Steel-soled shoes

October 18, 2010

In March 1685 the librarian Henri Justel wrote from Paris to the Royal Society in London, with a description of a new ‘Engine that consumes smoak & prevents all sorts of the most foetid things cast into the fire’. Enclosed within the letter was an advertisement describing the machine, below which was printed a second advertisement, for ‘Semelles d’Acier’ – steel soles for the shoes.

Leur usage este d’empechere de sentir la dureté du pavé, de l’Estrie & des pointes des Pierres, & de tenir le pied en estat si foiblesque le soient les Soulier

Justel’s report was read aloud at the next Royal Society meeting on 10 March, 1685/6, and duly recorded in the Society journal book, which mentions

steel soles for shoes wch are made very light and yet preserve the feet from the inequality of the Pavemt and sharpness of the stones.

The shift, in the Society’s translation, from the ‘dureté’, or hardness, of the pavement, to its ‘inequalities’, could imply that pedestrians experienced different problems with the climate, terrain or architecture in different urban surroundings: problems which were common to the inhabitants of each place. In this case, the advert might show an interest on the part of virtuosic communities in London and Paris – the ‘scavans et curieux’, mentioned in the blurb – not only to make methodological leaps and theoretical distinctions, but also to develop (and profit from) practical innovations along the lines of everyday life – like the story, probably apocryphal, that Newton invented the cat-flap.

But the bill does not appeal to a sense of shared experience – the environment is particularised rather than shared, and the Society’s translation of the advertisement literally offers a way for those with sufficient means to make the ground more equal for themselves than for others.

And the predicament, which is located where the body makes contact with the solid world, is described in different forms elsewhere in seventeenth-century texts, such as in the following account from Robert Boyle’s History of the Air (1692). Boyle’s informant is ‘an Ingenious Gentleman’, who, experiencing inhospitable terrain, suggests a cheaper but more exhausting solution:

in the Island of St Louis, or near it, at a certain Season of the Year, when hot winds blew from the Continent, the Sand on the Shores would be so scorching hot, that he was not able to stand upon it, but it would, through the Soles of his Shoes, scorch his Feet, unless he walked very fast.


3 Responses to “Steel-soled shoes”

  1. ofsmith said

    This is very interesting and has made me think about the way pavements were maintained in the C17th and before: I presume it was by individual parishes. Perhaps this development in shoes, which gives the wearer a constant stable base as he/she traverses many differently-paved districts, goes hand in hand with a growing sense of living outside the parish and travelling more (hand in hand also with the increase of wheeled vehicles of the century). If one is always going to stay in one’s native area then one might contribute money for the improvement of local roads, but if one is going to travel widely it becomes more practical to get well-soled shoes. This is sparked by your point about acclimatisation, and also about individual interest.

    I’m going to dig out some more stuff on pavements next time I’m in a local archive, to find out how they worked.

    • dhildyard said

      Two things in response to your comment – the idea about shoes and wheels and travellers is intriguing, and I wonder whether interest in parasols and umbrellas, in travellers’ accounts of foreign countries, and in cabinets of curiosities, might be attributed to similar motivations. Robinson Crusoe would fit the bill as a lone individual and a traveller, and he makes an umbrella from animal skins to protect himself from the rain and the sun. It’s strange to read him hunting, fishing, building and swimming, and then fashioning himself a parasol, which is an object which I would think is associated with a ladylike, precious approach to sunlight today. (RC is fictional of course, and was not published until 1708, so it is not strictly speaking proper to the 17th-century environment).

      Mark Jenner’s PhD (Oxford 1991) looks at the theories and practices of street-cleaning in real urban communities during the period. Jenner quotes this passage from a civic commission of June 1662; the council included William Petty, John Evelyn and Christopher Wren, amongst other gentlemen, and required

      ‘from henceforward in all places through which a common sewer runs, that in all such places where crosse gutters are, they shall be layed so lowe under ground that that they shall falle into the common sewer and the crosse gutter be paved over and made level or even with the rest of the street. And where there is no more common sewer the crosse gutters that are or shall be made there shall not be more than three inches deepe, and paved on each side with broade flatt stones[…]soe as they be ascending and descending and not square gutters, and to prevent the unequall raising of the street’.

      These orders describe the problem of inequality as one of lapsed flagstones where open sewers and gutters criss-cross the pavement, and they seem to show some attempt at organised civic restitution. It would, as you say, be interesting to know whether rural highways and streets in smaller towns or villages would be paved with guttering, and whether there were similar attempts in those parishes to clean and maintain the locality, or whether passage and waste-disposal in the countryside were dealt with in a more organic way.

  2. […] Airs, Waters, Places looks at a pair of steel-soled shoes. […]

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