The other day as I was putting on my sneakers, I thought: I wonder who came up with the idea of shoes? So I decided to do a little research.
Anthropologists say humans began wearing shoes 26,000 to 40,000 years ago. The primary purpose of shoes, of course, is to protect the feet. Feet need protection because they come in direct contact with the ground with every step we take. The foot also has more bones than any single part of our body. A sore or injured foot can be a serious handicap. Ask anyone who has ever had a foot problem. But over time, shoes also became an item of decoration.
The oldest pair of shoes was discovered in a cave in Oregon, USA in 1938. They are a pair of sandals made between 8,000 and 7,000 B.C. The oldest pair of leather shoes was found in Armenia and were made about 3,500 B.C. Throughout history shoes have been made from all kinds of materials: papyrus, palm leaves, leather, wood, rice straw, corn husks, rubber, metal, canvas.
During the Middle Ages shoes became a symbol of authority or wealth. Kings, queens, and
other wealthy individuals wore heels or platform shoes to appear taller. (Note: even to this day we refer to someone who has money as being “well-heeled.”) The platform shoes (called chopines) were 7 or 8 inches high. They had a practical purpose too: they kept the feet off the dirty streets where sewage sometimes ran.
For centuries shoes were made by shoemakers, one at a time, in their little shops. Shoes began to be mass produced during the Napoleanic Wars when the British started manufacturing shoes for their army. Napoleon had said, “An army marches on its belly.” But the British knew an army also marches on its feet!
Shoes appear throughout the Bible. When Moses approaches the burning bush he is directed to remove his shoes, for he was standing on holy ground. To this day many religions require people to remove their shoes before entering their place of worship as a sign of respect. In the book of Ruth, her next of kin takes off his sandal and gives it to Boaz as a sign of the agreement they have made: Boaz will inherit Naomi’s lands (women could not inherit
anything) and Boaz would get Ruth for his wife as part of the deal. (Ruth 4:7-8). St. John the Baptist says of Jesus, “I am not worthy to stoop and loosen the thongs of his sandal” (Mk. 1:7). And when Jesus sends the seventy-two disciples out, he says to them, “Carry no money bag, no sack, no sandals” (Lk. 10:4). They are to travel light and rely on the hospitality of the people they meet along the way.
Here are a few more facts about shoes:
1. For centuries, many shoes for the masses were made for either foot. People didn’t differentiate between left and right.
2. Today, because of our increased sensitivity to animals, many shoes are not made from leather but from synthetic fabrics and petrochemical-derived materials. This saves on cows, but these shoes are not bio-degradable and will hang around in our land fills for 1,000 years! Now shoe companies are making bio-degradable shoes. (You can find them listed online.)
3. Today 63% of all shoes are made in China. Europe still dominates the market of higher-valued and higher priced shoes. (Where were your shoes made?)
4. St. Crispin, a third Century shoemaker and martyr whose feast is Oct. 25, is the patron saint of shoemakers. (In Shakespeare’s play, Henry V, the king gives a rousing speech before battle on St. Crispin’s day. You can listen to Kenneth Branagh’s version online. It’s wonderful! And yes, there is a Saint Crispin Shoe Company.)
5. There are an estimated 1.5 billion unused pairs of shoes sitting in American closets? (Are any sitting in yours?)
Another startling statistic: Today half the people in our world don’t own a single pair of shoes. Over 300 million of them are children. Some people are doing something about this. In 2004, a shoe executive named Wayne Elsey was watching the news about the terrible aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in southeast Asia. He saw an image of a single shoe washed up on the shore, and he was inspired to do something. He contacted other shoe company executives
and together they sent millions of shoes to that part of the world. Eventually Elsey founded Soles4Souls, a non-profit organization whose purpose is “to impact as many lives as possible with the gift of shoes.” So far this organization has distributed more than 5 million pairs of shoes in over 125 countries. (A $5 donation will give two pairs of shoes to someone. If you’re looking for an almsgiving practice for Lent, here’s one.)
Let us say a short prayer about shoes…
Good and gracious God, I thank you for the gift of my feet which I too often take for granted…I thank you also for the shoes I have to wear. May I never take my shoes for granted either… I ask that you make me more sensitive to my sisters and brothers who don’t own even a single pair of shoes—especially all those children. Help me to reach out to them in any way I can—through my prayer, my awareness, my concern, my sharing. And finally, Loving God, every time I put on my shoes, I ask You to bless all the places my shoes will take me that day. May I be an instrument of peace, love, and joy wherever I step. I ask for these things through Jesus, whose heart was filled with compassion and whose feet were clad in sandals. Amen.
Did you find anything new or interesting in this reflection?
What role do shoes play in your life?
Here is a short Lenten reflection entitled, “Open My heart.” The phrase is sung over and over again with simple piano accompaniment. The images are from the southwest USA. We pray that, during this time of Lent, God may continue to open our heart to God’s word and to our neighbor’s need.