What can shoes tell us about the history of medicine?

Last week I went on my first research trip in nearly two years. The pandemic has been a difficult time to do historical research, as archives and libraries have been closed or operating in a very restricted way. It has been particularly challenging for historians who work on material culture: looking at digitial images of objects is really no substitute for studying and handling the real thing. Happily, the gradual reopening of museums has made it possible to do this kind of research again.

At the moment I am looking at gout shoes, as part of a wider project on ‘Shoes and the Georgian Man’ funded by the Society of Antiquaries of London. Gout is an illness that we often associate with the Georgian period, since the social elite had a sedentary lifestyle, drank excessively and ate lots of meat. It often featured in social and political satires from the period, since it was a way to criticise the gluttony and corruption of the upper classes. Gout was no laughing matter for those who endured it, however, since it is a painful and limiting condition.

As today, gout could not be fully cured, but it could be improved with lifestyle changes. Indeed, Georgians often did not seek to cure it, since they thought that it headed off more serious conditions, and it was preferable to have a pain in one’s foot than to drive the gout to other more critical parts of the body. On the whole, it was a condition to endure and manage, and that is where gout shoes came in.

Gout shoes are very recongisable in cartoons from the time, as they are large and bulbous in shape, in order to accommodate the swollen foot. They enable the wearer to walk where this would not be possible with normal shoes, and therefore restored to them some mobility (with the aid of other assistive objects such as crutches and bath chairs). I had seen numerous pictures of gout shoes and was keen to see one in the flesh, as it were. But this proved to be a challenge as surviving examples turned out to be very rare.

I had emailed many shoe museums and medical museums, and nowhere seemed to have any. In the end one curator suggested I send a message around the Dress And Textiles Specialists (DATS) network, and I got several helpful replies. My most promising lead was a pair of nineteenth-century gout shoes at Trowbridge Museum. The curator there, Nikki Ritson, kindly offered to show me their collection, so as soon as I was able to travel I paid them a visit.

Trowbridge Museum TRWBM: 1985.70. Reproduced with permission.

Trowbridge in Wiltshire is famous for making woollen cloth rather than shoes, but they have several fascinating pairs of shoes in their collection, including some nineteenth-century children’s shoes and some protective clogs worn by firefighters. They didn’t have much information about their gout shoes (shoes rarely come with a provenance) but it is possible that they ended up there due to its proximity to Bath, where sufferers travelled to take the waters.

Their date is estimated at the nineteenth century, and I thought they were probably early nineteenth century (and therefore within my period) because of the way they were constructed. They are straight lasted, so could be worn on either foot, which is a feature of the earlier period, although having laces rather than buckles probably places them after 1800.

Being able to handle the shoes taught me things about them that I could never have got from an image. I was surprised at how stiff they were: the sole was pretty much rigid, and the uppers were unyielding too. This offered protection to the vulnerable gouty limb, but did not suggest that they were very comfortable. Presumably the foot would have been wrapped in flannel or thick stockings in order to provide some cushioning.

As you can see from the image, they were well worn. The soles were worn down, giving an insight into the wearer’s gait, and the uppers had been damaged and repaired. It is all the more remarkable that they have survived therefore, as it tends to be the fancy and pristine shoes that people in the past felt the need to preserve.

I made one other unexpected discovery at the museum. Any guesses what this object is?

Trowbridge Museum TRWBM: 1982.191. Reproduced with permission.

This frightening-looking implement was used in Hilton’s shoe shop in Trowbridge in the mid-twentieth century. It is nearly 40cm long and is made of solid metal, so is very heavy. It is a bunion reliever, which was used to press an indentation into the uppers of a shoe. The metal ball fits inside a metal ring when closed, stretching the leather in order to relieve pressure on the offending bunion, allowing the wearer to walk with greater comfort.

Here, then, are two fascinating examples of how material objects can shed light on the history of medicine.

Matthew McCormack

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