Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The Shoe Stick

A continual frustration for many who care for the foot weary is the absence of an international standard shoe size system. Although metrology and reliable measurements have been in existence for over two hundred years, the concept of shoe sizing is relatively recent. Shoe sizing systems based on standard metrological measurements have only been in existence for just over 100 years and shoes made in half sizes for only half that time. As part of the protection many craftsmen operated in early times, shoes were individually coded. Like a painter signing the canvas, shoemakers marked the inside of the shoe with their personal codes. This deliberately kept the size a secret from the customer and virtually ensured their continued loyalty. The remnant of which are still in evidence today with many manufacturers maintaining individual size systems. The first US record of shoes marked with sizes dates back to between 1860 and 1870 and the procedure soon followed in England. It was only full sizes recorded (half sizes did not appear until the late 1880s). In 1886 the Hanan Shoe Co. was the first manufacturer to stamp their name on their shoes. In 1888 the first fitting stool was introduced to the trade by Sollers Shoe Manufacturing Co., Philadephia.

The origin of shoe stick dates back to antiquity and were described in Ancient Egypt, Rome and Greece. Shoe sticks were used by shoe and sandal makers. For centuries each craftsman was free to use his own method of sizing. A common practice was to use parts of the bodies especially the hand and arms as gauges. For example an English yard was the length of the arm i.e. shoulder to fingertips or sometimes nose to fingertips. Troubles arose when the foot was used to measure land because everyone’s foot was different in length this eventually became a source of civil dispute when buying or selling land. In ancient Rome, the inch (which was one twelfth of a foot) measured the width across the (interphalangeal) joint of the thumb. By the 7th century in England, the barleycorn became a standard measurement with three ears of corn, laid end to end, equalling one inch. It took until the thirteenth century before the inch was officially sanctioned. Under pressure, Edward II (r. 1307-27) eventually succumbed to appeals from scholars and tradesmen to issue a decree to standardise measurement (Ledger, 1985). Henceforth an English inch was the distance measured across three barleycorns. Thirty nine (39) barleycorns laid end to end became a foot, and 117 laid end to end became a yard. Whilst the barleycorn decree of Edward II had nothing to do with shoe sizes per se, many shoemakers began to use shoe sticks. Tradesmen had traditionally used the hand span method of measurement, which preferred the quarter of an inch unit, but after the introduction of the barleycorn measure, many began to adopt the third of an inch unit. With 39 barley corns approximating the length of a normal foot this was graded Size 13 and became the largest shoe size. Other sizes were graded down by 1/3 rd of an inch or one barleycorn. It took until 1850 before the first uniform shoe stick using the English size system appeared. Ironically this took place in France and shoe sticks were not accepted in North America, until after 1900.

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