These Shoes Were Made for . . . Walking?

Mongolian boots and child's moccasins
Mongolian man's boots and a Haudenosaunee child's moccasins, PM 33-76-60/342.1-2, PM 39-36-10/18416.

In early times, there were sandals in hot climates and shoes in moderate or cold climates. The sandal protected the foot from hot sand and forest underbrush; the shoe, from the cold and mud or from challenging ground cover. Simply constructed, a sandal was a sole plus ties or a toe knob to secure it to the foot; the shoe, a one-piece covering wrapped around the foot and fastened with ties at the ankle. As time went on, the shoe and sandal became more sophisticated in design, with separate, heavier soles and multi-piece uppers and fastenings for improved fit. The earliest examples of footwear came from caves in the American West, dating to approximately 8000 B.C., and they are little more than foot bags. The earliest known sandal is from Egypt, from about 2000 B.C.; the earliest shoe, from Mesopotamia, from about 1500 B.C.

Footwear ornamentation, both decorative and symbolic, appeared almost as early as footwear itself. Color, intricate designs, elaborate stitching, or appliqué could indicate that a shoe was used in a ritual or that its wearer occupied a particular position in a society or belonged to a specific clan, or it could be purely decorative.

For most of its history, shoe design has been driven by specialized functions, such as riding, skating, and climbing and by conditions, such as battle or extreme environments. But it has also been driven by fashion and associated with wealth and social status. Fashion has often pushed shoe design to the limit with no accompanying improvement in fit or function: height to towering height; a gently curved toe to a long curling snake, and so on. Today, nearly all shoe designs derive from just a few basic types, and new developments in functional shoe design are largely driven by sports.

The Peabody Museum's collection of shoes covers the globe and reflects its mission: the understanding of human cultures. Most of the shoes represent the everyday footwear of the common people, the footwear of nomads and peasants, butchers and priests.