Thursday, June 22, 2006

Barefoot in the 18th Century

I'm lucky, I guess, in that I've always run barefoot. In fact, as I write this I've kicked my sandals off and am sitting cross-legged in my chair. No one who knows me will be surprised at that!

When I got into living history proper reproduction shoes were one of the last items I got, a few years after I started. They are expensive, and at that time I was mainly doing handspinning demonstrations. First with hand spindles, later on a wheel. Spinners somehow never spin with shoes on. Socks, maybe, but not shoes. There is too much feeling lost when wearing shoes. Using the treadle on a spinning wheel is a very precise task, which you need to feel. Wearing shoes to do this would be rather like wearing mittens and trying to type.

So, I was barefoot most of the time. Then I got more into living history, worked on my character/persona. How much of the time would my 18th century character have been barefoot? What is the temperature range that's reasonable? What activities or situations would she have worn shoes?

First off, I mainly do 1775-1776 Middleground Kentucky Frontier. My character is Cohee, what today we'd call Scots-Irish. She and her family live on a stand, a working farm and inn. Typical tasks would be gardening, farming, caring for animals large and small, cooking, keeping house, sometimes hunting, laudry, textile production. Most of these tasks would be done barefoot. While she has shoes, she would only use them when they were really needed.

There is an old saying about wearing out shoe leather. Why would anyone wear out shoes if they don't have to? Making, or having footwear made, takes time or resources. Keeping what one has in good shape for times of need makes more sense.

As I'm wont to do, I did some tests. Clearly going barefoot when it's warm makes sense. In fact, it's safer than wearing shoes because the bare feet will help cool the body. But what about when it's not as hot? What about rain, snow? Well, I've certainly left my share of bare footprints in the snow, so I knew that was done. We also have references to bare feet in winter, although most dealing with the hardships which caused that to happen.

So how cold does it need to be before it becomes uncomfortable? It depends. If it's raining and muddy, I'd rather be barefoot even down to freezing temperatures, because it's so much faster to get feet warm and dry than it is to get socks and shoes warm and dry. Also, feet are ever so much easier to clean than muddy shoes!

In several years of experimenting I've found that I'm comfortable barefoot at any temperature above 45 F. I can handle down in the lower 40's or below, but that's no longer what I'd consider comfortable, and I know I loose a lot of body heat at those temperatures.

No comments: