Hiding artifacts like shoes in certain parts of buildings is thought by many to ward off evil spirits. Some speculate the tradition comes from a very old custom of killing someone then placing their body in the foundation to ensure the building holds together. A common belief is because old shoes keep the shape of the wearer's foot, they trapped the spirit of the deceased and so were strategically hidden near openings where spirits could most easily gain access and lurk with menacing intention e.g. doors, windows, chimneys etc. This practice was widespread in Europe with more than a thousand concealment shoes, some dating back to the fourteenth century, reported in Western Europe alone.
Many of the concealed items found have been children's shoes, or clothes. Experts believe these were chosen because the power and innocence of the young were thought hold over evil. The common belief was the personalized items acted as a defiant, and permanent, reminder to the spiritual world, of the primacy of human beings. Shoes are not the only personal items found hidden in old buildings and these include: coins, spoons, pots, goblets, food, knives, toys, gloves, and pipes.
Concealed shoes are typically well worn and often found as single shoes, very rarely in pairs. More left shoes have been found than right and no one is sure of the significance although, some believe it may be the heart side which is important. More female shoes have been found. No contemporary reference in diaries etc., has ever been found to where the shoes are concealed and many believe to communicate this information would in the minds of the occupants reduce the power of the item and risk the Evil Eye. Others feel contemporary writers did not describe it since superstition ran counter to prevailing religious beliefs and the Puritans punishment of witchcraft and magic was well-known. Some speculate the tradition of hiding shoes was a male preoccupation and kept secret almost out of fear that talking about it would reduce its effectiveness. Shoes finds in older buildings were not restricted to the UK and are regularly reported across Europe, North America and Australia.
In Snowdonia Wales, building contractors working on the external walls of a 400-year-old cottage in Nant Gwynant, recently discovered nearly 100 single shoes hidden beneath the fireplace of a chimney stack. The house was built during the 17th century and is one of the oldest buildings remaining in Nant Gwynant. Experts believe the find could form “the largest collection of concealed footwear ever discovered in the UK. There are over 1,000 recorded concealed shoes which have been found in the UK and the earliest dates back to the 14th century. A collection of 100 concealed shoes is kept at the Northampton Museum where an index is kept to record all UK finds.
In North America concealed shoes have been reported in New England, but there have also been finds of buried shoes as far south as Virginia and far west as Missouri. A treasure trove of old shoes was found hidden in the house walls of two buildings in Wayland, Massachusetts. A rare of a baby's shoe was reported when an 18th century house was being demolished. The ankle high white shoe was discovered in a wall with some small wooden toys and ears of corn. Since 1750 the house had undergone many additions and experts remain unclear whether the shoes were hidden at the time the original house was built or in a later renovation. Others finds include a toddler's shoe built into the wall near a downstairs fireplace in another house . Hidden with it was an old sleigh bell.
Hidden in the walls of a Gettysburg dormitory was a man’s boot made from calfskin leather and estimated to be 160 years old. The boot had a square toe and thin sole. The boot was cut neatly in half, and determined to be deliberate and made before the hand-sewn boot was concealed within the wall. Other similar finds have been discovered elsewhere but scholars are unable to explain why these boots were cut in half. Crews working to convert the 180-year-old Schmucker Hall, a former dormitory at the Lutheran Theological Seminary , into an interpretive museum found the cut shoe which was one of four with the oldest dated to the 1830s. Workers also discovered letters to Civil War soldiers and glass sarsaparilla bottles.
Ian Evans is an Australian historian and collects examples of concealed shoes from across the Big Brown land. Evans has reported over 130 sites across Australia, from bridges and houses, to prisons where shoes and other clothing have been concealed and believes many more items, possibly thousands, remain hidden in the country's older settlements.
In the south east pylon of the Sydney Harbor Bridge someone left a child’s shoe in an access tunnel, not far from the Opera House. Evans believes this was concealed by a builder or stonemason in order to protect the structure from evil forces. In the 1923 when the Bridge was build young children did not work on the project and the shoe was new and of high quality, suggesting it was planted there deliberately.
One other remarkable example in Australia was found at an isolated 19th century country house in Western Creek, Tasmania. At first the owner found a single shoe in an attic space and dismissed it, thinking it may have been a rat or possum that dragged it into its lair. Then when he found a further 20 shoes hidden in other hard-to-get-at locations behind walls, up chimneys, and in attic spaces he realized this was more than coincidence.
The Northampton Museum keep a concealed shoe index and are keen to add to the index. The Museum requires the following information:
Address of building
Date of the building if known and date of any alterations / building work
What the building was / is such as a private house, pub, farm etc.
Where it was found within the building
Note if anything else was found with it
Description of the footwear
Date of the footwear
Images of the footwear in situ
Cameron E., Swann J., Volken M., and Pitt F. 1998 Hidden shoes and concealed beliefs Archaeologoical Leather Group Newsletter 7 February 1998, 2-6.
Dinah Eastop Deliberately Concealed Garments Project Making sense of garment concealment
Dixon-Smith D 1990 Concealed Shoes Archaeological Leather Group Newsletter Spring No6 pp2-4.
Kennedy D 2012 Concealed shoes: Australian settlers and an old superstition BBC News Magazine
Mackay A 1991 Northampton Museums Concealed Shoe Index Archaeologoical Leather Group Newsletter 7.
Swann, J. 1969. Shoes concealed in buildings. Northampton County Borough Museums and Art Gallery Journal, 6, December 1969, 8-21.
Swann J 1996 Shoes concealed in buildings Costume, Number 30, pp. 56-69(14)
Ralph Merrifield, The Archaeology of Ritual and Magic , B.T. Batsford Ltd., London, 1987