*** children's footware

Children's Footware

boys' sandals
Figure 1.--Sandals were a common form of footwear over times. For long periods they were the principal form of footwear. They were not commonly worn in the 19th century, but in the early 20th century appeared as a popular form of footwear for children. This varied widely from country to country. We are not sure where this photograph was taken, but it could be America about 1910.

The history of footwear spans that of human civilization. Footwear has long been an article of prestige for man. The earliest footwear, probably made of plaited grass or rawhide held to the foot with thongs was undoubtedly born of the necessity to provide some protection when moving over rough terrain in varying weather conditions, and there still exist examples of footwear from ancient civilizations, such as the Egyptians, Chinese and Vikings. Footwear has long been a relatively expensive clothing item, either in money terms or the length of time required to make them. While footwear may have originated as a utiliatrian garment for adults--especially men. Soon, however, the rich and influential began distinguishing themselves by the costly craftsmanship and decoration which characterized their shoes. Children went barefoot, especially in the warm weather. But eventually children also began wearing shoes--at first those from aristocratic or wealthy families.


The invention of footwear is an interesting question. As with neolithic clothing in general, it is an interesting question, but difficult to study because neolithic clothing, incluuding footwear, is made of biodegradable materials and unlike pottery and stone tools do no last over millennia for anthropologists to study. The earliest animal foot prints have been duiscovered in China and date back (550 million years). [Sharman and Barnes] This of course dates back before the advent of primates, including humans. The earliest fossil footprints of humans has been found in Kenya and dated to about about 1.5 million years ago. They would not have been fully modern humans. A set of fossilized footprints weere discovered on the shore of Langebaan Lagoon in South Africa. They are believed to be those of a fully modern female human and have been dated to about (115,000 BC). Anthropologists have romaanticaslly named then 'Eve's footprints'. It is understandable that African people, where humans evolved did not need footwear because the climate is benign. And even until very recently, most Africans did not have footwear. But once humans began migrating outside of Africa (about 150,000 BC), the need for footwear became more pronounced, especially in colder climates. The first major human species to reach Europe were the Neanderthals (130,00-40,000 BC). There is no evidence that the Neanderthals had footwear, although anthropologists speculate that they must have had footwear made of fur, at least for the winter months. Modern humans reached Europe about 55,000 BC, although there is considerable speculation about this. The question of when they invented footwear is even more elusive. Bur because of Ötzi the Iceman found in the Alps between Austria and Italy, we know that foot wear had been invented (3,350-3,105 BC). His shoes are also a matter of debate. One anthropologist maintains, "... because the shoes are actually quite complex, I'm convinced that even 5,300 years ago, people had the equivalent of a cobbler who made shoes for other people". 【Krosnar】 Of course this does not answer the question as to how common they were, especially among people not crossing mountains covered with snow and ice. We are yet sure about footwear in Asia. We do have some information about the Americas. Fossilized footprints have been found in the White Sands National Park in New Mexico. And along with the fossilized foot prints of camels, mastodons, sloths, and other prehistoric are human foot prints. This surprised us a little because all the Native Americans are foot prints discovered so far are all barefoot impressions and have been dated to over 20,000 BC, extending the time table of the New World migration by about 10,000 years. (Some anthropologists dispute the dating.) Now the Siberian hunters must have has some form of footwear, but there descendants in warmer climes apparently discarded the idea of footwear. A HBC reader writes. "I think your remark is correct. However several elements suggest that in the early human migrations people used and discarded clothing according to different weather conditions and raw material availability. There were also not clear reasons for some choices. The inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of South Americas, for example, wore little or no clothing even in therir cold climate--albeit not as bitter cold as Siberia." Now we know that pre-Colombiasn people had footwear when encountered by the Europeans (late-15th century), but it is not altogether clear how common footwear was. We have the idea that footwear was more common among the North American tribes encountered by the English (17th century) than the tribes that the Spanish encountered in Meso-America and the Andes. Just when footwear first appeared we do not yet have any idea. Another factor here is that we are particularly interested in clothing is that children were the least likely population segment to get footwear. This is presumably because footwear was often the most expensive clothing item, meaning in the neolithic period the most difficult to obtain material. Sandals were surely the first form of footwear beyond cold weather footwear. They were a common form of footwear over times. For long periods they were the principal form of footwear. Prehistoric footwear probably consisted primarily of tree bark, plant leaves, or animal hides tied around the bottom of the foot simply to provide protection against rocks and rough terrain. However, it wasn't long before footwear became a touch more sophisticated while at the same time growing somewhat more attractive, to the extent that, as with a hat, a man's status could be judged merely on the basis of what he wore on his feet. In fact, many relief paintings from Egyptian times depict fine-looking sandals of interlacing palms and papyrus leaves worn by royalty along the order of Tutankhamen. Tomb paintings suggest than ogther than high-stasus individuals, footwear was not common. Thanks ro paintings and espcially photofgraphy we have much more informastion ion moddern times. This od course is complivated by the fact that for portaits, individuals were dressed up in their best fclothing. This included children wether or not they commonly wore foot wear, Sandals were not commonly worn in the 19th century, but in the early 20th century appeared as a popular form of footwear for children. This varied widely from country to country.


While we have little information about fashion trends as we know them in aincient socities, the importance that footwear haas always held in human societirs can be seen in the extent that footwear appears in mythology. Throughout history footwear has figured widely in mythology, folk stories and superstition. The Greek god Mercury wore winged sandals, and there are very few Europeans who do not remember childhood tales of Puss in Boots, the Seven League Boots, Cinderella and the Old Woman who Lived in a Shoe, and most cultures have stories where shoes play a starring role. Americans will of course recall Dorthy and her ruby shoes.


The cobbler while a "mere" skilled tradesman has always been a romantic figure. Cibblers often feature in folk taales. The most famous of course is the Italian cobbler Gipetto who created Piniochio. Even today in our moodern world, it is traditional to tie a boot or shoe to the back of the newlyweds' car as a good luck token. The modern moccasin derives from the original shoe adopted in cold climates by races as different as North American Indians, Eskimos, Laplanders and Siberian tribesmen. The distinctive seam on the upper of the modern moccasin is all that remains, however, of the puckering string that was gathered and tied about the ankles to give all over protection to the foot.

Children's Footwear

Children probably mostly went barefoot even in socities where adults wore sandals. Clothing was much more expensive to ancient man than in our modern world. Thus in many socities only children from affluent high status families would wear sandals. Most children went barefoot. As socities developed, it would be increasingly common for children to wear sandals--although this varied widely. Eventually leather, which is pliable, durable, and was easy for man to obtain, became the dominant material used in footwear. As it is a living substance and therefore breathes, it allows air to circulate freely about the feet, adding appreciably to the comfort of the wearer. It is likely that in most socities, boys went baerefoot, unless the came from a wealthy family. Historically, the lower classes continued to wear sandals while those of higher position and rank chose to wear intricately designed slippers. In the 15th-17th centuries, when men's legs suddenly became a focal point of fashion, shoes took on new importance, as highly decorated bows and buckles were added to make them more attractive. During this era, boys once they emerged from their baby dresses were attired in shoes much like their parents. Although it was common for boys to go barefoot during the summer.


Shoes have never served a strictly functional purpose, however, and the requirements of fashion have dictated some curious designs, not all of which made walking easy. The "cracowes" of mediaeval time, famous for their long tapering points, eventually became so long and tapering as to make walking impossible, and their successors, the duckbill shoes of the 16th and 17th centuries were so wide and flat that they too created severe problems. Neither did the mediaeval period have the monopoly of impractical fashion shoes. In our own times the stiletto heel became so high and narrow that it not only made walking difficult and risky, but also damaged floors and carpets, while the "platform" fashion of the 1970's gave us soles several inches thick. These differeing extreme fashion styles have also had a variety of adverse health impacts.

Specialized Footwear

Specialised footwear is essetially a modern concept. This is especially true of children's footwear. for specific purposes was not known until comparatively recent times, this being particularly true of the military, where footwear was given little or no consideration until the 17th century One exception to this was the Roman 'caligae', which were substantial, hard-wearing platforms of three or four layers of vegetable-tanned cattle hide strapped around the foot and ankle. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, however, nobody adopted the robustness and durability of Roman military footwear, and for over 1000 years soldiers generally wore whatever civilian shoes were available. Even shoes of suits of armor followed the fashion for long pointed toes, and were worn over soft cordwain leather shoes. Foot soldiers, however, went without the protection of armor. It was both expebsive and heavy. Their shoes were more like flimsy slippers than sturdy walking and fighting shoes. Half boots with leather covering the foot to about two inches above the ankle began to appear (11th cebntury), but they were little more than modified shoes. Specialized footwear for children did not begin to appear until the late-19th century. Children often went barefoot or war small versions of their parent's footwear.

The Heel

One key aspect of the modern shoe is the heel. The heel is of ancient origins, although not for children. Many horseback-riding cultures wore heels on footwear because heels help you stay in the stirrups--which is why cowboy boots have heels. Amazingly, peole were riding horses for millennia without it. There is some debate about ehere it was invented and when. The most likely place was northwestern China (about 300 BC). This estimate is based on grave goods. Some maintsin thast it was invented in India. The striup because of its huge military value soon spread throuhjout the vast Eur-Asian Steppe. The Persians were a Steppe people and introduced the stirup to the broader Mediterranean world. Their cavalry wore inch-high heels. Since heels showed that the wearer owned and maintained horses, high heels gradually became associated with the upper class. This of course does not mean that heels were widely worn and ceratinly not by children. The sandals, shoes, and boots worn throughout the medieval era were heel-less. In Europe we see first high-heeled shoes (10th century). At first they were mostly worn by aristicratic men and not by the wider population. Gradually heels became standard in European footwear. European coblers began making progress with heel-making techniques (mid-17th century). From this time on, army commanders inparticular began giving much greater attention to their soldiers' feet, and the history of modern military footwear can be dated from this period. In the era before trains and trucks, the army moved on its feet and footwear interestingly actually had significant military and strategic importance. It is basically true to suggest that, prior to 1600, there was no such thing as a true heel. Wedges of cork or leather lifts had been tried as heels, but with very limited success, since they made walking difficult. Some low heels of wood or cork had been produced (1590s). Once true heels appeared, other forms rapidly disappeared. Experiments with heel construction led to heels held together with wooden pegs on robust bottoms, which were necessary to support the foot on high heeled boots. The development of heels led led, however, to problems in pairing shoes. From the early 17th century to the 1820s it was customary to make "straight" shoes to be worn on either foot. Generally footwear had been paired for left and right feet since Roman times, but the development of raised heels created the need for shoe and boot bottoms with a more precise shape and greater stability than before. Heels for children's footwear are of more recent origins. They became a standard characteristic of children's shoes--although of very modest height. While adult shoes, both men's and women's, have had a wide variety of heels, children's shoes always have had low heels.

The Coblers Last

The history of footwear until the 20th century, was in large party the history of the last. For centuries shoes had been on two types of lasts. The earlier, metal last was roughly the shape of the human foot, and possibly Roman in origin, and was used as an anvil to rivet iron hobnails into the leather. The second last was made of wood, and was a form which determined the precise size and shape of the upper, which was then stitched together on it. No lasts were used for the soft leather turn-shoes which were in use from early medieval times until the 16th century, but shaping lasts had been essential to hold and form welted shoes during stitching from the 14th century onward. While there was little difference in kind between men's and women's shoes in the early 17th century, although they had by then become more stylish, the left and right shoes formed mirror images of each other. The development of heels created enormous problems in producing shaped wooden lasts which were accurate enough to give sufficient strength to the shoe for the heel to be mounted on it. Straight lasts were much easier to make, and remained in general use until the 1820s when last-turning lathes resolved most of the problems. Some ladies shoes, however, continued to be made straight as late as the 1850s, with two width fittings. The "slim" fit was made using the last as it was, while the "wide" fitting was achieved by wrapping a shaped leather pad around the last and removing it with the last once the shoe had been assembled.

Mass Production

The mass production of shoes of couese ha a signioficant impact on shoe fashions. Cobblers throughout much of the the 19th century still made most shoes by hand. This meant that shoes were expensive in relative terms (compared to income). Most people, especially men and boys, often had just one pair of shoes or boots. many children went barefoot. footwear had to last for several years. Only the very affluent might have shoes or boots for different occasions. The industrial revolution gradually reached the footwear inustry and by mid-century we begin to see steps toward mass production. The sewing machine was introduced (1846). And as it was perfectefd began to be used in the mechanization of footwear. Soon we begin to the industry beginning to change and move toward factory production. The United States and Britin led the way in this process. The American Lyman Blake invented a primitive shoe stitching machine (1856). It took some time to perfect (1864). He forged a partnership with Gordon McKay, a businessmen that also had some good ideas about improvemrnts. The device became known as the McKay stitching machine. It was quickly adopted by footwear manufacturers throughout New England. At first other steps in the manufacturing process were done by hand, but to stpp up production other shopprocesses were mechanized such as as pegging and finishing. Bfore the end of the century the footwrear industry was largely mechanized and factory produced (1890s). Custom-made shoes were still procuced, but very expensive compared to mass-produced shoes. Factory-made shoes meant lower priced footwear. Shoes were still expensive because leather was expensive. But by the end of the century, footwear was much less expenive in reltive terms. This allowed footwaar to become a fashion accessory for the average person. And for the same reason average people for the first time could afford specilaized footwear.


Sandals and especially shoes have varied consifderably in comfort. In somde cases, coblers and shoe manufacturers following the latest fashion have given no attention to comfort. Even such a basic concept as sizing is a relatively recent development.

Basic Footwear Types

There were several basic footwear options for children and adults. The most common was for boys to go barefoot. This was particularly common for children, although climate was a factor. The other was to wear sandals or shoes/boots. Conventions and fashions concerning these choices have varried over time and in our modern age from country to country. Choices about children until recently have been very strongly affected by the economic and class status of the family. The sandal was, and still is, a popular form of footwear. This is particularly true in warmer areas. The sandal has varied from the primitive form worn thousands of years before Christ, to beautifully finished versions with many straps and intricate decoration. Boys have wore sandals since ancient times. In more recent times, boys have worn both closed-toe and open-toe sandals. Boys have worn a wide variety of shoes since the 17th century. Until the 19th century, however, they mostly wore small editions of women's shoes while still in dresses and small editions of their fathers' shoes after breeching. Distinctive shoes for children appeared in the late 18th and early 19th century. Boys in the early 19th century wore slipper-type pumps with white stockings. Strap shoes were worn at mid century by boys still in dresses. After the middle of the century, button boots were comonly worn especially in America. By the turn of the century footware had become more varried. Strap shoes were worn bybyounger boys for dressy occasions. Oxford shoes appeared as modified boots for, as the name indicates, Oxford university students in the 17th century. A boot was traditioinally a leather covering for the foor, normally reaching at least to mid-calf level. Rubberized boots appeared in the 20th century. Boys wear all kinds of different boots and boot like footwear, such as cowboy boots, wellies. snow boots, and others. Some like cowboy boots have at times been poular with children.

Country Trends

Our information on boys' footwear is still quite limited. We notice fewer national differences in footwear than clothing in general Footwear in the 19th century seem relatively standard. The principal differences seem more related to climate than national styling. We see far more boys going barefoot in southern Europe than Northern Europe. Here both climate and poverty were involved. Going barefott was also common in America, Audtralia, New Zealand and South Africa. Even when sandals began to become popular after the turn-of-the 20th century, we do not note substantial country differences. Asian countries had specialized styles like Japanese Zori. After World War I we notice substantial differences, especially betwwen Europe and America. Sandals become popular in Europe. American boys do not seem to have like sandals, but sneakers become very popuilar. We also notice specialized styles like saddle shoes and loafers. These differences continued through tj\he 1950s when Europe began to adapt American styles, especially sneakers.

Buying Shoes

I have only a few vague memories of buying shoes as an American boy in the 1940s-50s. It was always my mon who took me. I do recall the metal mesuraing aparatus. perhaps because it felt cold. We often went to Sears. The shoe stores I seem to recall recall were Buster Brown and Kennys. More than anything I remember the mirrors. I seem to have trouble telling if they fit for some reason. Mom always tested the toes. A British reader provides us a more detailed account of buying shoes as a London boy. There are a few shoe store images on HBC and as I find them, I will link them here.


The HBC footwear section is not as developed as some HBC sevtions, but it is a clothing/fashion topic we eventually hope to explore in detail. We note that many women's and men's footwear styles in the 19th century look very similar, especially the high-top styles. We also note many children's shoes, meaning styles worn by both boys and girls. This was primarily the case for younger children. As far as we know there was no reason for separate boy/girl shoes other than fashion. The only reason we can see is that boys were more likely to be involved in rough play and in the 19th century and early 20th century physical labor than girls. We believe that the trend toward separate shoe styles is associated with the same trend as other gender-specific fashions, beginning with the decline of the common convention of dressing younger boys in dreeses and other skirted garments. Just as we do not fullnunderstand this trend, we also do not fully understand the footwear trends. We think an important fctor was the popular view of childhood where most parents regarded children as basically asexual beings. Thus mothers saw no need for gender-specific clothing for younger children. A reader writes, "I too am wrestling with gender factors with respect to shoes. I'm trying to address the question of why there are 'boy shoes' and 'girl shoes'. Some people think it was the companies who promoted separate lines to maximize profits. There certainly were geographical/country differences involved. The turn of the 20th century is so long ago that we can't ask anyone if they preferred separate types of shoes for boys and girls, or whether they liked one line that could be used as hand me downs, etc. I am addressing some of these questions in a book preparing, but not being an expert, I'm afraid the discussion might be superficial. Do you know of any source that might shed more light on this subject with respect to fooitwear? I am trying to get hold of early editions of the Boot and Shoe Recorder, but copies are difficult to find. Here HBC has not found any written work, our work comes primarily from the photographic record, catalogs, and fashion magazines.

Age Trends

Academic Assessment

We notice an academic assessment of footwear from Sweden, "The injurious effect of the stiff boot on the growing foot is pointed out. Attention is drawn to the probable fallacy in the popular belief that our children's feet are so weak that they require the support of shoes to bear the weight of their bodies. Several authors are cited from the modern orthopedic literature who consider that the use of stiff shoes is one of the most outstanding causes of the weak and deformed feet so common nowadays. The importance of going barefooted to the normal development of the feet is emphasized; children should be freed from shoes as much as possible both inside and, during warm weather, outside. A child's shoe is described which, through the author's cooperation with a Swedish shoe manfacturer, will come on the market in May 1939. This shoe is wide and roomy. Both the sole and the body are made of soft, pliable leather, and there is no heel. These shoes are meant to take the place of bare feet when the latter is impossible; their advantages are described." [Nordenfelt]

Related Links

Careful these interesting links will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site:

Civil War era reenactors

Shoe history: Middle ages


Krosnar, Katka. "Now you can walk in footsteps of 5,000-year-old Iceman – wearing his boots", The Daily Telegraph, (July 17, 2005).

Nordenfelt, Per J. "Children's shoes, " Acta Paediatrica Vol. 25 Issue 1 (June 1939), pp. 220-26.

Sharman, Jon and Tom Barnes. "Scientists discover 'oldest footprints on Earth' in southern China dating back 550 million years," . Independent (June 7, 2018).


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Created: July 15, 1998
Last updated: 11:28 AM 9/30/2023