Costume Society Ambassadors, Costume Society | November 7, 2014
Concealment: shoes, superstition and surprising discoveries
If you have ever embarked on even the smallest renovation project in your home you will know odd discoveries are not unusual. These normally range from previous homeowners’ dodgy décor, to unusual personal items being left in strange places. However some objects have been hidden for more superstitious and ritualistic reasons. The most common of these are shoes, or to be more precise a shoe and this was the case for my parents when they renovated their 17th century cottage in 1973.
Like many concealed shoes my parents found theirs hidden in a fireplace, in this case near a bread oven. In fact many of the details of the shoe follow a common pattern; it is incredibly well worn, it is a woman’s shoe made of leather and my parents’ house is in Suffolk, which along with Norfolk and Somerset appear to have the highest number of recorded finds. However these figures could be skewed because these are the areas where the most research has been carried out (1).
Now the big questions are of course when was the shoe placed there and why? The house, which was once probably two farm labourers’ cottages appears on a map of the area dated 1650, but the chimney stack was either enlarged or repaired in 1689. As for the date of the shoe (this is where I might need some assistance from you the reader) I would place it in the mid 18th century. If from looking at the photographs you have any other suggestions please add your comments. If I have dated the shoe correctly this means that it was hidden in the fireplace long after the house was built, but perhaps when the bread oven was installed or altered.
There are several theories as to why shoes might be concealed in a building. The most common is that the shoe offers protection from evil influences such as demons, ghosts, witches and familiars. Other more positive theories highlight the connections between shoes as a good-luck or fertility charm (2). Or perhaps they are related to the belief in a household deity, which is found throughout northern Europe (3). It is generally agreed that the shoe was chosen because unlike other items of clothing it retains the shape of the wearer and consequently it contains the animism, or spirit of the wearer, making it a powerful object (4).
The practice of deliberately concealing shoes was probably the most common superstitious practice of the post-medieval period, with finds dated to the 13th century right through to the 1930s(5). Shoes have been found in almost all types of buildings; humble cottages to palaces, churches to cathedrals and industrial buildings including factories and film studios (6). Most finds are discovered in chimneys, walls, under floorboards and in roofs. The high number of shoes hidden in chimneys and ovens (over a quarter of all finds) could be attributed to the fact that these were important places in the home, providing warmth and used for cooking food (7).
Much that is known about concealed shoes comes from the records kept by the Northampton Museum. Since the 1950s the museum has kept an index of finds, which by 2012 contained 1,900 discoveries(8) , not just from Britain but from countries across Europe as well as North America and Australia (9). As more finds are recorded perhaps the motivation for this superstition may become clear. However this is not only reliant on people coming forward, but also on recording as much information as possible. So if you or anyone you know has made a discovery, contact the museum at email@example.com. As for my parents’ shoe, it is still doing its job, maybe not in the chimney, but safely tucked away in a box in the attic.
By Rebecca Morrison, Costume Society Ambassador 2014
1) Pitt, F., Builders, Bakers and Madhouses: Some Recent Information from the Concealed Shoe Index, Archaeological Leather Group Newsletter, Issue 7, February 1998, 5
2) Swann, J., Concealed Shoes in Buildings, Costume, no.30, 1996, 56-69
3) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concealed_shoes (retrieved 29th August 2014)
4) Dixon-Smith, D., Concealed Shoes, Archaeological Leather Group Newsletter, Issue 6, February 1990, 3
5) Dixon-Smith, D., Concealed Shoes, Archaeological Leather Group Newsletter, Issue 6, February 1990, 2 ; 6) Swann, J., Concealed Shoes in Buildings, Costume, no.30, 1996, 56-69 7) Dixon-Smith, D., Concealed Shoes, Archaeological Leather Group Newsletter, Issue 6, February 1990, 3 8) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Concealed_shoes (retrieved 29th August 2014) ;9) Swann, J., Concealed Shoes in Buildings, Costume, no.30, 1996, 56-69