There’s a good chance you don’t think much about the history of tying shoes. I don’t blame you. There are so many other things to think about. There’s that odd smell of burning plastic every time you walk past the bathroom between 9 and 10 pm and no other time of day. There’s what to do about the seam line on Saturn’s totally natural “moon” Iapetus. There’s why all those people are setting up a circus tent in your backyard without even asking. But still, tying shoes is something you could be thinking about, and aren’t.
For over 60 percent of human history there wasn’t any tying of shoes. There were many reasons for this. One was that there weren’t shoes. People in these ancient times might talk about tying shoes. But they were laughed down as impractical dreamers. Such is the fate of everyone who sees an obvious problem and fixes it a little too early. Shoes were invented in 1817, after everyone took a good hard look at how lousy the previous year had been on feet. The French Academy offered prizes to anyone who could invent a practical way to cover the foot. And teams across Europe and Asia did, by the simple process of covering it. The invention was a great success and by 1820 everyone agreed they should have been doing this for hundreds of years.
Still, these early shoes were not easy to put on or take off. To get a secure fit, one had to start with a couple pieces of shoe material. Or, as they called it in the trade, “shoeterial”. Then set your foot in the middle of that, take needle and thread, and stitch the shoeterial closed around your foot. Finishing this could take until near enough bedtime. And then there was nothing to do but un-sew it all. This was quicker, as you could use one of those sewing tools you never quite get the name of, but that you remember grandmom being comfortable with. It could undo the stitching in like no time.
So as happy as everyone was with shoes, they also figured, there’s some better way. Union armies experimented during the United States’s Civil War with welding shoes onto soldiers. This resulted in a great many burned ankles, and even more slugged welders. Rivets were tried in Scotland. But this got nowhere fast. The striking action of putting the rivets would cause the iron slugs to become magnetized. So people would walk naturally toward magnetic north, and stop at the shoreline, which isn’t all that far away in Scotland. They would have got farther if the rivets had started in southern England, but not all that much farther. Now, if they had started in Guatemala, that could have got really far. But they didn’t, and that’s just the history we have to live with.
The breakthrough came in 1878, in the Ottoman Empire. One shoemaker for the Sultan said, “What if we punched parallel rows of uniformly spaced holes in the shoes, and then threaded a strong enough string to tie them temporarily together?” Sultan Abdul Hamid II, who was in another room, didn’t hear the suggestion but approved it. When the hole-punching turned out to be a great success he nodded as if that was what he intended all along. But he still ordered an investigation into what was going on with shoes, just in case.
The first attempts at tying used separate laces and loops with each pair of holes. This took forever but you know the late Victorian era and how everything had to be way too decorative for its own good. We’re lucky the shoelaces didn’t come with doilies attached. For all I know they did. To save time people tried lacing only the one pair of holes they liked best, but then their toes would pop out the empty space between the laces. And you did not want to be a late Victorian with exposed toes. Not given the street-cleaning standards of the day, which held that if the street were clean it was jolly well time to tip over some coal sludge and even more unmentionable things.
So the compensation was to try putting the lace through enough holes that toes wouldn’t pop out, but not so many holes that it was too bothersome. and so by 1889, on a Tuesday, we finally had shoes and shoelaces tied in ways that we would recognize even today, on a Friday.
Anyway that’s how I hear. I wear loafers myself.