Monday, January 11, 2010

More Shoe Concealments and a Great Shoe Reference

Back in June, I wrote about witch bottles and other concealments. As it happens, I have two current projects that have concealments; one is an African American site, the other a Euro-American site. I can't give all the details, but the Euro-American site involved a shoe recovered from a chimney context.*

The shoe met the typical characteristics of a concealment: a single shoe, worn out, hidden within a wall next to a chimney. My next question was who put it there, and in order to help figure that out, I needed to date it. I'm pretty good at dating archaeological materials, but textiles and clothing escapes me, and I went searching for a good shoe reference.

There is lots of information out there about shoes, but very little on everyday footwear -- folks like to write about the fancy stuff, the upper-class stuff. Frankly, the stuff you find in museums. This bias in focus on the upper classes, the rulers, the fancy materials is something that plagues museum collections, archaeology, architectural assessments, and popular histories. My beef with this bias will have to be another post for another time... point is, after much searching, I found a great reference for identifying and dating women's shoes:

Rexford, Nancy E. (2000) Women's Shoes in America, 1795-1930. Kent State University Press, Kent, Ohio.

The book consists of two parts: an overview history of women's shoes, fashion and marketing in America and an extensive identification guide. The appendices are full of background information, including how leather is made, how shoes are made, information on rubber and elastic webbing, and a partial listing of shoe manufactures. The history includes detailed information on everyday footwear, and does not just focus on fancy footwear. I enjoyed the overview history, but in my opinion the real value of the book is the section on identification.

The author presents a step-by-step guide for identifying the age of a particular shoe by simply matching up characteristics -- upper patterns, heels and soles, variations in lasts, and materials and decorations -- to well-illustrated and described dated examples. I particularly liked the very straightforward and detailed discussion of dating changes in the fashion, design, and manufacturing technology of footwear. The range where all of these dated characteristics overlap is the manufacturing date of the shoe. By breaking down the various parts of the shoe and asking researchers to look at them independently, Rexford makes dating women's shoes and boots accessible and possible for even the most novice researcher (like me!).

Of course, the manufacturing date of anything doesn't necessarily correspond with its date of archaeological deposition (except possibly for coffin trimmings). Swann estimates that, due to the fact that shoes were not discarded until they could no longer be fixed, an average lag between manufacture and deposition could be as much as 20 years (Swann 1996). Unfortunately, this puts my shoe in a period of several and rapid changes in ownership (shoes are often concealed at changes in ownership and during renovation/remodeling work). My next step is to detail the changes in ownership and to determine if any of them did any remodeling on the house that would have opened up the area where the shoe was found, giving an opportunity for deposition.

* There is some really good literature out there on ritual concealments and the persistence of archaeologically-identifiable magical/ritual practices into the twentieth century. I will post more on this another time, but I think such concealments are likely much more common than we think, but that people don't know what they're looking for/looking at.

Swann, June (1996) Shoes Concealed in Buildings. Costume 30: 56-69.


Anonymous said...

Incredibly fascinating!!

The Bittersweet Girl said...

Really, really fascinating!

And, "Shoes Concealed in Buildings" sounds like it should be a modernist poem ... maybe by Wallace Stevens.

Digger said...

Oooooo BSG! I love it! Rural longing for times past, or gritty urban tale??? Alas, I am capable almost solely of doggerel. Maybe something by BSG? :D