The Mysterious Concealed Shoe Index

Why would someone in 16th-century England hide an old worn shoe in the floorboards of their home? What is a child’s boot doing hidden in the brickwork of a fireplace?

These are the questions the concealed shoe index is trying to answer. Simply, the index is a list compilation of concealed shoes found and reported.

What we know:

  • The shoes are almost always worn out
  • There is often only a single shoe—the match is missing
  • Many of the shoes are those of children
  • Most shoes were placed during construction
  • Workers have been known to replace concealed shoes if they find them while renovating
  • The practice dates back to the 1500s

Why one shoe? One reason that single shoes were used was that it kept evil spirits from stealing them. Surely a demon wouldn’t walk around in one shoe. Thus, the shoe’s protection would stay in place.

concealed shoes

Concealed shoe collection, Northampton Museum

Starting the Index

According to the Northampton Museum, concealed shoes have been invaluable in studying what common people were wearing hundreds of years ago.

The Northampton Museum in England created the concealed shoe index, and there are approximately 1,900 finds on the index today. The index doesn’t just include shoes in the UK though, but concealed shoes have been reported in the US, Canada, France, Spain, and Poland.

The museum started the index in the late 1950s after the Head of the Shoe and Boot department, John Thornton, realized that some of the shoes they received were found under mysterious circumstances.

Museum historians wondered why children’s boots would be hidden atop a chimney. Their curiosity eventually led to the creation of the index.

concealed shoe

Woman’s 16th-cenetury concealed shoe

Where are shoes found?

The shoes show up in all manner of homes, including cottages, mansions, farms, palaces, pubs, cathedrals, hospitals, schools, and even Charlie Chaplin’s old movie studio.

Most shoes are found by workmen, and likely go unreported, but the museum has also found that many property owners refuse to allow the shoes to leave their residence.

Other theories

While the prevailing theory is that hiding shoes was a superstitious practice meant to ward off evil, a few other theories have been floated.

Shoes have often been associated with fertility in England. Practices include attaching shoes to wedding cars, throwing a shoe after a bride, and an odd practice called “smickling”.

Smickling was the practice of childless women trying on the shoes of a woman who had just given birth in order to enhance their own fertility.

Another curious association between shoes and fertility is ascribed to the nursery rhyme “There was an old woman who lived in a shoe…”