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A Brief History of Shoes

By May 1, 2015December 21st, 2021Lifestyle & Stress

For millions of years, the human foot has been either bare or covered with very simple footwear to protect the bottoms of the feet. Sandals were the common covering in warmer climates, with moccasins used in colder environments for added warmth. These sparse foot coverings were and are adequate to protect the bottom of the foot from sharp rocks and rough terrain. Foot problems due to being barefoot consisted of the occasional laceration or deep thorn. Today, simple sandals and moccasins are still the most common footwear worldwide.

With the advent of today’s modern shoes came a whole array of foot problems complete with companies that made therapeutic devices and professionals to treat such conditions. Many companies and individuals have benefited, as the shoe business and those products and services connected with the epidemic of foot problems is big business. Shoe companies generate revenues of hundreds of billions of dollars.


From the earliest times, shoes were made with an important function in mind: to protect the bottoms of the feet. But as society evolved, shoes found their place as costume and ceremony. In these situations, special shoes were made very fancy with lavish design, but used only occasionally. Because of their infrequent use, comfort and function were not an important focus. Today, we’ve adapted that same attitude but there is tremendous competition on a daily basis to wear the most fancy of shoes, no price barred.

In the Middle Ages, a peaked shoe called the Crackow became popular. This had a toe so long that walking was extremely difficult. It was also dangerous, not only for the person wearing it but for those nearby, and eventually the passage of laws prohibited their use. The Duckbill shoe followed, and again laws were enacted limiting its maximum width to 5½ inches.

For most of humanity, shoes were made straight with left and right being identical. Records show that between the 14th century B.C. in Egypt until the mid 1800’s, shoes were essentially produced the same way by the trade—by lapstone and hammer. For centuries, shoemakers kept secret the measurements of their client’s feet, to help assure continued business. Today, a similar approach is evident, as one size does not fit all the same.

In 1845 the Rolling machine, followed by the invention of the sewing machine a year later dramatically changed the shoe industry. By 1860 other more effective machines were developed for shoe making. The next manufacturing breakthrough came in 1875, when Charles Goodyear, Jr. developed a new machine that made shoes using a new material called vulcanized rubber, previously invented by his father.

Today, most shoes are made on machines, but they also require manual assembling. The manufacturing of many shoes, especially sneakers and so-called sport or athletic shoes produced by big companies, are accomplished in third world countries because it’s very cheap, often a dollar per pair or less.

The problems caused by today’s shoes are not unlike those of the Elizabethan times. Modern shoes are made for style (costume) first, with comfort taking a back seat in many cases, and function usually not considered. Interestingly, today’s fancy shoes are also shown to cause health problems, and some medical experts have called for warnings about their dangers. A 1997 British Journal of Sports Medicine paper by Steven Robbins, Ph.D., described the hazards of deceptive advertising of athletic footwear. Speaking about modern athletic shoes Robbins states, “deceptive advertising of protective devices [in shoes] may represent a public health hazard and may have to be eliminated presumably through regulation.” Others have called for Public Health awareness. Whether this leads to warning labels is yet to be determined.


With seemingly endless styles of shoes, they all have a very similar basic structure with two parts: a lower and upper. Below is an example of the general structure of many common shoes starting from the ground up. Many shoe parts have more than one name, and many shoes don’t contain all parts.

The Lower

The sole (from the Latin word solea, meaning soil or ground) is our contact with the ground. The outer sole is the material that is in direct contact with the ground. This material can be rubber, leather or synthetic materials, and sometimes a combination of material is used. Soles come in a wide range of thickness and flexibility. The sole should be made to provide traction and resist slipping.

The innersole (or midsole) is attached to the top part of the outer sole. It helps in the attachment of upper to lower, and provides additional cushioning. Many shoes have insoles that are treated with chemicals to prevent bacterial growth.

Some shoes contain another layer on top of the sole called an insert that is said to provide more support by attempting to hold up parts of the foot. It certainly adds more cushioning but also takes up more room in the shoe. These are usually made of various synthetic fabrics, soft and hard, and sometimes leather, perhaps the best material.

Most shoes are manufactured using a last—a general model of a foot. The term comes from Old English, laest, which means barefoot. Lasts were originally carved out of wood, but today they are plastic or metal. They are made for manufacturing purposes. Lasts provide a working structure by which the shoe is made. Manufacturers say there are two kinds of feet, and therefore two general forms of lasts exist, a straight and curved last. Straight lasted shoes are straighter in appearance, and curve lasted shoes more curved overall.

The upper part of the shoe attaches to the last two different ways. A slip lasted shoe has the upper part wrapped around the lower sole and glued, and is more like a sock. It is usually softer, but also more flexible especially in the sole. The more traditional shoe style, especially dress shoes, is board lasted which is stapled, tacked or sometimes glued to the sole. A board lasted shoe is more rigid, especially the sole. Some shoes are slip lasted in the front and board lasted in the back, with other variations used in manufacturing today.

The Upper

The remainder of the shoe above the innersole and insert is called the upper. Its main function is to hold the lower onto the foot. A welt is a strip of material that joins the upper to the lower. The majority of shoes are welted by Goodyear-welt construction, although some welts are only decorative.

The most functional material for an upper is leather. It not only allows the foot to “breath” by allowing hot air around the foot to escape, but it conforms to the size and shape of the foot. Synthetic materials, which better resistant water, do not conform to the foot well and remain ill fitted unless the shoes fit perfect from the beginning. Cotton uppers are more benign as long as the fit is relatively good.

The upper can include many other parts, depending on the shoe style, including laces, and a tongue which protects the top of the foot. A counter is the heel area and may include a stiffener for added support. A collar is a soft, thicker ring around the shoe opening common in sports shoes, as are linings, which provide added comfort. Shanks are used for added support when there is a heel, raising the back of the foot higher than the front. It’s usually made from metal, plastic, or wood and supports the space on the bottom of the shoe between the heel and toes, keeping it from collapsing.


There are generally considered eight different shoes styles, with a variety of combined styles. These are listed below. Some shoes today represent a combination of styles:

  1. Boots. These are shoes that extend above the ankle. They can be casual or dress.
  2. Clogs. These are made with a thick wooden or cork sole and backless. They probably originated in rural Europe in the 1300s. They can be casual or dress.
  3. Lace-ups. These traditional shoes, such as the Oxford, are for casual wear, dress and formal. They use laces for a better fit. Many sports shoes are considered lace-ups.
  4. Moccasins. Perhaps the first shoe ever made, along with sandals. The name is from the Algonquians of North America. Imitation moccasins originated in Norway and are popular today as loafers. They are usually casual, but some are dressy.
  5. Monks. These are similar to lace-ups but instead of lacing have a strap that comes over the top of the shoe to adjust the fit. They can be for casual or dress. Some sports shoes are made with this style.
  6. Mules. These are backless shoes, with or without heels. The flat soft versions are slippers. They can be for very casual to very formal.
  7. Pumps. These are the traditional elegant high-heeled shoes with open front tops or toe boxes, often with long spiked heels. These are usually for dress or formal.
  8. Sandals. Some have heels, others are flat, some are thongs while others have fancy lacing up the leg. Wooden sandals (geta) are of Japanese origin. Sandals can be casual or dress.

While times have changed we can see from history that much is still the same. We can make more shoes with modern machinery and synthetic materials, but despite our understanding of biomechanics, they still influence the foot more than any other single factor, and probably all other factors combined. More importantly, shoes are the cause of most foot problems.

Editor’s Note: “Fix Your Feet” was the first modern book to discuss the benefits of being barefoot, and how barefoot therapy can work wonders for your whole body. A bit ahead of its time, he book is now out of print, but “The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing” contains much of that information in an updated and expanded form.