Barefoot Boys: Country Trends


Figure 1.--The Australian brothers were photographed in 1976 at a family outing. It was still quite common for boys to go barefoot. The climate was an important factor as to why going barefoot was so common in Australia.

Attitudes toward going barefoot vary greatly from country to country. In some countries it meant verile, healty boyhood and freedom from uncomfortable shoes. In other countries it meant and still does, one thing--poverty. The different outlooks have varied greatly among countries. One of the factors involved here is of course climate. Attitudes within counties have of coutse varied over time. Australian boys in the 19th Century and early 20th Century commonly went barefoot. The major reason was probably the cost of shoes, but the practice continued even as economic conditions improved. The climate was much more amenable to going barefoot than in England itself. A Canadian reader informs us, "Even though Canada has a harsh cold winter, it also gets a very hot summer and Canadian boys always go barefoot during the summer months ...." English children do not normally go barefoot, even during the summer. It was generally seen as a sign of poverty, especially in the 19th and early 20th Century. This was especially true for city children. A HBC reader in Itlay reports, "The more remarkable difference between American and European custom of children in bare feet, I think was in formal dress." New Zealand boys still view going barefoot as a sign of "toughness" and freedom. Russian readers report a more complicated situation. Going barefoot was common for American boys in the 19th Century and was still quite common, especially in the southern sates and rural areas. It declined as America became more urban, especially after the 1940s. There are a range of climate and economic factors that affected going barefoot in various countries. Butpovety was not always the principal factor. It was not unusual for children to be barefoot in the warmer months in many parts of Europe irrespective of family income/status.

Australia

Australian boys in the 19th Century and early 20th Century commonly went barefoot. The major reason was probably the cost of shoes, but the practice continued even as economic conditions improved. The climate was much more amenable to going barefoot than in England itself. Even today in Australia and more so in New Zealand it is common for boys and girls to go barefoot. An Australian HBC reader tells us that the tendency of Australian boys to go barefoot is commonly illustrated in Australian movies like Simley Get's a Gun. We note going barefoot was still quite common in the 1970s, but has apparently declined to some extent in recent years.

Belgium

As in neighboring countries, going barefoot in Belgium had an aura of poverty associated with it. A Belgian reader has provided us some of his boyhood experienes during the 1960s.

Canada

A Canadian reader informs us, "Even though Canada has a harsh cold winter, it also gets a very hot summer and Canadian boys always go barefoot during the summer months, particularly July and August when school is out. During the 1970's, it was most common to see Canadian boys wearing T-shirts, cut-off jeans with frayed edges just above the knee, with bare feet. They would walk everywhere, play with friends and go around the neighbourhood in bare feet. It is also very popular in Canada for boys to ride their bikes in bare feet. Today, Canadian boys, in the summer, wear long shorts, which can also be used for swimming, and go barefoot all summer. It is still quite popular for walking around and riding a bike in bare feet during a Canadian summer." [Alcock]


Figure 2.--Photographs of English boys going barefoot like this boy in the 1920s are commonly an indicator of poverty.

England

English children do not normally go barefoot, even during the summer. It was generally seen as a sign of poverty, especially in the 19th and early 20th Century. This was especially true for city children. We notice poor children going barefoot even in enclemate weather. We note quite a few images of barefoot children in the early 20th century. It was presumably even more common in the 19th century, but outdoor snapshots of poor children were much less common. More affluent children might play in the back garden barefoot on a warm sunny day, but even this was not common. We note far fewer children going barefoot after World War I (1914-18), we assume because of increasing income levels. This is somewhat suprising because of the Depression and hard times. Ar the same time we note many children wearing light weight shoes, especially sandals and during th summer commonly without socks. Even duringbthe difficult World War II years (1939-45), English children did not go barefoot, although sandals were very common.

France

HBC has little information on France. We have noted some stahed French postcards in the early 20th century with younger boys barefoot. Other than this we have noted few instances of French boys going barefoot. French parents for some time have seen barefeet as a sign of poverty. This has continued into the modern era. As soon as one leaves the beach in France, for example, children slip on shoes or sandals. Children and teenagers wear casual shorts virtually anywhere, but always with their shoes or sandals. Even little boys at beach resorts may wear bathing suits with a tee shirt, but nornmally with sandals. A French reader writes, "Without being a specialist in this question I think I may say which it is not in French mentality to leave a child with bare feet . Of course at the exception on the beach, for the bath, one child must be fitted with its shoes. A child bare feet would mean to many French parents a casual attitude toward the care of their children, if not negligence. For example many French people would feel a little pity to see a child without shoes. In the supermarkets near holiday camps there ar often signs saying that it is forbiden to enter in bare feet."

Germany

We note many images of younger German boys going barefoot in the early 20th century. We notice German boys going barefoot both before and after World War I, at least into the 1920s. Many boys wearing pinafore smocks at home appear barefoot. Normally it is just the younger boys. We also note some German boys going to school barefoot, but normally it is a minority. We see far fewer German boys going barefoot in the 1930s after the NAZIs seized power. We are not sure at this time how to assess this trend. Many boys went barefoot in the post-World War II era because of the collapase of the German economy. By the 1950s it becomes rare to see German boys going barefoot, although many boys wore sandals.

India

Going barefoot is especoally common in the poorer developing countries where parents pften can not afford to buy even inexpensive footwear for their children. Climate is also a factor as these countries are primarily located in tropical areas where footwear are not needed for cold weather. Many children even go barefoot to school. It is especially common for younger children to go barefoot.

Ireland

We note many images of Irish children going barefoot during the 19th and early 20th century. The proportion of children seems much higher than in neigboring England, even though clothing styles are virtually identical. We do notice differences in rural areas. The number of children going barefoot was especially significant in rural areas. The large number of Irish children going barefoot seems largely a question of poverty. This is especially the case of children going barefoot in the Fall and Winter when the weather turned cold. While we have noted many images, we have no actual information on the subject of Irish children going barefoot.

Italy

A HBC reader in Itlay reports, "The more remarkable difference between American and European custom of children in bare feet, I think was in formal dress. In Europe many children went barefoot, for poverty or for custom. Sometimes also children of affluent families went barefoot in play time, but a child went barefoot to school or to church or for a formal portarit only if he did not have shoes and was thus forced to go barefoot." Thus some images exist of affluent childrem even children of the nobility going barefoot, but almost always this is for play in the oprivacy of the grounds id their often palatial estates. These children almost certainly would have worn shoes when going antwhere--even casual outings. Italy until well after World War II was a very poor country. There are, as a result, numerous photographs of Italian children goung barefoot. There are fewer photigraphs for the 19th century, but even more children almost certainly went barefoot then. Even to school many children went barefoot. Italy is now a very properous country, Very few children go barefoot, but sandals are very popular in the summer.

Kenya

A reader reports, "In Kenya the kids go barefoot at school too. They come in shows but take them off at the door to the class room which is carpeted. They are only replaced at break but not every child did this and kids played bare footed."

(The) Netherlands

We have seen photographs of Dutch children going barefoot. It appears to have been most common in the countryside. In the city it was more seen as a matter of poverty. The Dutch term for barefoot is " blootsvoets ".

Poland

We do not have a lot of information on Poland. We do not a lot of children going barefoot in Poland until after World War II. This was especially the case in villages and small towns. A good exaple is The Chciuk family.


Figure 3.--New Zealand boys still commonly go barefoot in the summer. This boy in 1988 wears his summer school uniform. Many schools had light-weight shorts and sandals worn without socks. In the winter they wore heavier-weight shorts and kneesocks.

New Zealand

New Zealand boys still view going barefoot as a sign of "toughness" and freedom. One wonders if this affectation doesn't somehow hark back to the Irish, Scots-Irish and Scottish roots of so many of the pioneers of these colonies of the British Isles. One Australian observer reports from Brisbane (Australia) in the 1940s that it was acceptable for boys to go to school barefoot, and customary for those sent off from home shod to take of their shoes on arrival, whereas girls who went to school barefoot were considered "rough". He writes, "On the other hand all the children I knew, whatever the income, took off their shoes at home and played barefoot. Sandals were, however, almost essential for walking on our bitumen [asfalt] footpath`s which for most of the summer were too hot for all but the toughest feet."

Russia

Russia before the October 1917 Revolution was an extremely stratified society. The great bulk of the population still lived in rural areas. Rural laborers wwer composed primarily of sevewly exploited serfs who generally went barefoot, especially in the summer. Serfdom was abolished in the 19th century, but the lives of the rural poor and industrial laborers was one of abject poverty. Many families could not afford shoes for their children, especially during the summer so boys went barefoot. It was a sign of poverty. The airistocracy and the small urban middle class never let children go barefoot. This was different in rural areas where going barefoot was common, even during the Soviet era. Interestingly while Russian peasant boys perhaps never conceived of the idea of fashionable European clothes. Their characteristic loose fitting tunics became the inspiration for the Russian blouse which was worn by stylish European boys in the early 20th century.

South Africa

Like Australia and New Zealand, it once was very common for children in South africa to go barefoot. We note many images of South African primary school children going to school barefoot. Here is was not just Black school children in poor areas, but many White children in relatively affluent areas as well. Here it seems most common among Afrikaaner children in rural areas. We have little information on modern trends in South Africa, but note that goung barefoot is now much less common than in the past. Hopefully our South African readers will provide us some insghts into these trends. One South African reader has provided an assessment on South Africa school footwear and uniform trends.

Spain

A HBC contributor reports from Spain that no family of any level would let a child be caught dead on the street without shoes. Barefooting just doesn't exist for the Spaniard except in the bath or on the beach. A American mother reports that she lets her children go barefoot around the house, but when her Spanish mother-in-law is around, she would insist that the children wear shoes. (The girl is 10 and the boy 6). This is probably a new idia to some extent. Spain is a both a young democracy as well as a fairly prosperous middle class. The barefoot kid harks back to poverty and the pueblo. Now, the only exception to all this is the gypsey population of Spain. Not only have I seen local gypsey boys going barefoot in the city, but in some marginalized barrios. Though even this is changing to some extent.

Sri Lanka

We note many children in Sri Lanka going barefoot. It is very common at schools. A reader writes, "Do you think it is poverty or climate that gives rise to bare feet here?" HBC is not entirely sure. Those are certainly both factors. I think today is less a factor than climate and custom. A reader writes, "I have not visited Sri Lanka, but in 2006 I was in India a month. There are many similarities between India and Sri Lanka. I think that many people (children and adults) in both Sri Lanka and India go barefoot because they prefer to do so."

United States

Going barefoot was common for American boys in the 19th century and earlier periods. Shoes were expensive, especially for a family with many children. As 19th century shoes could be uncomfortable, many boys appear to have preferred going barefoot in the summer. Even in the early 20th century it was still quite common, especially in the southern states and rural areas. At this time a variety of social and economic factors combined to discourage children from going barefoot. Going barefoot declined as America became more urban, especially after the 1940s. The avaiability of inexpensive sneakers was probably another factor as well as more comfortable footwear in general. Social class was an important factor. Barefoot children, especially sending children barefoot to school, became seen as a sign of poverty. All of these factors varied over time. Going barefoot was much more common in rural than urban areas. It was also much more common for younger children, especially boys to go barefoot. Both boys and girls went barefoot, but we seem to see more boys than girls in the available photographic record.

Sources

Alcock, James. E-mail, July 24, 2002.






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Created: August 26, 2002
Last updated: 7:43 PM 4/16/2007