Shoes in the Wall

When owners of old houses begin renovations, they should be aware that they  might turn up some unexpected treasures in the walls of their homes. Two Wayland  families have discovered a trove of old shoes hidden in the house walls, a reflection of an ancient superstition that hiding shoes in a house as it was  being built, would ward off evil.

Jennifer Swope,  assistant curator of the Society for Preservation of New England Antiquities, points out that although hundreds of these concealed shoes have been found in  buildings in both Europe and Eastern United States no one has ever photographed  these finds in the exact site where they have been found.

When tearing out the wall in an old chaise house about eighteen years ago, James and Mary Reed  found a baby's white, ankle-high shoe, some small wooden toys and some ears of  corn. Their Old Sudbury Road home has been the site of so many additions since  the earliest part was built about 1750 that they were not sure whether the shoes were hidden at the time the chaise house was built or in a later renovation.

The Raymond  Johnsons who live in the Brintnall-Loker house, the oldest house still standing in the Cochituate area, have found shoes in two different locations in their home. In an upstairs wall, near a window, four well-worn shoes--none of them mates--were found. The photograph at the right shows a common custom of having several members  of the family each contribute one shoe to the cache. In the second instance, a toddler's little shoes had been deliberately built into the wall near a  downstairs fireplace. Hidden with it was an old sleigh bell. The toy tree shown right was found with shoes in the Reed house. The Johnson shoes  are currently being researched to determine their age and whether they have been buried in the walls at the time the house was built in 1740, or whether they were added in a later building improvement.

The Wayland shoe finds have been listed on an international index of concealment shoes, maintained at the Northampton  (England) Museum. More than a thousand  concealment shoes, some dating back to the fourteenth century, have been reported in Western Europe. In this country these shoes have been discovered mostly in New England, but there have also been reports of buried shoes as far south as Virginia and far west  as Missouri.

Why would shoes be deliberately built into a home or public building? Some have speculated that the  tradition stems from the prehistoric custom of killing a person and placing the  body in the foundation to insure that the building holds together. Later shoes  were used as a substitute for a human sacrifice. Shoes may have been chosen, because over time they take on and keep the shape of the wearer's foot. Shoes  were hidden near openings in the home--doors, windows, chimneys--the perceived  weak places in the building that were thus protected from evil by the shoe  owner's spirit.

About half the shoes registered in the concealment index are children's shoes. Women's shoes  are more common than men's. Shoes are almost invariably well worn, perhaps  because the donor didn't want to waste an expensive new shoe on the project, or  perhaps because a well-worn shoe is more likely to retain the shape of the wearer's foot and hence his spirit. Though shoes are the common denominator, more than two hundred different personal possessions--coins, spoons, pots, goblets, food, knives, toys, gloves, pipes, even chicken and cat bones--have  been found hidden with them.

Considering how  widespread and long lasting this folk belief has been, it is curious that nowhere was it described in writing until references began to appear in  mid-twentieth century archaeology literature in scholarly journals. Some speculate the tradition of hiding shoes was a male superstition, kept secret almost out of fear that telling about it would reduce its effectiveness. Others feel contemporary writers did not describe it since superstition ran counter to  prevailing religious beliefs and the Puritans punishment of witchcraft and magic was well-known.

When removing walls  especially around windows and doors, under roof rafters and behind old chimneys,  homeowners should be aware of the possibility of turning up concealment shoes. While most are found in eighteenth and nineteenth century homes, a find hidden as late as 1935 has been reported. If shoes are found, they should left exactly as they were discovered and photographed. Items found with the shoes are as important as the shoes themselves and should also be saved.

  Sources include: Displayed Shoes and Concealed Ones, Early American Homes, April 1999;  Hidden Shoes and Concealed Beliefs, Archaeological Leather Group Newsletter ;  Shoes Concealed in Buildings, NorthamptonMuseums Journal 6, December 1969 ; Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic , B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, 1987