We've teamed up with podiatrist, Tracy Byrne to take a look at the history of footwear and what we have learnt from it. So, let's lace up and dive into the delightful world of fashion verses fast-growing-feet. Yes, those pint-sized shoes are indeed adorable, but cuteness alone isn't the gold standard for choosing the right pair. As much as we want our little ones to sparkle in trendy kicks, the priority should always be comfort, functionality and correct bone development .
Shoes – A history
The earliest known shoes date back to 7000 BC, when sandals were formed from rawhide and leaves to protect the foot from extremes of temperature. In colder climates, leather from the skin of a deer or bear was used to make foot-bags which were wrapped around the feet. However, most human settlements lived in grasslands and semi-arid regions where temperatures did not necessitate the need for this type of protection, and so the masses remained barefoot for thousands of years.
In ancient cultures such as Egypt and China, footwear developed as a symbol of wealth, a fashion statement by the upper class. Only during the last 100 years has the habitual wearing of shoes become universal. For the majority of evolution, humans have been barefoot. Shoes were worn as ornamental decoration at times of ceremony, and often were made to match the clothing being worn with little or no attention devoted to the fitting qualities or comfort of the shoe.
In an article for the Daily Mail online, Lucy Crossley looks at the history of the bound foot. “Once a symbol of beauty and status, foot binding, also known as lotus feet, was carried out in China since the late 10th century, falling out of favour in the early 20th century before it was outlawed in 1911”. Although considered barbaric, it was a tradition that enabled women to find a suitable partner. Match makers or mother in laws required their son’s betrothed to have bound feet as a sign that she would be a good wife (she would be subservient and without complaint). A tradition that started in the Song Dynasty, it was originally banned in 1911. It continued in rural areas until around 1939 whereupon women with bound feet had bindings forcibly removed by government decree. The process usually started between the ages of 4-9, before the feet were fully developed and was often carried out during the winter months when the girls feet would be numb from the cold. The feet were soaked in a warm tincture of herbs and animal blood to soften them, and toenails were cut back as far as possible. The toes on each foot were curled backwards and then pressed downwards and squeezed into the sole of the foot until the bones in the toes cracked. The mid- tarsal bones were then broken and bandages wound around each foot. The feet were unbound and washed regularly, the feet would then be massaged and rebound tighter again. Many women who underwent foot binding were left with lasting disabilities, and missionaries working in China in the last 1800’s said the practice should be banned to promote equality between men and women.”
During the years following the American civil war, style, fashion and exquisiteness of design were the characteristics that sold a shoe. The toe-box of the shoe was tapered to a sharp point. When it was fitted over the normally squat toes, the toes were cramped into a space only one third or less their normal breadth. A typical boy of a working class family in U.S during the American Civil War days was accustomed to go barefoot from Spring to Fall. Before starting school, he was sent to a cobbler who would make his shoes by hand, according to the measurements of each foot; leaving extra room for growth, so that the child’s foot was kept free of deformity.
In 1858, Lyman R. Blake invented shoe machinery that could attach soles to uppers (the Mckay process). This saw a new industry in manufactured shoes which rapidly grew almost overnight. Within five years, shoe manufacturing had developed to a point where everyone could afford to wear shoes not just the upper echelons of society. The growth of new industries and commerce created the wealthy middle classes in America and Europe. This class could afford handmade shoes. Soon, their children’s feet were being moulded to resemble the tiny, delicate feet of aristocrats.
In the 1880’s Dr. George M. Beard published two books in which he described a new sickness – exhaustive chronic fatigue - which was afflicting portions of American and Western European populations; the appearance of this illness, coincided with the newly manufactured shoe industry. In 1900’s, Dr. S. Wier Mitchell, became famous for his treatment of this physical exhaustion, described in his book ‘Fat and Blood’. Dr. Mitchell noted how healthy European immigrants would come to America only to be afflicted by this new illness. The exact causes of this chronic fatigue were unknown, but Dr. Mitchell and other scientists stated that shoes and other disabling types of clothing, such as corsets, were the cause. Shoes were at their most crippling in the U.S at the turn of the century when the needle-pointed toe shapes were popular. Around 1915 a wave of reform began to take place, and shoes with a broader toe-box started to emerge. From 1915 to 1935, people had only to squeeze their toes into a space about one half the actual width of the foot. Whilst this was a welcome improvement; it wasn’t enough to prevent deformation of the feet. It was rare to find a little toe without a corn or a big toe without at least a modest bunion.
In an exerpt taken from the book ‘Children’s Footwear’, William A. Rossi states that “between 1930 and 1970, shoes for children were often heavily medicated with a variety of “therapeutic” features promising to correct or prevent problems of the growing foot: excessive out-toeing or in-toeing, pronation, gait faults, arch development, etc. The shoes were mostly oxford types, heavy and inflexible (“sturdy” was the favoured term) and carried a cargo of “corrective” features such as arch lifts, anti-pronation inserts, extended counters, foot “balance” features, metatarsal padding, wedges, steel shanks, high and rigid back part stiffeners, waist and instep reinforcements, extended soles, and various others. Each was presented as a significant advance usually stemming from “extensive research”
In March 1948, the Federal Trade Commission, alarmed by the number of so-called health claims being made about children’s shoes, commissioned the Orthopaedic Shoe Industry Investigation. Included were dozens of children’s shoe manufacturers and brands. Under the probe, not a single manufacturer was able to present valid evidence to support it’s claims, nor could any of these companies provide any viable research facility or program behind the shoes. The so-called therapeutic and corrective shoes were, in short, a huge hype and hoax. The FTC then ruled that in the future, no shoes could carry such labels as ‘corrective’, ‘health’, or ‘orthopaedic’ without providing evidence of such therapeutic benefits. While the ruling largely eliminated the former gross advertising claims, it did not, however, eliminate the continued use of “corrective” features in the shoes themselves, nor the shoes being marketed for the ‘healthy development of children’s feet’.
With regard to the UK standard shoe sizing system – it was created in 1324 by Edward II and has never been changed since. The scale is the UK standard but there are no legal requirements for manufacturers to stick to it. The euro sizing came in later but still offers the same problems. During the past 2000 years, shoe design for children was based on the idea that a child's foot required support. This is not the case and we know that foot development takes place without the need for support or correction.
In his book “Take Off Your Shoes and Walk” foot Doctor Simon J. Wikler D.S.C., states that,
“Practically all shoes worn daily by men and women in our western civilization have little relation to the shape of the human foot and most adults’ foot trouble would either not exist or would be much less bothersome if properly-shaped shoes had been worn during childhood or, better yet, if those people had gone barefoot”.
At Pip and Henry we have worked closely with Tracy to make sure your little one's growing feet are in the best care. Our shoes are designed to allow natural foot growth and support correct bone development. We always recommend that you measure your child's feet correctly and refer to our size chart when purchasing a pair of shoes. Choosing the correct size is one of the first steps towards healthy growing feet. The video below shows you one of the easiest ways to get the correct measurement:
So, dear parents and guardians, as you guide your little ones through their shoe odyssey, remember: prioritize comfort, ensure proper fit, and sprinkle in a dash of style. Happy feet make for happy adventures! Until next time, may your shoe racks be filled with joy and your children's feet dance through life with comfort and glee!