You probably don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the history of tying shoes. This is a wise choice. There are so many other things that need thinking about. You know, like that odd smell that’s maybe of burning plastic that’s sometimes in the hallway when you were gone all day? Or what responsibility we have for that seam line visible on Saturn’s moon Iapetus? Or why all those people are setting up circus tents in your backyard? There’s got to be someone to ask about that. I broke from my habit of non-thinking about tying shoes so that we could have this done once and for all. No, I am not reading about the history of socks. You know why.
For the second-longest time there just wasn’t any tying of shoes. This had four reasons, one of them being that there were no shoes. Shoes were invented for Napoleon Bonaparte’s army after it was noticed that tromping through a thousand miles of Russian snow was really hard on the bare foot. It didn’t help the snow any either, but this is the wrong time of year for me to write about the history of snow-clearing or maybe ice-skating. Napoleon agreed this was a lot of trouble for feet and ordered experts to come up with a way to cover the foot. They did this by the simple process of covering the foot. It was a rousing success and everybody agreed they should have been making shoes for hundreds of years now. This and the overcoming of the other three reasons let shoes become really quite popular.
Still, the earliest shoes weren’t easy to put on or take off. They were slabs of leather that one would fit around the foot and, using needle and thread and Grandmom who knows how to use those sewing tools that look faintly like surgical instruments, stitch closed. This could take until well near bedtime. The British Army spent most of the 1830s with its soldiers never leaving their bunks, just sewing and unsewing their boots all day. This lead to peaceful times and the First Reform Act.
The countries of Western Europe competed to find ways to easily tightening and loosening shoes. Through much of the Civil War the Union armies experimented with welding shoes into place, an action that resulted in many burned ankles and slugged welders. In Scotland rivets were tried. These were of limited use as the striking action of putting rivets in place could magnetize the iron slugs, causing people to walk to the north and find they ran out of Scotland, to their chagrin.
So naturally the breakthrough came in the Ottoman Empire. In 1878 a shoemaker for the Sultan Abdul Hamid II asked, “Why don’t we just punch parallel rows of uniformly spaced holes in the shoes, and then thread a strong string or small rope through the holes to fit them together?” The Sultan, who was in another room, didn’t hear the suggestion but approved it. When this turned out to be a pretty darned good idea after all he nodded as if that had been his intention all along, and quickly ordered an investigation to just what was going on with shoes. I hope this doesn’t end up in his report. He’s got to be expecting something really great if it’s taken all this while to get something on his desk. I’m not arrogant enough to think my essay here that great, but I am earmarking it for this year’s Robert Benchley Society essay contest. Just saying.
Still the early forms were not precisely what we see today. When are they ever? The first attempts used separate laces and loops for each pair of holes, which took forever to deal with. Folks trying to save time as telegraphs and railroads got all snappy and romantic started just tying the top loop together. This made their toes pop out the middle. So they retaliated by poking laces through the other, non-top holes. And so by 1889, on a Tuesday, shoes were finally tied in ways that we would recognize today, on a Friday.
Is there room for improvement? Surely. The glue-covered shoelace solved the problem of unraveled knots, but at the cost of being a right mess. And nobody has anything but embarrassed coughs to say about the frictionless superfluid lace that would slither out of its holes and into the pantry. We may yet scrap the whole project and go back to being barefoot.