In present-day Christchurch we might be finding the road a little uneven at the moment with our potholes and repair patches, but what was the situation like for our early settlers? The terrain was different for one thing: envision dirty, dusty unpaved roads, attempting to balance in the mud whilst holding one’s skirts and wearing a shoe with a 30 mm sole waist (sounds uncomfortable!).
Unsurprisingly, the footwear that we are uncovering from this time seems to be suitable for dealing with the harsher terrain of colonial living – our assemblages usually contain more sturdily manufactured shoes, such as those with added hobnails for grip, or heel rands and metal plates to aid stability and strength.
More delicate (as well as the hard-wearing) examples are advertised for sale in local 19th century newspaper advertisements, so the comparative abundance of sturdy shoes in our assemblages could indicate that more fragile shoes were either a less popular choice for the perils of colonial living, were repaired lots, or simply did not survive as well in the archaeological record.
For an artefact made from a relatively soft material, we have actually recovered a surprisingly large number of leather shoes, particularly underneath the floorboards of 19th century houses. We have also unearthed possible sites of footwear manufacture or repair.
So what information can we derive from these shoes? We know that some methods of constructing shoes were more labour intensive and produced better quality products than others, thus making those shoes more expensive to manufacture. So we can make some judgements about the possible status of the wearer and the kinds of occasions for which they may have worn them. Also, more generally, different sizes and shapes can simply indicate the presence of women or children, who are often less visible in the archaeological and historical records.
But, as is generally the case with many artefacts, extracting precise dating evidence from footwear can be difficult. There have been some suggestions that it’s possible to date footwear based on stylistic trends. For example, square toed shoes became more rounded after the 1870s and the introduction of automatic shoe manufacture lead to the return of high heels to woman’s fashion in the late 1880s (Anderson 1968: 59, Stevens 2005: 17; Anderson 1968: 59). However, many archaeologists argue that style and changing fashions alone do not provide enough evidence to date footwear (Anderson 1986: 64).
Though not without its own pitfalls, the analysis of footwear construction techniques can provide a better indication of age than style can. For instance, a shoe manufactured with the Goodyear welt technique tells us that this shoe could not have been manufactured before 1875, following the development of Charles Goodyear Jr’s revolutionary technique. This technique was an automatic sewing method using a curved needle to attach the upper shoe leather to a unique ridge on the bottom of the insole. This new method prevented the usual wear and tear of stitches on the top of the insole typically made by the wearer’s foot (Anderson 1968: 61). The introduction of adhesives for sole attachment in the early 20th century and the use of rubber for waterproofing on shoe soles can also provide us with a terminus post quem date, after Charles Goodyear Jr’s father discovered the vulcanisation of rubber (perhaps Goodyear was the Victorian equivalent of Jimmy Choo?). Rubber began to be utilised in the waterproofing of footwear in the mid 19th century, though complete rubber heels did not appear before 1895.
Other useful dating indicators are the peak popularities of footwear manufacture techniques, the standardisation of shoe sizing and the use of straight lasts (for shoes with indistinguishable lefts and rights) until 1860 (Anderson 1968: 59). But as dating by style or technique is related largely to manufacturer choice, it’s preferable to date shoes in relation to their context, and other artefacts with more definitive manufacture or deposition dates.
Explaining the history and our interpretation of shoe construction techniques is (hopefully) interesting, but how do we as archaeologists identify them? Of all of the common artefact types that we examine, shoe analysis is fraught with the most peril. This is largely because the identification of manufacture techniques is so subjective. For instance, what appears to be a diamond hole to one person (which is often all that remains of a shoe that has been attached with wooden pegs) can look like a stitch hole to someone else.
We won’t bore you with all of the details, but at a basic level, we are distinguishing between handmade and machine made shoes by analysing the stitches or nails on the sole. Handmade shoes tend to have nail or stitch holes that are more irregularly sized and spaced than their machine made counterparts. Other features we look out for are the tell-tale ridge on the underside of an insole (characteristic of the Goodyear welt technique mentioned above) and identifying any residue of nails, stitches, pegs (or the shape of the holes that they have left), in order to determine how the shoe soles have been attached to the upper leather. We compare this with the location of these holes to distinguish between various techniques such as welting, the turn shoe method and the blake technique (Anderson 1968).
So if they’re inaccurate to date and subjective to identify, then what’s so great about shoes as artefacts? In my opinion, they’re often more visually impressive, and arguably more interesting than the usual fragment of transfer printed ceramic or black beer bottle. But most importantly, they are a more personal item that can provide additional information about the individual wearer. Potential examples of this are wear patterns on heels, from which we can ascertain that a wearer may have had an unusual walking style, or from a repaired shoe we could speculate that someone could have fixed a shoe, out of personal attachment to a much loved, well-worn favourite, or merely because of economic necessity.
Anderson, A., 1968. The archaeology of mass-produced footwear. Historical Archaeology 2: 56-65.
Press. [online] Available at: www.paperspast.natlib.govt.nz. Accessed August 2014.
Stevens, S. and Ordonez, M., 2005. Fashionable and work shoes from a nineteenth century Boston Privy. Historical Archaeology 39 (4): 9-25.