These Shoes are Made for Walking

March 1, 2010 | By More

Shoes have been around since civilization began and people have been trying to find the perfect pair ever since. 

The first footwear was strictly dictated by Mother Nature. Untanned animal hides boots or woven reed sandals probably clad our distant ancestor’s feet to protect them from the elements. In the 12th Century, wooden footwear cut from single piece of wood, called, a “sabot” was developed and shod European peasants for centuries. Today we call them ‘clogs.’

Eventually, tanned leather became the gold standard for shoes, yet, most people were lucky to own a few pair during their lives. During the Civil War, impoverished southern families often went barefoot, while those people who lived in prosperous industrialized areas wore custom-fit leather shoes.

Still, shoes weren’t made to individually fit right or left feet and real comfort was not an option.

Fortunately, shoes fit our anatomy these days and while leather footwear is still popular, rubber and synthetic materials dominate the shoe market.

“It’s all about comfort today,” said Doug Bryan, who along with his wife, Sydra, and Bryan’s two sisters, Debby Goodman and Jan Storment, owns and operates The Family Shoe Store in Clarksville. The business is an old-fashioned shoe store started by his deceased relative, Uncle Taft “the cobbler” Mathis, in 1949 along with his wife, Hazel Mathis. Taft retired in 1979 and sold the business and building it occupied to Travis Bryan, father of Doug and his sisters.

During the 1950’s to late 1970’s Mathis’ business was to cobble or fix shoes, often by replacing old leather soles for new soles sewn to old shoe tops.

“Shoes were important to people back then and they took care of them,” said Bryan. “A day didn’t go buy that we didn’t sell a can of shoe polish,” he added.

In the old days, all shoes had leather soles. “People used to keep their shoes for a long time, maybe because they fit better,” said Mildred Martin, who has worked 50+ years as the store’s helpful shoe clerk. At 82 years young, this spritely senior knows the ins-and-outs of fitting shoes.

Each shoe used to come in “combination lasts” or width sizes, one for the instep and one for the heel. “You could have an AAA narrow heel and a wide D in-step. A lot of older customers still come in and ask for that,” said Martin. Shoes come in only one width now, but we still custom fit our customers, she added.

“People purchased shoes at local shoe stores back then and probably wore better fitting shoes than they do today with all the self-serve stores and such,” said Martin. American-made shoes also used to be well-made with quality workmanship and materials, said Bryan. Shoes like that are still available today but it’s hard to compete by price points with the less expensive imports offered, he added. “It’s sad. More than 90% of shoes on the market today are foreign made.”

The selection of shoes available on the market and differences in sizing make shoe buying even more confusing.

“We didn’t have so many different brands when I started here. We carried Weatherbird Shoes, which gave savings stamps, Buster Brown for children, and Peters shoes for men, said Martin.

The shoe store has a replica of a size 37 Peters shoe made for giant Robert Wadlow, who until recently held the Guinness Book of World Records as the world’s tallest man at 8 ft. 11in. Martin got to see Wadlow when he came to the store as part of a promotional tour.

“They brought him in sitting on the back of a flat bed trailer,” she remembered.

The old brands, including Peters, are all gone now except Converse, said Martin.

“When I started working here, we didn’t sell many tennis shoes. Converse was the only brand you could get along with Red Ball Jets,” she explained.

Today, with so many styles and brands, athletic shoes are marketed as fashion statements and have become the most popular sellers, said Martin.

“Everyone wears athletic shoes now. Back then, people didn’t want to wear tennis shoes. It meant you were poor because tennis shoes were the cheapest thing you could buy. Now, some sell for over $100 a pair, and athletic shoes are the most expensive shoes you can wear.”

Martin believes that today’s shoe buyer is most concerned about comfort, but comfort isn’t the only consideration. Consider high heels, a style definitely not made for comfort.

“The old saying was if your feet don’t hurt, you’re not dressed up enough,” laughed Martin. “We sold a lot of dress shoes back then with pointed “toothpick” toes and real high heels with purses to match. Now, we hardly sell dress shoes anymore.”

“Styles are much more casual today and although pointed shoes did come back in for a time, they were not nearly as popular as the first time around,” said Martin. Another trendy style was dyeing shoes to match a dress.

“Taft used to ‘sweat bullets’ to match colors,” Martin said.

And what’s the newest fashion trend in women’s foot wear? Not surprisingly, it is athletic shoes, but these are purported to shape up and tighten leg and butt muscles while you wear them. In fact, the slogan on one brand reads “Get in shape without setting foot in the gym”. According to Bryan, these styles are selling like hot cakes.

The trick is these shoes keep you off balance, said Bryan. One brand has a rolling bottom to simulate walking in sand, which is a trick. Another brand has air pockets in the soles, so that you are constantly working leg muscles to maintain your balance.

Some people try them and love them, some not, said Bryan. But, whatever the customer’s preference, the store tries to accommodate them. If a customer doesn’t like a pair he or she bought here, whether for fit or fashion, we’ll keep trying to find the right pair until the customer is happy, agreed Bryan and Martin.

Even better, they bring the shoes to you while you sit in a comfortable chair and then put the shoes on your feet. Now, that’s real old fashioned service.

Fashion, Fit Rule The Sole

Shoes may protect our feet, but fashion rules our soles. Consider the sayings, “Shoes make the man” or “You can tell a lot about a person by looking at his or her shoes.

Historically, a person’s class was judged by his footwear. In ancient Egypt slaves went barefoot, while average citizens wore woven papyrus sandals. Only those in higher society were allowed to wear shoes with pointed toes.

In the middle ages, shoe points grew to ridiculous lengths. A French King decreed that depending on his subjects rank, shoe points should be between six to 12 inches long. Think Elf’s shoes here — cute, yes, but hardly practical.

High heels are another fashion torture that has continued since the 16th century. In Venice, “stilt-like” platform shoes for women became so high the wearers needed assistance to walk.

And, consider the ancient Chinese foot binding practice, where young girl’s feet were painfully bound for years, to keep their feet from growing properly. While the tiny deformed feet of these unfortunate women were praised in poetry as being delicate as “locust blossoms,” it wasn’t vanity that kept these women in perpetual pain. The underlying thought was that a woman with bound feet could not stray far from home. Talk about being a slave to fashion!

Men’s shoe and boot styles have also been heavily influenced by fashion. In Roman times, soldiers could be distinguished by their footwear, with high topper sandals indicating a higher rank. Is that why “high top” gym shoes are popular again today?

And, look at the status symbol cowboy boots have become. Some pairs sell for over $1,000 a pair, the equivalent of buying a Corvette for your feet.

Fortunately, comfort is fashionable today and a whole industry has built up around shoes and products to soothe our aching feet. There was even a shoe brand some years back named, “Old Ladies Shoes.” Bet they were comfortable, too.

At least basic work boot styles haven’t changed much over the last 100 years. Materials have changed, of course, and wooden soles have been replaced by waterproof synthetic materials, but the good old leather work boot will always be in fashion.

So take comfort, shoe worshipers. Today’s footwear really is made for walking.

 

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