Shoes in the attic

Jan Doerr 1
“Sealer of leather”

When Chicken Little said the sky was falling, I did not take that to mean corsets and shoe lasts. I’ve learned while restoring and renovating my old house that the unexpected is to be expected, that making a change here means a ripple effect of changes there, and that what goes up must come down, usually when I’m not expecting it.

When our carpenters were working on the original back staircase, everything seemed to fall out of the old ceiling: square hand-cut nails, buttons, a hand-cut wooden spoon, a wooden shoe last, some small bones I’d rather not discuss, but not one bag of Colonial-era coin, no now-priceless daily diaries.

The shoe last is interesting if not wholly exciting because the gentleman who built this house, Asa Williams (1758–1820), was a cordwainer, or shoe maker. It makes sense to me that if he could make shoes he could also repair them, but in various extant records he is called a cordwainer, not a cobbler (one who repairs shoes). He was also a tanner as well as the town’s “sealer of leather,” making sure that leather was sold for honest quality and quantity.

Jan Doerr 2The man knew his leather and his shoes. For any one customer, Asa would have made two shoes exactly the same using a straight last; left and right shoes weren’t common until sometime after the mid-1800s. There are shoemakers today who make Colonial era shoes for re-enactors; some of those shoes are straight last shoes which do not conform to the shape of the foot. Try walking in them sometime: not such happy feet! My old shoe last is hand-cut of wood, carved with the initials “D.R.S.,” sports a carved instep and a spot of felt or leather along the toes to help conform new leather to an old foot, and is a curved last for a woman’s right foot: i.e., it was used for a pair of left and right shoes. Without doubt Asa did not make or use this last, but because he undoubtedly passed his knowledge on to his son, perhaps Asa Jr. also made shoes, perhaps for a local lady whose initials are “D.R.S.”

Jan Doerr 3The latest artifact to appear came out of a chimney closet wall under repair and is a man’s leather shoe with no apparent inclination as to left or right foot. The heel sports enough nails to defy time and surely it has. Unfortunately, the shoe did not withstand whatever chewed on it, a subject I also refuse to consider.

This straight-last man’s shoe is possibly one of Asa’s handmade shoes, and an example of the old British custom of hiding single, worn out shoes around chimneys, under floors, above ceilings, or around doors and windows to ward off evil, witches, and those ghoulies and ghosties of children’s prayer fame, or to bestow fertility on a female member of the house. (It might have worked: Asa and Eunice had nine children, and their daughter Elizabeth W. Hamlen had five.) If the shoe was indeed hidden around that chimney for any superstitious custom, it is an interesting addition to Asa’s reputation as a devout Protestant and his position in the local meetinghouse as tythingman, a church member who enforced attendance at Sunday services. It was also his duty to assure wakefulness during notoriously long sermons by tickling the noses of sleeping offenders with a feather attached to one end of a staff, or knocking them on the head for a second offense with the knob at the staff’s other end. (I suppose he could have just thrown a shoe at them.)

Even though most of our restoration has been completed (only two more ceilings to go!), I am eagerly but warily anticipating whatever falls down, hard hat at the ready. Chicken Little has nothing on this house.

Jan Doerr

About Jan Doerr

Jan Doerr received a B.A. degree in Sociology/Secondary Education from the University of New Hampshire, and spent a long career in the legal profession while researching her family history. She has recently written and published articles for WBUR.org’s Cognoscenti blog: “Labor of Love: Preserving a 226-Year-Old Family Home and Preparing to Let It Go” and “The Value of Family Heirlooms in a Digital Age.” Jan currently lives with her attorney husband in Augusta, Maine, where she serves two Siamese cats and spends all her retirement money propping up a really old house.

8 thoughts on “Shoes in the attic

    1. That might explain why we found an old-fashioned high-top leather shoe when we were having the flooring of the porch redone on our 1870s Victorian house. Not to mention the skeleton of a long-deceased cat. And quite a few old pennies were scattered about- another superstition?

    2. Yes please continue! I not only enjoyed the story, but learned more about cordwainers. My ancestors were employed in that craft at about that same time. The information was wonderful!

  1. I loved this story! My great-grandfather was trained as a cobbler and my brother has his finds (metal and wooden). But I never heard of hiding old shoes near a chimney or hearth. Was this custom confined to the Brits, or was something similar done in the Germanic countries.

  2. I’ve heard a number of stories here in Maine o f people renovating old houses and finding shoes in the attic near the chimney. Staunch church members New Englanders might have been but they kept their superstitions going.By the way, I hear it was considered bad luck to remove the shoes, so perhaps you should put the shoes you found back!

  3. I knew restoring old houses had its moments but I had no idea that old shoes falling out of ceilings was one of them. One of my ggg grandfathers, who was b. in New York, is shown in the 1850 census in Indiana as a shoemaker. I wonder if this is late enough that he might have known both straight last and right left lasts? If any of his lasts outlasted him, and were thought by her family to be of lasting value, they would probably have gone down to one of her eight children.

    I’m learning that the value a family places on its heirlooms has much less to do with monetary value than with sentimental value. We have a top hat that my Norwegian great grandfather brought with him when he emigrated to North Dakota about 1887. Nobody knows quite why he chose to bring such a seemingly impractical, let alone fragile, object when traveling steerage. We do know he’d been part of a men’s chorus that, according to stories my grandfather told, had been invited to sing before Queen Victoria. My grandfather, twelve when he, his younger siblings, and their mother followed in 1890, retained very clear memories of even his early childhood in Norway. I know no way to prove the story, but can only assume my grandfather remembered that story correctly too. Going to sing before the queen may alone account for why his father took the hat. He’d been prosperous, but was suddenly impoverished when his business burnt down. So he had to leave his family behind, going to America to earn enough money to send for them. I wish I knew the complete story, but at least we have the top hat as an indication of its importance to him, though it’s not been well preserved, and is now very battered and worn.

  4. Great story! I really enjoyed reading about your cordwainer. I learned a lot about cordwainers – there are a few in my extended ancestry and I had no idea what a tythingman was. Bet he wasn’t so popular with the neighbours!

  5. Love reading your work. Many of my ancestors were cordwainers and morocco leather men for well over a 100 years in Lynn, Ma. Placed on purpose or lost by accident, many things end up in the floors, ceilings, and walls of houses. They are after all, part of our life.

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