Most people put their shoes on one foot at a time, not thinking about why or where they came from. Like many other pieces of modern technology, such as computers or transportation, the nonslip shoes or sneakers you put on before work each day have evolved from other forms of footwear over the course of millennia. Learn about the history of shoes that predates written language, so that next time you lace up your slip-resistant footwear, you’ll know where it all started.
Although people have never found shoes from this era, archeological evidence suggests that people first started wearing foot coverings around 40,000 B.C.
10,000 – 2,000 B.C.
Shoes History and Facts reported that archeologists have found a leather shoe that wrapped around the foot and was tied in the front in a cave in Armenia that dates back to 3,627 B.C. There are older cave paintings that show people wearing some coverings on their feet. They may have used anything from wood to leaves to create foot coverings, but a lack of written information limits knowledge about the earliest days of shoe use.
Head Over Heels History explained that Egyptian shoes were simple, but we have significant evidence of the style and materials. People wore sandals similar to today’s thong sandals. A foot would be measured by stepping on wet sand, then a custom sole would be woven. Sandals were a major symbol of status and wealth in Egypt. As LifeHack explained, the poorest people – slaves – wouldn’t wear shoes. Once Egyptians began using leather, the poorer people would use papyrus and the upper classes used leather. They often decorated their sandals with jewels, gold and colors that represented status.
Rome and Greece
The next significant advancements in shoe technology came from the Greeks then the Romans, who furthered sandal technology with wooden or cork soles, thongs and ties that went over the foot or up the leg.
Shoes became more functional for battle and travel as Rome’s empire spread, as well as more elegant with symbolic colors and designs, similar to Egyptian sandals. For hundreds of years, Rome’s influence spread across Europe. Even as the empire dissolved, its shoe technology remained in the formerly ruled territories.
Sandals remained popular throughout Europe and the Mediterranean for a significant amount of time. Shoes History and Facts explained that common people’s sandals were often crude and not well constructed. Vikings, people in present-day Germany and those in Britain began to adapt sandals that covered the whole foot for their colder, wetter climates and terrain. Over the years, these shoes developed into what would be recognizable to modern people as shoes, with specialty higher-end designs going to royalty and noble families.
Luxury Indian clothing company Lifestyle by PS explained that in the 1200s, as clogs and moccasin-like shoes were still evolving in parts of Europe, Mongolians had created advanced boots for horseback riding that were functional and ornate. Dutch wooden clogs were also invented around this time. Popular French and British styles included long, pointed toes – even on men wearing armor.
High heels for both men and women became popular in the 1600s, although many poorer people were still regulated to crude shoes. The 17th and 18th centuries saw the rise of tall leather boots such as the Renaissance boots and cavalier boots – like what you’d picture a pirate in, Lifestyle by PS explained. The first oxfords were invented in this time period as well, leading to modern dress shoes for men.
The style of men wearing heels fell after the French Revolution. Parts of shoes were beginning to be produced with the help of machinery, and shoe laces were invented in 1790, Shoes History Facts explained. Common footwear included leather boots and shoes, some styled after moccasins with flatter bottoms and simple designs. In the U.S., women’s high heels came from France, which was seen as the style center.
Some of the biggest advancements in footwear technology came during the 1800s. Not only were cowboy boots born from Mongolian-style riding boots, as Lifestyle by PS explained, but many leather shoes throughout Europe were becoming very similar to their look and function today, like the oxford shoe.
Prior to the early 1800s, shoes were never made for specific feet. LifeHack explained that the first pair of shoes with foot designations for left and right were made in 1818 in Philadelphia. The Industrial Revolution and machine era was important for shoe production, with the first automated shoes machine being invented by Jan Ernst Matzeliger in the late 1800s, according to Shoes History and Facts. In the late 1800s, rubber was also patented for use in shoes’ soles, which has significantly led the way for modern shoes and nonslip footwear.
1900 to today
Although rubber was first patented in the 1800s, the sneaker didn’t emerge until the early 1900s. The 20th century saw many major innovations in the way people wear shoes, from synthetic materials and athletic shoes to stilettos and moon boots. The processes of how shoes were made were refined in the 20th century, and now it’s easy for nearly anyone to get shoes that will protect feet from the ground and the elements.
Shoes will likely continue to evolve for another 40,000 years as people adapt to their surroundings and styles change.
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