The History of Shoes and Footwear

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Podcast Transcript

It seems like the sort of thing humans have used throughout our existence, but historically speaking, footwear is a relatively new invention. 

For hundreds of thousands of years, humans spent their entire lives barefoot. Then someone got the bright idea that it might be a good idea to put something between our feet and the ground, and from there, it was a direct path to Air Jordans, hiking boots, and flip-flops. 

Learn more about the development of the shoe and what our feet would look like if we didn’t wear them on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

It goes without saying that our feet are really important. A full 12.5% of the bones in our body are in our feet. 

The fact that humans invented shoes to cover our feet doesn’t surprise anyone who has ever walked outside without shoes on. For most modern humans, walking even short distances on ground that hasn’t been manicured can be extremely painful. 

So before I get into the discussion of the development of footwear, I should probably address the question of what feet were like before shoes. 

Most articles of clothing that humans wear do not fundamentally change our bodies. Shirts, pants, dresses, and hats mostly sit on or hang off our bodies. Other than trapping heat or blocking sunlight, they don’t have any long-term impact. 

Shoes, however, have fundamentally changed us. 

A human who has never worn shoes will have feet that look radically different from a shoe wearer. 

For starters, people who have never worn shoes have significantly wider feet. They aren’t quite like hobbits, but they are noticeably wider. There is a photo taken from a helicopter in Brazil of indigenous people in the Amazon. Despite being taken from the air, the one thing you can tell from everyone in the photo is how wide their feet are. 

In the 1940s, a podiatrist named Samuel Shulman studied people in China and India who had never worn shoes. Overall their feet were much healthier than shoe wearers, and they had much thicker skin on their feet. Also, he didn’t find a single case of ingrown toenails.

They could walk on surfaces that other people wouldn’t walk on without pain. Many of them also exhibited an ability that few people have. They could independently control the movement of their toes.

If you aren’t impressed by this, try moving your little toe by itself. 

I watched a video with one guy who hadn’t worn shoes for over ten years. He was caple of walking in the woods over pinecones and sticks without any discomfort. The way he described it, his feet went from providing pain to providing information when he walked. 

So, humans who never wore shoes had feet that adapted. Their feet were wider, stronger, and more dexterous, and they had much thicker skin. 

It is entirely possible to live without shoes if you never wore them, just like every other animal. 

Nonetheless, humans did eventually invent shoes. The reason why is pretty obvious. Even if you can get around in bare feet, there are limits. A sufficiently sharp stone, stick, or thorn could do damage. Likewise, if you don’t have coverings for your feet, there are limits to where you live. Imagine living in northern latitudes in the winter without shoes. 

The earliest evidence of human shoe-wearing dates back between 40,000 to 25,000 years ago. No surviving shoes from this period have been found, but researchers can tell by changes in the feet of skeletons from this period. 

When people started wearing shoes, their toes became thinner and shorter. 

The oldest shoes ever found were discovered in Fort Rock Cave in Oregon. There were a collection of 95 sandals made out of woven sagebrush bark that date back about 10,000 years. They actually were closed-toed shoes, which implies that shoes had been around for quite a while.

Another sandal has been found in Chevelon Canyon in California that dates back about 8,300 years. 

There are images from ancient Egypt of people wearing sandals dating back about 6,000 years. 

In Armenia, a 5,500-year-old pair of moccasins were found. The moccasins were basically the other type of ancient shoe that was used. The Armenian moccasins were basically just leather bags for feet, but they did have laces on the top to make them snug.

When Otzi the iceman was discovered in Switzerland, he wore leather moccasins dating back about 3,500 years. 

In China and Japan, the straw from rice was woven to make sandals. 

Not every ancient culture adopted footwear. 

The Greeks looked down on wearing sandals. The vast majority of Greeks went barefoot and usually only wore footwear for special occasions. Almost all of the soldiers in Alexander the Great’s army were barefoot. 

The Romans, despite stealing many cultural elements from the Greeks, did not adopt their attitudes towards footwear. The Romans actually made several major advancements in shoes. 

They were the first people that we know of who created special shoes for right and left feet. Prior to this, sandals or moccasins could be worn on either foot. 

They also added metallic studs to the bottom of shoes. This had a dual purpose of holding the leather, thus extending the life of the shoe. It also allowed for the shoes to get better traction when walking. 

Roman military sandals would often wind up the leg. The higher the straps extended up the leg, the higher the rank of the soldier. 

The Romans were also one of the first people who had shoemakers, which became a specialized trade. A shoemaker was known as a sutor in Latin, and they would often travel with a Roman army to make shoes. 

It was the Romans who developed the first true closed shoe, and Romans were some of the first people who had different pairs of shoes for different events. 

The Roman name for a sandal was a sandalia, and a whole foot shoe was known as a calceus.

Senators would often wear a black leather shoe known as a corrigiae. Many upper-class Romans had shoes or sandals that were dyed or decorated with other ornaments. 

By the time the Roman Empire fell, the shoe had become an established item in most civilizations in Europe and Asia. 

By the time the Middle Ages came around, footwear went beyond simple ornamentation to extreme fashion statements. In Europe, shoes became bigger and bigger, and some eventually ended up over 2 feet long. The tips of the shoes would be filled with a filler such as wool, grass, or moss, just to make them wearable. 

Yeah, they were basically wearing something close to clown shoes unironically. 

In China during the Song Dynasty, foot wraps became fashionable. This had the unfortunate side effect of making the technique of foot binding desirable for aristocratic women. This resulted in women which horribly deformed, tiny feet which made it difficult to walk. This practice wasn’t actually banned until the early 20th century. 

The 15th century saw the rise of something called pattens. You don’t see this worn anymore, but these were wooden shoes you wore over your shoes. You would slip your foot and shoe into them, and they functionally raised your foot. 

It is believed that these originated in Krakow, Poland, and they were probably first created to avoid getting shoes dirty when walking in water. 

These were the origins of high-heeled shoes. 

In the 16th century, the high heels of the pattens were integrated into the shoe itself. This fashion trend was adopted by both men and women at the time but only for those of the upper class. This is where the term being “well-heeled” came from. 

Pattens were very similar to wooden clogs, and I can’t mention wooden clogs without talking about the Dutch. The Dutch did, in fact, wear wooden shoes, but they didn’t invent them. The wooden shoe was actually a wooden adaptation of the Roman shoe. 

The reason for wooden shoes mostly had to do with being water resistant. The Netherlands had a lot of water, and it was not uncommon to have to go work in a field covered in water. Leather shoes would rot and wear out quickly if they were constantly soaked in water. Wooden shoes were more resistant and provided better insulation. 

Through the centuries, small developments in shoe manufacturing added up over time. Shoes in the 18th century would be right at home on someone’s feet today. The only major difference is that most of the shoes would have used buckles rather than laces. 

By the start of the 19th century, almost everyone wore shoes, but shoes were still a major investment for most people. It wasn’t uncommon for robbers to take a person’s shoes.  When people died, they were almost never buried in shoes because they were simply too valuable. 

The 19th Century saw the beginnings of industrial shoe production. Until this point, shoemaking was done by hand, and it was a trade passed along from generation to generation. 

Just as a personal aside, if you want to see something interesting, go and check out some of the YouTube channels of professional shoemakers. There is a channel of a Japanese shoemaker by the name of Siroeno Yosui. His videos have no voice-over, it is just him making custom leather shoes with all of the steps which go into it. 

I spent far too much time watching his videos, and I never really bothered to consider what went into making a shoe, and it was in no small part the impetus for this episode. 

The late 19th century saw one of the biggest innovations ever in shoes. In 1892, the U.S. Rubber Company introduced the first world’s first rubber-soled shoes. 

At the time, pretty much all shoes, including their soles, were made out of leather. Even athletes who competed in early sporting events wore leather shoes because that was their only option. 

The rubber sole shoe was an instant hit. Shoes with rubber soles became known as “sneakers” as the rubber made walking quieter. 

In 1907 the Spalding company introduced the first shoes designed specifically for basketball. 

In 1921 the Converse Rubber shoe company introduced a new shoe they called the All-Star. The primary salesman for the shoe, and one of the designers, was a former semi-professional basketball player by the name of Chuck Taylor. 

Chuck Taylor never received anything beyond his salary for the 600 million pairs of All-Stars which bear his name. 

The Chuck Taylor All-Stars have been manufactured for 100 years and still have the same basic design of the original shoe.

Eventually, simply having rubber soles wasn’t enough for athletes. Shoes needed to be lighter and have higher performance. 

A big breakthrough occurred in 1970 from Bill Bowerman, the co-founder of the Nike Corporation. 

He was watching his wife make waffles one morning when he came up with the idea of a waffle design for the sole of the shoe. Before the waffle shoe, running shoes had metal spikes, which added weight. They created 12 prototype waffle shoes, one of which recently sold at auction for $437,500.

This began an arms race in athletic shoe technology, which is still ongoing today. I’ll refer you to the episode I did on Eliud Kipchoge, the special shoes he wore to break the 2-hour marathon barrier. I’ll also refer you to the episode I did on a theoretical race between Usain Bolt and Jessie Owens and how much of improvements in sprint times have been due to improvements in shoes and tracks. 

While shoes had long been fashion items, sneakers crossed into the realm of fashion with the 1985 release of Nike’s Air Jordans, named after Michael Jordan

They are still produced today and are as popular as ever. Michael Jordan has made more money off his shoes than he did playing basketball. One of the stipulations in his contract was that Air Jordans would only be released on Saturdays so that kids wouldn’t have to skip school to buy them.

One of the latest trends in shoes are minimalist shoes. The idea is to create a shoe that gives your feet many of the same advantages that walking barefoot does, but still provide the protection of a shoe. Many minimalist shoes are basically the equivalent of gloves for your feet, with individual places for each toe. 

You might not think about shoes very often, but they have been extremely important to work, fashion, and athletics.  People obsess over them, collect them, and of course wear them. 

They are the one thing we do wear that literally shapes our body. 

Everything Everywhere Daily is an Airwave Media Podcast. 

The executive producer is Darcy Adams.

The associate producers are Thor Thomsen and Peter Bennett.

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Just search in Facebook for Everything Everywhere Daily and you should find it pretty easily.

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