Shortly after the opening of the Shoes: Pleasure and Pain exhibition, Salem resident Bill Larson contacted PEM with questions about an ancient child’s shoe and other objects he found in his historic home. Over the years, I have talked with several local residents about finding shoes and other objects buried in walls or ceilings, under floor boards, around fireplaces, near doors or windows, and in attics spaces, an historic practice known as “concealed shoes.” An image attached to his email piqued my interest and in December, we set up an appointment to bring the shoe and other objects to the museum to discuss his find.
Larson arrived at the museum with the shoes and other objects carefully rolled in a red towel. The small shoe made from thick brown leather has a crushed and contorted appearance and is now stiffened and brittle with age. The sole and heel show evidence of extensive wear revealing both original construction details and signs of repairs. Covered with a layer of gray dust, the shoe may have been heavily soiled at the time it was hidden away in the building cavity. While renovating the second floor bathroom, Larson removed several layers of sheetrock and plaster ceiling that exposed a large oak beam and discovered the shoe and other objects sitting on top.
The style of the shoe, its materials, and hand construction techniques suggest that it dates to the colonial period, the first half of the eighteenth century or possibly earlier. The upper of the shoe features a wide tongue and two long latchets or tabs that once fastened over the instep of the wearer’s foot with a buckle. The low heel is constructed from layers of leather held in place by wooden shoe pegs.
I first learned of the practice of concealed shoes over two decades ago when British shoe historian June Swann came to study the museum’s shoe collection.
Swann is the leading expert on concealed shoes, a practice associated with warding off evil and offering protection from malevolent spirits to the house and its occupants.
Now retired, Swann served as Keeper of the Boot and Shoe Collection at the Northampton Museum in England where she began documenting and studying the practice of concealed shoes in the late 1950s. Located in a region that was once was a major shoe production center, the Northampton Museum maintains an index of concealed shoes and actively compiles documentation about the practice.
Swann and other scholars have found evidence of this practice in Great Britain, France, Spain, Poland, Australia, Canada, and the eastern United States (particularly New England.) The dates of the practice fall mostly between the 1500s and the 1930s. Both men’s and women’s shoes were used as concealed shoes but a high percentage of finds are of children’s shoes.
Scholars speculate whether carpenters and builders or the occupants of the building took the lead in hiding shoes and other objects during construction or renovation projects.
Many shoes appear to be intentionally mutilated. While historic written documentation about concealed shoes is limited, the Northampton Museum’s index now contains approximately 1900 entries recording discoveries of shoes and associated objects.
In addition to the little shoe, Bill Larson also found a metal object with a pierced decorative designs and wooden object. The rectangular metal pan once had a narrow wooden handle (now missing) and was used to scoop, sift, and carry wood embers or charcoal from a fireplace in the eighteenth century. Apparently shoes were not the only objects that could convey good luck as discoveries of concealed shoes are often accompanied by other household objects. In the early 1990s, I had the opportunity to see cache of late eighteenth and early 19th century concealed shoes discovered by carpenters renovating a house near Salem Common that also included a pewter plate, seashells, bone fragments, ribbons, coins, and part of a glass bottle.
Bill Larson brought with him a report prepared by Historic Salem Inc., a local preservation organization, on his historic home on 17 River Street. Located on a narrow street that runs to the North River, the Benjamin Beckford house was probably built by 1757 or possibly earlier on the site of a seventeenth-century dwelling. Beckford (1711-1773) was a fisherman and yeoman, and had several children by his first wife. He later married a widow who also had children from a previous marriage.
When asked what he plans to do with the historic shoe, Bill Larson replied he plans to keep the objects in the house. So there they will remain as relics of the house’s early history and residents and as evidence of a mysterious folk custom from the distant past.
For more information, on concealed shoes see June Swann, Concealed Shoes in Buildings, Costume, no. 30, 1996, 56-69.
Shoes: Pleasure and Pain is on view at PEM until March 12.