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.