Barefoot Boys


Figure 1.--"Unfledged Johnnys" This sketch is from D. B. Taylor's "Through the Valley with Sheridan-1864", a diary of the artist/soldier's writings and copious sketches. This sketch was made in late summer, 1864, in the northern Shanandoah Valley of Virginia at a place called Duffield Sation (now known as Stephensons Depot). We can see that two of the three boys in the foreground whose feet are visible are barefooted (the remaining boy is wearing good quality boots). Yet all three are dressed in good quality clothing, lacking any sign of dilapidation or significant wear. The one boy, closest to the observer is, in fact, wearing a coordinated sack suit of horizontally striped cloth (probably wool/cotton "jeans" cloth). The other boys are wearing either short "roundabout" jackets, or sack coats. There is no evidence of any raggedness or poverty.

Prehistoric man went barefoot until some long lost soul conceived of footwear--probably consisted primarily of tree bark, plant leaves, or animal hides tied around the bottom of the foot simply to provide protection against rocks and rough terrain. During the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century it was very common for boys and even girls to go barefoot even to school. This was especially common in the summer and in areas like the south of the United States and southern Europe. This is largely forgotton, by Hollywood. One sees very few children barefoot in films and television that is set during this period of time. Most American boys, at least during the summer went barefoot. There were several reasons for this. 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.

Historical Background

Prehistoric man went barefoot until some long lost soul conceived of footwear--probably consisted primarily of tree bark, plant leaves, or animal hides tied around the bottom of the foot simply to provide protection against rocks and rough terrain. We do not know just when this occured, but we do know that it was some time in the Stone Age. The actual chronology is unknowable because footwear was made from biodegradeable materials. The earlist footwear found so far is sandals found in North America (8,000 BC). Almost certainly sandals were invented earlier, more than likely far earlier. And even after the invention of foot wear, most me and even more so women, usully wenbt brefoot. This did not begin to change until the Industril Rvolution (18th Century). Children were likely to go barefoot until modern times and even in modern times, most children except in America and Western Europe usually wnt barefoot. .

Chronology

During the 19th century and into the first half of the 20th century it was very common for boys and even girls to go barefoot. This included both play and school. Here the cost of shoes surely was a factor for many families. Another facror was that 19th century footwear was often not very comfortable. Trends can clearly be seen in school portraits after photography made it possible to make an expensive record of school classes. A good example is the American children at the Turkey Creek School in 1913. We even notice boys having formal portraits taken barefoot. This was especially common in the summer and in areas like the south of the United States and southern Europe. This is largely forgotton, by Hollywood. One sees very few children barefoot in films and television that is set during this period of time. We note after crises such as wars that more children go barefoot because of the economic dislocations. Chronological patterns varied from country to country because of living standards, climate, and other factors.

Reasons

Most American boys, at least during the summer went barefoot. There were several reasons for this.

Cost

First and foremost, shoes and boots were expensive in the 19th Century. Parents probably disliked theirchildren from wearing them out too rapidly. Many probably could not afford new shoes. So they may have encouraged the affectation. Thus it was quite common for the poor or less affluent to let children go barefoot, especially in the warm summer months. Barefoot children in Britain during the 19th Century were often put forward as evidence of the impovershed state of the Celtic regions, (Scotland, Ireland, Wales) that youngster went barefoot on a regular basis. (In the more isolated Celtic regions boys were still dressed in kilts, "to protect the fairies from straling them," it was said.) However this may have been an attempt to overemphasize the "barbarity" of those regional cultures, and reflected an inherent English prejudice rather than a truly impovershed condition

Manly

American boys thought it was "tough" or "manly" for a boy to go barefoot as much as possible. According to the autobiography of Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain):
... a boy who didn't go barefooted, or wore shoes when it was not absolutely necessary, was viewed as a "Miss Nelly". The unfortunate lad being an object of complete derision among my companions.

Thus going barefoot for rural and working-class boys was not necesarily associated with poverty in 19th century America. This varied substantially from Europe where the lack of shoes was considered a sign of poverty.

Comfort

In addition to the writing of Twain, there is ample evidence that 19th century American youngsters would go barefooted out of "choice" rather than "necessity". Some boys found the constraint of shoes an uncomfortable aspect of the end of summer. Probably 19th Century shoes, especially in expensive ones were uncmofortable. Modern illustrations of America's (and the world's) two favorite barefoot boys, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, usually emphasize the comfort of those barefoot days (fig 2.). There are probably many reasons for the lack of shoes in American (and Australian/New Zealand) youngsters of this time period. More likely however, an older boy's or young teenager's shoes were usually too loose when new, too tight when old, and invariably uncomfortable in warm weather! The modern sneaker or tennis shoe wouldn't arrive on the scene until nearly a century later, thus providing an alternative to the torture of leather shoes in the summer.

Country Patterns

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.

Garments

Going barefoot is tgioday seen as a very casual style. This was lot always the case in America and some other countries like Australia and New Zealand. Although less common in Europe, American boys might go barefoot in a varirty of outfits--even formal dress up outfits like Fauntleroy suits. American boys also commonly went barefoot during the summer in dresses, tunics, sailor suits, and knickers. They not only went barefoot in play clothes, but might even go barefoot in their best clothes--especially in the South. This was much less common in Europe where bare feet were seen as a expression of poverty. Here are some of the garments that we have noted boys wearing while barefoot.

Gender Trends

We note both boys and girls going brefoot. This varied greatly over time. Children in the 19th century, especially the early-18th century commonly went bsrefoot. It seems more common for boys than girls by the 20th century, but we note both genders without shoes. A good indication are school portraits which can be used to assess gender trends. This has varied from country to country.

Literature

Literary works provide useful informstion on perid dress. Of course fiction works are not definitive informztion, but books written in contemporary times or authors who lived in the times in which their story is set can provide some very useful information. This is because the books address topics beyond photographs. Books often tell us about a range of social conventions. As concerns going barefoot, literary wortks can address topics like what the children thought about going barefoot. Photographs of course are mute. We can guess about conventions, but such assessments are not definitive. Of course poverty was a major factor in children going barefoot, but it was not the only factor. We will archive here any information that we can find from literary works.

Barefoot Experiences

It is much less common for children to go barefoot today than in former years, especially in the developed world. Only in a few countries like New Zealand is going barefoot still very common. Of course in poor countries, especially Africa we still see many children going barefoot. A variety of groups and individuals for various reasons have organized barefoot experiences for children. The most notable are the barefoot parts in Europe, especially in Germany. The motivation here seems to be to get closer to nature. We also notice barefoot days in a few American schools. The motivation here seems to be to give children of what it is like to be poor child in early priods are in underdeveloped countries today. This of course should lead to a discussion of why are some countries poor, but I doubt if our politically correct modern schools will persue that line of thought.

Sources

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






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Created: March 6, 1999
Last updated: 10:26 AM 10/24/2014