2 - The History of Foot Trouble

The Shoe Industry and Foot Health

High Heels and Pointed Toes in Court Society - Yearning for a Disabling Shoe - Fashionable Shoes Can Be Inexpensively Made - The New Sickness - Disabling a Population with Shoes - Saddle Shoes and the jitterbug - "Flats" Start a Revolution - A Lesson to Be Learned

Foot trouble struck American and European urbanized populations about eighty years ago. It changed the patterns of all our lives-more radically than most of us realize. Suddenly we became a crippled race. How did it happen?

High Heels and Pointed Toes in Court Society

There is no record of foot troubles in Biblical times comparable to modern foot ills. In the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian civilizations it was practically unknown. Since people then wore the thong-type sandal, open at the toes, or often went barefoot, there was little chance for corns, calluses, ingrown toenails or fallen arches to develop. Where people continue to wear sandals today, as in the Far East and Central America, foot trouble is almost an unheard-of phenomenon. And even though Northern Europeans and North Americans, living in colder climates and needing to have their feet totally covered, have always worn closed shoes, foot trouble was uncommon among them also until the advent of the Industrial Revolution.

The seeds of foot trouble were first sown, however, in the Renaissance when the elevation of the heel-the first characteristic of modern deforming footwear came into use. Catherine de Medici, a queen of short stature, wanted to appear taller, and had chopines put on her shoes. The chopine itself was not deforming because, unlike our modern heel, it elevated the entire foot. The elevated heel that followed, however, left the fore part of the foot on the ground and raised the heel, forcing the foot into a completely unnatural position.

A few centuries later heels became commonplace in court society and were worn by men and women alike, even though perpetual wearing of high heels caused shortened calf muscles. However, with the introduction of gunpowder and infantry warfare, men found it necessary to discard their high heels, while women continued to wear them.

About the same time that the heel came into usage, pointed-toed shoes became stylish. Early pointed toes differed somewhat from those seen today, in that they became pointed much beyond the foot-so far beyond the foot, indeed, that the long ends had to be fastened to the ankles or below the knees.

The introduction of the elevated heel and the pointed toe marked the beginning of modern foot disabilities - although during the period described, the majority of the population did not use these styles and had no appreciable foot trouble. Only the nobility could afford such shoes, and in those days, with sufficient servants to attend to one's needs and with carriages for transportation, a deforming shoe offered no great handicap. A lady of wealth of the eighteenth century had to endure very little stress from disabled feet with a footman and maid at her disposal. If similar shoes had been worn by the maid and the footman, they would have been miserable, but the working people did not wear a fashionable, constricting shoe which kept the toes pressed together and weakened and deformed the foot. Why, then, did such disabling footwear persist? What were the events and developments that made it appear reasonable, even desirable, for whole populations to cripple themselves?

Before the French Revolution, nobility considered the broad, muscular, but competent, bare foot of the peasant working in the fields as common and ugly; especially since they themselves had no need for strong feet and legs. It was their esthetic ideal to have tiny feet and delicate lower limbs. A way to achieve this was to cultivate smaller feet in early childhood. Accordingly, children of the wealthier classes, from their earliest years, were forced to wear shoes designed to keep their feet small. Cinderellas had to be born among the wealthy.

Yearning for a Disabling Shoe

The "leisure class" was fated to disappear. The Revolution took place in France. In England the common man obtained more privileges, while in the United States democracy became a reality. Yet the average woman wanted to imitate the waning nobility. There could be no greater embodiment of her dreams of "being a lady" than to wear the tiny shoes of a woman of wealth. If people could have afforded to, they would all have bought small shoes for their children as the nobility had done. Here was the beginning of a great yearning for a deforming type of footgear.

In the early nineteenth century the makers of shoes knew only too well the people's desire for a tiny fashionable shoe. But it took two or three days for a well-paid craftsman to make a single pair of such shoes. The cotton gin and the steam engine were invented in this era of industrial progress, but the shoe still had to be laboriously made by hand. The easiest footgear to make was the boot, in which the upper leather needed only to be hand stitched to the sole. With the invention of the sewing machine, limited mass production was possible. The uppers now could be sewn by machine, and cobblers would then hand sew them onto the soles. The need, now, was for a machine that would attach the sole to the upper.

The growth of new industries and commerce created the wealthy middle classes in America and European cities. This class could afford hand-made shoes. Soon, their children's feet were being molded to resemble the tiny, delicate feet of aristocrats. For the bulk of the population however, feet remained large and healthy. For example, a typical boy of a working class or farm family in the United States during the Civil War days was accustomed to go barefoot from spring to fall. Before starting school, he was sent to a cobbler who would make his shoes by hand, according to the measurements of each foot-leaving extra room for growth (since shoes were such a luxury) so that the child's foot was kept free of deformity.

Boots were so expensive that when it snowed a child would often run to school barefoot, with his precious shoes tied around his neck. When he got to school, he would dry his feet and put his boots on again, none the worse for his experience. This was the last period when children in the United States could reach maturity with the prospect of sound, healthy feet.

Fashionable Shoes Can Be Inexpensively Made

In 1858, Lyman R. Blake invented shoe machinery that could attach soles to uppers (the Mckay process). Overnight the United States had a new industry - manufactured shoes. It will be easy to understand how rapidly factory shoes became distributed if we compare it to the distribution of television sets. During the first five years of television, practically everyone in the country began viewing television programs at regular intervals. Equally phenomenal was the growth of the shoe industry in the past century. Age long dreams of inexpensive shoes came true. Within five years, shoe manufacturing had developed to a point where everyone could afford to wear the shoes of an aristocrat.

Some fifty years after stylish shoes had become available to all, having a tiny foot and wearing the shoes of an aristocrat was still a strong passion for most Americans. Trying to explain to working girls that these new shoes were meant for leisure and not for standing behind counters and in front of kitchen sinks was like talking to someone in a delirium. To these women, what mattered corns, calluses, fallen arches, when they could don the dainty footwear of the wealthy? Overnight American women were trying to push their feet into Cinderella's tiny slippers. Not only the women, but the men, too, had to have the aristocratic pointed shoes.

In those years following the Civil War, shoes were not sold for their utilitarian value. Style, fashion, and exquisiteness of design were the characteristics emphasized - and that sold shoes. The French heel and the dainty line of the opera pump became standard equipment for the American female in all her activities. For the male, nothing less than the cut of the dancing slipper of the English nobility would do-and these shoes were worn for business. To sell shoes, manufacturers competed with each other in making shoes ever more "stylish." The toe of the shoe was shaped in a sharp point. When it was fitted over the normally squat toes, the toes were cramped into a space only one third or less their normal breadth. Never in the history of mankind had a population so willfully and so innocently disfigured a vital part of their body.

Other forces contributed to the mania. Peddlers who formerly toured the countryside selling ready-made clothes now sold ready-made shoes. These shoes were more fashionable than the local cobbler could supply. Department stores, because of the success of ready-made clothing and footwear, started to flourish. They soon could afford to spend large sums of money for advertising, and so further increase the desire for and the distribution of the new fashionable shoes.

The New Sickness

In the 1880's Dr. George M. Beard published two books in which he described a new sickness--exhaustive chronic fatigue-which was afflicting portions of American and Western European populations. The appearance of this illness, coincided with the advent of the newly manufactured shoe.

Dr. S. Wier Mitchell, in the 1900's, became famous for his treatment of this physical exhaustion (described in his book. which is still obtainable, Fat and Blood). Dr. Mitchell noted how healthy European immigrants would come to our shores only to be afflicted with the new illness. The exact causes of this chronic fatigue were unknown, but Dr. Mitchell and other scientists stated that shoes and other disabling types of clothing, such as corsets, were a cause.

Although books were written, sermons given, and crusades inaugurated to end the evil practice of wearing corsets which twisted the female into ridiculous shapes and crushed her ribs, lungs and abdominal organs, the accompanying crippling of the very foundation of the human structure received much less notice and very little was written or said about it.

Disabling a Population with Shoes

Wherever the newly manufactured shoes were worn, crippled feet followed. As a practicing chiropodist for over twenty years, I have seen the feet of scores of men and women who, in the latter part of the nineteenth and early part of the twentieth century, had worn the early products of the shoe industry. In a great many cases, the toes were crumpled together so badly that one toe lay upon another.

The owner of such feet was often a woman - physically incompetent and so helpless that the least strain would cause her to faint. Doors had to be opened for her, chairs put under her when she sat down, and care taken not to disturb her delicate sensibilities and constitution.

Disabled feet were more a phenomenon of this country than of Europe. I recall as a child that boys who had come as immigrants from Europe were more sturdy and vigorous than my shoe-wearing playmates born here in the United States. Adults who had spent their childhood in Europe were frequently perplexed about the relative weakness of American-born children. As a child I heard my father ask, "Why are American-born children so physically inferior to European born?"

My father was born in a rural district in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was not until he was fifteen that he owned a pair of shoes. During the warm weather he went barefoot, and in the winter he wrapped a kind of burlap around each toe and over the foot; after that he put on a felt-type boot. Never in those years were his feet damaged. My father today, at seventy-five, has more physical vigor in his limbs and gets less tired than many shoe-crippled youngsters fifty years his junior.

Shoes were at their crippling worst in the United States at the turn of the century when the needle-pointed toe shapes were popular. Fortunately, that era did not last long. About 1915 a wave of reform began to take place, and the physical-culture shoe with its broad toe was introduced. The shoe did not have a great vogue, but it was fashionable enough so that shoe factories began to make the toes of their shoes a little less pointed. From 1915 to 1935, people had only to squeeze their toes into a space about one half the proper breadth. While this was an improvement, it was not great enough to prevent deformation of the feet. It was rare to find a little toe without a corn or a big toe without at least a modest bunion. With toes so constricted, everyone had trouble with fallen arches to some degree.

Saddle Shoes and the Jitterbug

But shoes had taken a course toward non-crippling footwear. Young girls in the late 1930's had lost their reverence for queens and duchesses. They began to admire the athletic-type woman-the champion tennis player or Channel swimmer. To these adolescent products of the depression, the axiom that tiny feet made a lady was a fairy tale. The popular form of footgear was the two-toned oxford, or saddle shoe, which was sloppy and roomy-it became the style for high-school girls. For the first time in forty years a girl did not have to put on two-inch-high heels when she got to be fourteen or fifteen years old, as a badge of maturity.

The advent of jitterbug dancing also had an effect on the shoe styles of the day, since this dance required a good deal of acrobatics and could be performed best in a flat shoe. But doctors, shoe clerks, grandmothers, and even preachers-all opposed the new style of shoes for adolescents. A flat, broad-toed shoe, they said, was bad for the arches, and they predicted doom for these girls' feet. However, it was in this generation of women that I saw an approximation of normal feet for the first time in many decades. Grandmothers with gnarled toes would scold their grandchildren and insist no one could possibly walk without support in their shoes. Yet, those who disregarded that advice are the ones who have the better feet today.

"Flats" Start a Revolution

By the early 1940's the saddle-shoe wearers had grown to maturity. When a few manufacturers put out flat shoes as a novelty, these young women bought them all up and wanted more. The shoe industry predicted that the vogue for "flats" was a fad and would not last. They were wrong. A shoe merchant went over his records with me. In 1953 he sold sixty per cent "flats" of all shoes sold, and his was a high-fashion shoe store. In 1940 only five per cent of his total sales had been in "flats." In cheaper shoe stores the percentages were much higher. A revolution was taking place in women's footwear. The old-line manufacturers who could not change with the tide were swept out of business. Within a scant decade, women ceased being near-cripples and were on the way to normal feet once again.

Today, women's shoe styles are becoming more functional. The modern young woman does not wear pointed, high-heeled shoes constantly, as her grandmother did. She wears broad-toed casuals to neighborhood stores, perhaps thong sandals in the summer, and even slipper socks around the house in the winter.

A Lesson to Be Learned

How different it was when I first began my chiropody practice in 1933. Husbands used to bring their wives to my office complaining that the women were crippling their feet. The wives would explain that they could not go out in the street in flat-heeled shoes because it was unstylish-they would rather suffer pain than be comfortable. Whenever the subject of women's styles in footwear came up, people would throw up their hands in horror and say, "That's one subject you can't talk about reasonably with a woman." In the 1960's the situation is almost reversed. Wives now bring their husbands into my office and,, complain, "If only my husband would wear lighter shoes with broader toes, he would have less foot trouble."

If a lesson about foot trouble can be learned from history, it is that we are at the mercy of the latest shoe styles. We should take warning from it, for now, just when we have returned to more sane footwear, high fashion has dictated a return to the pointed-toed shoes of fifty years ago. Style conscious women have demanded these shoes for themselves and, more important, are now demanding this style for their children as well. As a result, the bunions and compressed toes of our grandparents are again being formed in children's feet.

How Shoes Cripple Our Feet


The Shoe Industry and Foot Health