In my South Jersey house, the older children once slept in the unfinished attic, with its wooden floor and exposed wooden beams. The baby, however, slept downstairs. He didn’t have a crib, so his mother tucked him in every night, safely in a dresser drawer. It was 1924, and my house was newly built.
When Joe and I moved here in 1993, we were welcomed to the neighborhood by a kind man who has shared the history of this neighborhood and our house with us. He has become a role-model and a friend. Earl is 93 years old now and his initials and childhood hand print are still visible in the cement landing at my back door. It makes me smile to imagine him sleeping in a drawer in the exact spot where my refrigerator now sits.
This house has seen a lot of change since Earl’s childhood days. New owners came and went and newer owners arrived. Woodwork was painted, stripped, and painted again. And long before Joe and I took up residence here, that unfinished attic was finished, becoming three distinct rooms, each with actual walls. But about ten years ago, Joe decided it was time to open those walls up, with big plans for improved insulation and energy efficiency. But behind those walls, we found a few things we didn’t expect.
Newspapers, small wooden toys, and even a military dagger and belt were tucked away in those walls. The dagger had belonged to Earl’s father, who had served in WWI before moving to this house. While Earl had no explanation as to why his parents had chosen to entomb the weapon, I had a few theories. After all, that dagger may have been tied to a time in life that Earl’s dad was willing to bury away.
But what about the shoes?
A pair of lace-up leather shoes and one single woman’s slipper had been scattered, each sealed in a different wall. Now why would someone seal a shoe, or three, into the walls of their home? I could not imagine that any shoe could possibly represent memories strong enough to warrant locking them away in a wall forever.
Those shoes were decaying and musty. Some of the stitching looked to be done by hand and the soles were attached with tiny little nails. I don’t know what it is about those shoes, but I just loved them.
Earl and his family had gratefully taken the WWI dagger back into their family. But what to do with those dirty shoes? No one seemed too excited about keeping the deteriorating and moldy shoes, well except for me. To me, those shoes felt deeply connected to the history of this house. After all, they’d been with the house longer than any other object here. So against my family’s wishes, I kept them, and they have been quietly sitting on a shelf, in my living room, for the past 10 years.
But finally, after all this time, the internet has clued me in as to why Earl’s parents might have tossed those shoes into the open space as the walls were being sealed.
Concealed shoes, or concealment shoes, have been discovered in buildings around the world, but mainly in Great Britain, Western Europe, and the Eastern United States. Folklore says that hiding a shoe, especially a well-worn shoe, can provide luck, and can also ward off all types of ill-fortune, including evil, ghosts, and even witches!
Northampton Museum, in England, is home to the Concealed Shoe Index, a detailed list of nearly 2000 accounts of shoes, all hidden within the walls and under the stairs of houses, cottages, public buildings, churches, and even monasteries and colleges. Most concealed shoes are found near the possible entry points of buildings, like windows, doorways, and chimneys, and children’s shoes are much more common than adult’s. Concealed shoes have been found from as early as the 15th Century, but the practice seemed to be most prevalent from the 1800s through the 1930s.
Silly superstition or traditional wisdom? Either way, my hope is to put those shoes BACK into our walls some day. Perhaps I will even add a shoe or two of my own!
Because if Earl’s family wanted those shoes in the wall, then I will abide. After all, those shoes have done right by my household all these years.
On a different note, Earl’s momma also could teach us a lesson about unnecessary spending. Who needs a fancy and expensive bassinet when you have a dresser drawer?
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