s, tied shoes replaced buckled ones, and men once again wore boots.
Tied shoes were worn by men and women in the late 1700s into the 1800s. Thomas Jefferson’s lace-up shoes were controversial in social circles because they deviated from the buckled shoes that most common men wore at the time. Latchet tie shoes had one or two pairs of lace holes. These were worn by men and women from the late 18th century into the 19th century. Bluchers had 3-6 pairs of lace holes. They were common for men from 1790 on, and for women from the 1890s on. Brogans were heavy, pegged ankle-high shoes that served as common work shoes for men from the mid 19th century on.
Buttoned boots and shoes were common for women in the 1870s.
Elastic-sided boots (or Congress boots) appeared in women’s dress in the 1840s, were popular in the 1850s, and were losing popularity by the 1860s.
Slippers were common for women during the first half of the 19th century. A slipper is a slip-on shoe with no fastening, a flexible sole, and made of lightweight leather (usually kid). Bright-colored leather was popular from the 1790s to 1815; subdued colors and worsted wool uppers were popular later. Slippers were standard wear for dancing, formal occasions, and indoor wear. They were commonly worn on streets by the 20th century, when they became known as pumps.
Sneakers, or rubber-soled shoes, were first made in the US in the late 1800s. The word “sneaker” was coined by Henry Nelson McKinney, because a rubber sole was so quiet. US Rubber’s footwear division chose Keds as the name for their product in 1916. Keds were mass-marketed as canvas-topped sneakers in 1917.
Evidence of Manufacturing Techniques
Certain traits are clues to manufacturing processes, which have concrete dates of origin.
- Early shoes were made straight (with no differentiation between the right and left foot). Right/left differentiation is seen in men’s shoes from the 1790s on, and in women’s shoes from the 1820s on.
- Shoe uppers were machine-stitched from about the 1850s on.
- The McKay sewing machine stitched the sole to the upper. This was widely used by the 1860s.
- For machine-stitching, look for regularly-spaced, uniform stitches.
- Elastic-sided boots were first seen in the 1840s.
- Pegged soles are found on men’s shoes from 1811 on, and on women’s shoes from 1840 on.
- Soles were pegged by machine from 1860 on (again, look for uniformity).
- The first rubber-soled shoes were made in the U.S. in the late 1800s.
- The first rubber heel was patented by Humphrey O’Sullivan in 1899.
Basic Stylistic Elements
Toe shape and heel size are significant indicators of the date of a shoe.
Toe shape – Toes were square during the 17th century, then pointy during the 18th century. By 1800, oval toes began to replace pointy ones. Oval predominated until 1830 (with some women’s shoes exhibiting a round toe from 1805-1815), and in 1830 toes turned square. By the 1860s, round toes were popular, with oval returning in the 1880s.
The Breakdown in Toe Shape:
1600s – SQUARE
1700s – POINTY
1800-1830 – OVAL (ROUND FOR WOMEN 1805-1815)
1830-1860 – SQUARE
1860 – ROUND
1880s – OVAL
Heel – Heels were high and thick during the 17th century. By the latter half of the 18th century, they became thinner and more subtle. By 1790, no heel or a low heel was common in men’s shoes, with a spring heel (single layer of leather) or low stacked heel common in women’s shoes. In the 1830s, heels returned to men’s shoes, but disappeared from women’s shoes until about 1860.
An example… (this shoe is not from the SAMA collection)
The above lady’s slipper is a straight shoe, which means it was made before the 1820s. It has a spring heel (thin strip of leather inserted at the heel), which means it dates sometime from the 1790s to the 1820s. And it has a pointy toe, which means it dates to 1800 or before. So, I would date this shoe to the 1790s.
Shoes and boots are wonderful components of fashion history, and also attest to the lifestyles of those who wore them: consider delicate kid slippers versus heavily worn leather brogans. In an archeological collection, these artifacts can also help to date the contexts in which they are found. With proper examination, a latchet-tie shoe with a low heel and oval toe can be as diagnostic an archeological artifact as a piece of feather-edged pearlware.
Brooke, Iris. Footwear: A Short History of European and American Shoes. New York: Theater Arts Books, 1971.
Geisler [Costello], Jessica. Tracing the Footsteps of Ritual: Concealed Footwear in Quincy, Massachusetts. M.A. Thesis, University of Massachusetts Boston. Copyright 2003, Jessica Geisler [Costello].
Lawlor, Laurie. Where Will This Shoe Take You? A Walk Through the History of Footwear. Walker and Company, 1996.
Rexford, Nancy. Women’s Shoes in America, 1795-1930. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 2000.
Swann, June. Shoes. B.T. Batsford, June 1982.