Witch Repellent or Fertility Charm - Old Soles in the Walls

Witch Repellent or Fertility Charm – Old Soles in the Walls

Old House Tales

See a Penny, Pick it up and all the day long you'll have good luck. Leave it there and you'll despair.

by Cheryl Hackett

When American homes were constructed during the 17th and 18th centuries, intrepid settlers most likely needed more than a day’s worth of good fortune. Building a home and raising a family in the new world certainly required faith, courage, and a smidgen of good luck.

In those uncertain times, perhaps horseshoes nailed above doors and crickets placed in hearths did not pack enough positive energy to ward off evil spirits. Colonists sought powerful, time tested symbols that were a shoe in for good luck…..so to speak. Those brave souls relied on an English superstition dating back to the 1500s that called for placing well-worn family shoes in eaves, chimneys, walls and floors during construction and renovation. Some said that shoes were placed in the construction of a building to serve as a fertility charm has a supposed connection the the nursery rhyme, “There was an Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe“.

Another more popular theory was that old shoes were protection against evil witches, daemons and ghosts and were deftly built into the house so they could not be accessed.  Evidently, 14th-century English saint, John Schorne, was said to have trapped the Devil in a boot, giving birth to the fact that shoes could ward off evil spirits.  Hence, shoes or boots in the walls would keep the house safe.

Sherman's Shoes in Newport, Rhode Island

When we began restoring an 1811 Federal home in Newport, Rhode Island last spring, we discovered three concealment shoes. A man’s shoe was tucked in the eaves, a woman’s shoe was placed beside the chimney in a second-storey bedroom, and a child’s shoe presided above the cooking hearth on the main floor. We do not know when the shoes were concealed in the home, but their style suggests that the Shermans strategically set them in place when they built an addition in the mid-19th century. Holding over 100 years of history in the palm of our hands is the type of astonishment that triggers goose bumps!

Regardless of who concealed the shoes or the exact day they were hidden, we are delighted that the child’s shoe proved to the luckiest of all. Adjacent to the tiny worn leather artifact were charred and burnt timbers that had been exposed to the hearth’s open flames when the chimney mortar gave way and sent bricks tumbling into the fireplace. It was nothing short of miraculous that the entire house was not consumed by fire. Good luck prevailed for the Shermans and the house survived other maleficent forces that wreak havoc on New England homes such as hurricanes, blizzards, fires, floods, and those dastardly economic downturns.

Women’s fabric lace ankle shoe or low boot with front lacing. Mid-19th century.(Photo courtesy of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery)


Following Footsteps

The Shermans’ concealment shoes certainly sparked our curiosity. We had so many questions concerning the history and origins of this practice. I reached out to Rebecca Shawcross, Senior Shoe Curator at the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery in the United Kingdom. The museum maintains a concealed shoe index with approximately 1,900 entries from all over the U.K and also records concealed shoe finds in North America, Canada, and a number of countries in Europe including France, Spain and Poland.

We proudly registered the Shermans’ shoes in the index. To register your concealed shoes in the museum’s index visit: Northampton Museums .

Our 19th century shoe discoveries in the Sherman House, Newport, RI. (right to left) a man’s shoe discovered in the eaves; a child’s shoe discovered near the cooking hearth and a woman’s shoe discovered on the second floor.

Rebecca proved to be a valuable resource and was kind enough to share copies of articles written by her colleagues June Swan and Denise Dixon-Smith. Here are some excerpts from the articles:.

“Shoes and other footwear have been found built into the fabric of houses in the southern half of England and Wales, and there are also isolated examples in Northern America, at St David’s, Ontario, Canada, and Colonial Williamsburg, U.S.A. The most northerly example in England recorded in Northampton Museum is at Eyam, in Derbyshire. The date of the shoes ranges from the early 15th century in Tewkesbury Abbey to 1935 in Warham St. Mary, Norfolk. The Comparatively recent date of the latter suggests there may be people who could give a reason for the practice, other than the desire to leave a record of the times, as in the more usual burying of coins, newspapers, etc., in foundations of new buildings. In this last category, it is interesting to note that Norvic buried one of their latest models of a lady’s high leg boot in the foundations, when buildings a new factory in Norwich in 1964. The Shoes are usually found not in the foundations, but in the walls, under window sills, over door lintels, in rubble floors, behind wainscoting, under staircases, under first story floorboards, in the chimney breast or in the thatch or rafters. There are too many examples for the shoes to have been lost accidentally. Many can be shown to date either from the period of the building of the house or from the major alteration, such as the insertion of a chimney and floor, or re-roofing. There are a number of examples, too, of pictures of shoes or footprints scratched onto lead roofs, which may be part of the same idea. The Condition of the shoes, like the objects found with them, is usually very poor, worn out, patched or repaired. Only two cases are known where a new shoe was concealed, both 19th century examples, and these may have been hidden for the same reason as the Norvice boot, although 18th and 19th century patterns have turned up in unworn condition. As the practice covers such a long period, it is probably that more than one reason is involved, the number of superstitions connected with shoes being infinite. Some may been sacrificial objects, such as the one with the chickens, and four examples are known of concealed shoes which have been deliberately cut – one, the upper of a substantial shoe, had been cut many times, which would have required a very sharp knife and considerable effort. The dates of the shoes are late 17th century, 1730 – 60 (this example had been suspended with string through the quarters long enough to crease the leather) and two from 1840 – 50`s. When shoes were found recently in a North Wales cottage, the finder was advised not to throw them away, as that would bring bad luck, though the witness of the 1935 concealment could get no reason from his father, who appeared somewhat ashamed of what he was doing.”By June Swann, J.M., ‘Shoes Concealed in Buildings’, Northampton Museum Journal 6'(December 1969)

The practice of deliberately concealing shoes in buildings is probably the most common superstitious practice of the post-medieval period. The earliest known shoe concealment dating to that century. There is no utilitarian reason for this practice, yet all the shoes are in inaccessible places, often necessitating building work for them to be hidden. Examples are usually discovered when people start repairing or renovating old houses. The most common places are chimneys, walls, under floorboards, and in roofs. Other hiding places are bricked-up ovens, around doors, windows and staircases. One reason for hiding shoes in chimneys and around doors may have been because these were ‘openings’ where evil spirits could enter the home, and the shoe – as a good luck symbol – should warn them off. The high number of shoes hidden in chimneys and ovens, together representing over a quarter of concealment, can be attributed to the fact that these were central places in the home, providing warmth and used for cooking food. Therefore it was important to protect them. Almost without exception, the hidden shoes have been well worn, often beyond repair. This is almost certainly an important part of the custom. Unlike other items of clothing, shoes retain the shape of the wearer’s body – showing the foot shape, the fit of the shoe, and even foot deformities. Because of this, many people think that shoes contain animism, or the spirit of the wearer. Therefore, one can see why the custom grew around shoes. Men’s, women’s and children’s shoes are all represented, but it is significant that at least half are children’s (one-fifth are men’s, and nearly a third are women’s, but some examples could not be placed definitely in any category because of condition, or insufficient information). The owner of a mid 19th century child’s shoe found in a house in Montrose said it had been the custom for Montrose women to put the first shoes of a baby, once worn, in the roof as a good luck token. Certainly, women often keep a baby’s first shoes for sentimental reasons, and this probably accounts for the high number of smaller size children’s shoes found hidden."


By Denise Dixon-Smith, 'Concealed Shoes', Archaeological Leather Group Newsletter No.6 Spring 1990.

Don't Break the Good Luck Chain

The most important thing to know about discovering concealed shoes in an old home is that the relics should remain in place. Never, never remove them. Simply photograph the hidden treasures and promptly return them to their nooks where they can resume their noble duty as brave soles, bringing good luck to homes and staving off disaster.

Fragments of printed paper and scraps of dress material and a bird skeleton. 18th – 19th century. (Photo courtesy of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery)

Cover image: Cheryl Hackett and John Grosvenor’s restoration project of their home in Newport, Rhode Island

This article first appeared in our original site, The Daily Basics.com.

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