Revisited Myth #16: In “the olden days,” shoes were made straight, not as rights or lefts, so they could be rotated as we rotate tires and would wear evenly.

The Hunter Millinery Shop interiors.  Shot for 2007 CWJ photo essay on Trades.

Some history myths are statements that were true at one time but not true at another. Sometimes part of the myth is true, part is false. Docents and tour guides need to be alert to the context. A good example is the statement above about shoes. Just when are “the olden days?”

According to Al Saguto, master shoemaker at Colonial Williamsburg and one of America’s experts on historical shoemaking, there is some truth to this myth, depending upon your time frame.

“About Shakespeare’s day,” he says, “the wooden forms that the shoes were made on went from being left and right to being straight as an economy, so you only needed one to make the pair of shoes . . . and about 1800, they started to go crooked again. So, for a period of about 200 years, most of the shoes were made on straight forms, but left and right shoes are back in style before the 19th century.”

Al says that even straight-made shoes will quickly conform to the wearer’s feet and turn a little right or left, however shoes were not rotated for the purpose of wearing evenly.

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5 Responses to Revisited Myth #16: In “the olden days,” shoes were made straight, not as rights or lefts, so they could be rotated as we rotate tires and would wear evenly.

  1. Thanks for this post. I enjoy your blog but don’t always take time to leave a comment.

  2. Gerald Ritter says:

    I was confused by the time references. Perhaps sticking to either style would make it easier to follow. i.e., “1600s” or “seventeenth century.”

  3. Curtis Cook says:

    I find this believable. I realize there’s a big difference between shoes and socks, but I do this with my socks in order to extend their useful life, so I see no reason I wouldn’t have done the same with my shoes had I lived in a time when doing so would not have been uncomfortable.

    Although the leather uppers might begin to conform to right and left quickly, the wooden soles would not, and if you switch sides every day, neither would the leather. If you only switched once a year, then yes, you might have a difficulty.

  4. KKS says:

    “[…] however shoes were not rotated for the purpose of wearing evenly.”

    According to the advice given by prolific household writer Miss Catharine E. Beecher, in her 1842 book for hired servants:

    “Strong double-soled shoes should be worn, except in warm weather, and if you will be careful to change your shoes often, so as not to wear them long on the same foot, they will last much longer.” (Pg. 176)
    –Letters to Persons Who are Engaged in Domestic Service by Catharine E. Beecher. New York: Leavitt & Trow, 1842
    Online source: https://books.google.com/books?id=-LpBAAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false

    Perhaps not many people actually did so (I haven’t yet found this advice in her books written for housekeepers), but the idea of rotating shoes to wear evenly is apparently not a myth, at least for the mid-1800s.

    If this passage has a different meaning, I would be interested to know it.

    Kira Sanscrainte

    • Curtis Cook says:

      I agree with you that that’s what it sounds like.

      Another possibility, though I would say a less likely one, is that she might be suggesting rotating two or more pairs of shoes. I wouldn’t think a servant of her era could easily afford that, but who knows?

      When I was in college, nearly forty years ago, I was told that I should never wear the same pair of shoes or sneakers on consecutive days. Giving footwear a day to air out inbetween would not only reduce foot odor, but would also extend the life of the footwear, as the leather and cloth wear more rapidly the more moist they are. I believe it was my mother’s mother who said, “If a pair of shoes will last you a year, two pairs worn on alternating days should last three.” Note that I can’t swear she was right.

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