the history of a shoe horn, anciet shoe from Loulan, feature image

The History of a Shoe Horn - A Witness of Improved Living Standards

A shoe horn, commonly known as "shoehorn", "shoe helper", "shoe spooner", "shoe spoon", or "shoe lifter", is a tool for pulling shoes.

The first pair of shoes found in the world is the sheepskin women's boots unearthed from Peacock River in Ancient Loulan, Xinjiang Province (about 4,000 years ago) in Ancient China, which are consisted of two parts: the upper part of the boot and the sole of the boot. Strictly speaking, it is the real sense of the shoe, and can be called the first shoe in the world. Because at that time, the life of the ancient people was to hunt and gather, of course, shoes are local materials, based on leather.

For more interesting information on the history of shoes, please refer to the foottalk blogspot section.

the history of a shoe horn, anciet shoe from Loulan

Based on the record, shoes (horn) have a history of more than 4,000 years in China. The birth of shoes correspondingly gave rise to shoe horns, which are auxiliary tools for wearing shoes. Shoe horns originated from cloth blocks, cloth straps, and fingers. At first, people inserted their fingers into the heel of their shoes and used force to push the heel into the shoe when wearing shoes. Later, a prototype of a shoe horn was invented by sewing cloth blocks or cloth straps onto the back of cloth shoes (including children's shoes and embroidered shoes), and pulling them up with the hand when putting on shoes.

"Shoe pullerrr" is a small strap sewn onto the back of shoes to help pull them on. In some dialects, it is also called "little ears". Interestingly, the "shoe pullerrr" can also be considered as the original shape of a "shoehorn". 

Now, let’s dig deeper about the history of a shoe horn.

What is a shoe horn?

A shoe horn is a helpful tool that has been in use for centuries. It is a simple device with a short handle that flares into a spoon-like head. The primary purpose of a shoe horn is to help people slide their feet into snug-fitting shoes while preventing damage to the shoes' heel counter. The head of the shoe horn is held against the inside back of the shoe, allowing the heel to easily slide along its basin to the inner sole. 

Shoehorns come in various shapes and sizes, but they all have the same basic design. The length and strength of the handle can vary, depending on the type of shoe being worn. For example, long-handled shoe horns are necessary for longer boots, while shoe horns with sturdy handles are useful for putting on boots or heavy-iron shoes.


the history of a shoe horn, anciet shoe from Loulan, metal shoe horn of fanwer

Shoe horns are not only convenient but also practical for people with less flexible joints. They can help reduce straining or bending while putting on shoes. Moreover, they can prevent the heel counter from collapsing, which can lead to damage to the shoe's structure.

In conclusion, a shoe horn is a simple yet essential tool that can help prevent damage to your shoes and make putting them on a breeze. If you've ever struggled to put on a pair of snug-fitting shoes, a shoe horn could change your life.

The theory behind a shoe horn

Shoe horns are usually very smooth on the surface, reducing the roughness between the foot and the shoe, and therefore reducing the friction between them, making it easier for the foot to slip into the shoe. Additionally, shoe horns are generally designed and manufactured according to the shape of the human heel, increasing the area of force and reducing the pressure on the foot. This makes wearing shoes feel more comfortable.

The connotation behind a shoe horn in Chinese

"Shoehorn" as a folk object is often made into a unique and interesting folk handicraft with its own social value. It is not physically connected to shoes, but the role it plays in the folk tradition is fascinating. The "shoe horns" made of valuable materials such as ivory, jade, ox horns, agate, crystal, animal bones, gold, silver, redwood, and sandalwood are mostly exquisitely carved, inlaid, and shaped, and are a unique landscape of various artistic categories, with a sense of wonder.

In fact, some "shoe horns" are carved into deer heads, Buddha heads, or peacock shapes at the top, which symbolizes good luck. But why go to such great lengths for such a small "shoehorn"? The answer lies in the role of folk psychological factors. The "shoe" sounds like "harmony" and also sounds like "evil," both of which are related. Therefore, it is between two contradictory and related "oral expressions" and on the edge. In terms of the pronunciation of "shoe horn" itself, it can be understood as "removing evil" by association.

This psychological association with "driving away evil, suppressing evil, and dispelling evil" is the main reason why "shoe horns" have become a folk mascot and folk art. The folk uses the "tiger head shoes" as a symbol of "avoiding evil" and take the meaning of "tiger" to drive away and suppress evil, along with the "shoe horns" sewn on the back of the "tiger head shoes", which together form the complete meaning of driving away and suppressing evil.

It is precise because of this that various "shoe horns" can be so exquisite, magnificent, and elegant. They are not just tools for putting on shoes, but also a representation of traditional culture and artistic expression, both of which are appreciated by many people.

Shapes & materials & totem

Shoehorns are an important part of ancient Chinese family collections. Most of them are shaped like blooming magnolia petals, with a length of generally 12-13 cm and a width of 3-4 cm. They are concave, with a small upper end that is easy to hold, and the handle has an eye through which it can be suspended. The lower end of the shoehorn is arched, with a handle at the upper end. The length of the handle varies, and the top of the handle generally has a hole through which it can be hung. Some "shoehorns" have carved tops shaped like a deer head, Buddha head, or peacock, representing good luck.

In the Chinese collection circle, many individual collectors collect shoehorns made of copper, ivory, animal bone, tortoiseshell, ox horn, iron, aluminum, stainless steel, bamboo, wood, celluloid, plastic, and other materials. High-grade materials include ivory, jade, agate, crystal, sandalwood, animal bone, rosewood, sandalwood, and gold. These materials are durable, not easily worn, and can be kept for a long time. Shoehorn workmanship is very elegant, with strange shapes and exquisite designs. There are single and double shoehorns, mirrors, brushes, and combinations of all three. In addition, there are high heel shoe styles, long-handle styles, horse paddle styles, and so on.

The patterns and totems on the shoehorns are rich in meaning and colorful as well. There are "three sheep bring auspicious omen", "gold jade fully piled in the hall", "double carp pine crane",  "double happiness coming in", "blessing and longevity of three" and so on. The most vivid is the "butterfly play golden rooster" shoe horn, with a tongue pulled by an arrogant cock, fierce back angry eyes round, and a hovering butterfly fixed on its head. The cock pecks left and right, trying to catch the prey with its mouth, showing a helpless attitude. The exquisite copper carving skills are amazing. There is also a pair of bone shoehorns from the late Qing Dynasty and the early Republic of China, with handles carved into the heads of children and horses, full of charm and lifelike. The double happiness pattern shoehorn originated from the legend of the famous minister Wang Anshi of the Northern Song Dynasty. It is both practical and appreciated. These shoes are a combination of calligraphy and painting, a collection of carving, carving, inlaying, stitching, ironing, and other 18 traditional skills. Through the skillful craftsmanship of past generations, exquisite carving graphics have become the backbone of art.

The history of a shoe horn in ancient poems and novels

As for the origin of the shoe horn, it is difficult to find a clear trace in historical records.

During the Ming Dynasty in China, there was a long vernacular novel about human relationships called "The Golden Lotus". In the 28th chapter, Chen Jingji seduces Jinlian and Ximen Qing Fools Around with the Iron Stick, there is a conversation between Chen Jingji and the woman Pan Jinlian. He was grabbed by Pan Jinlian and she said, "You lustful and shameless imp, you excel so well at pretending and putting on an act! After Lai Wang’s wife dies, you have nothing to eagerly anticipate, but do you still keep your mum in your mind?" She then asked, "You guess what I've lost?" Chen Jingji took out the small shoe from his pocket with a small shoe puller from the sleeve and pulled it out, smirking, "Whose shoe is this?" The slut said, "You thief, you took my shoe! You made me beat the maidservants and search all over in the field." Chen Jingji asked, "How did it end up in my hands?" The woman said, "Who else would come into my room? It must be you sneaking around and stole my shoe." Chen Jingji said, "You shameless as a senior. I haven't been to your room for the past two days. How could I steal it from you?"

The term "shoe puller" mentioned in this text refers to a shoe horn, also known as a "shoe slipper", "shoe stretcher", "shoe lever", or "shoe prying tool".

Note: The woman Pan Jinlian is Chen Jingji's mother, but the two often have an affair and always fornicate. They both have several random sexual partners. In ancient China, women’s shoes are private things, usually, men shouldn’t even touch their shoes, maybe even including other men except for the woman’s husband.

Similarly, in the 58th chapter of "The Golden Lotus", it is written like this: Pan Jinlian said, "Here you come again, you audacious and cruel servant. Why are you so lazy to move your buttocks? I know that you have become the head of this room. I have been accustomed to being in charge for a long time, so you don't care about being beaten by me." Then Pan Jinlian told her maid, Chunmei, "Bring the lamp over and let Qiujue see! Look at the dirt on my shoes!" Chunmei fools Qiuju into lowering her head to stare at Pan’s shoes, and then Pan raises the shoe puller and slaps Qiuju’s face with her shoe sole several times. This caused Qiujue's lips to bleed, and she could only keep wiping the blood away.

Note: Chunmei and Qiuju are both maidservants, but Pan Jinlian likes Chunmei more.

So far, the clearest description of "a shoe horn" found in Chinese historical documents is the interpretation of the word “shoe horn" is in Li Guangting's "Explaining things on fitness with local dialects\part one on things and materials\Tens things & miscellany" in the Qing Dynasty. 

He says that "Most of the shoe horns in the world are mainly made of bull horns. There’s no other thing rather than a shoe horn, a tool for pulling up shoes, that can be made with ingenuity and talent, on basis of the curving surface and the material properties of the bull horns.

The peom also says “women agree that it’s better not to dress in large size, neither to put on smaller shoes. The sole requirement of mens’ shoes is suitability, thus a shoe horn can be used if the shoes are smaller ”. A local proverb says that “if you give me a pair of smaller shoes, then I can’t put on them. It is the shoehorn that helps me pull up the shoes”. What’s more, he also writes a peom, saying this - “Once realizing the shoe is small, then the user has to use a shoe horn, or else, these feets get hurt. To fit in a shoe, someone is even willing to cut off his toes. However, there’re specific methods to pick up sunflowers without damaging the roots. Only using a bull horn to hold and whirlwind, the feet have already been buried in the shoes and the user can start to walk, just as the mallards bury themselves in large surfaces of water. After getting promoted to a high position, please don't forget how hardworking and arduous you were at that time”.   

In modern times

Shoe horns have been a common household item in China since 1840. They were also commonly found in hotels and inns for the convenience of the guests. Shoe horns are useful tools that allow one to slip their feet into shoes without damaging the back of the shoe or crushing the heel.

However, with the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the use of cloth shoes and embroidered shoes decreased, and with it, the popularity of shoe horns. This led to a decrease in the production and sale of shoe horns, making them difficult to find.

Currently, in Shanghai, there are no specialty shoe horn stores, and they can only be occasionally found at flea markets or secondhand shops. This has led to a decline in the popularity of shoe horns, as people have resorted to using alternative methods to put on their shoes.

Despite this, some luxury hotels still provide plastic shoe horns for their guests to use. This shows that the usefulness of the shoe horn has not completely faded away, and it still has a place in modern society.

One of my friends has collected hundreds of various types of shoe horns, mostly antiques from the late Qing Dynasty and early Republic of China period. These emotional objects are a testament to these historical periods, allowing us to understand how our predecessors lived, and what their living environment and lifestyle were like. In a sense, collecting is a restoration of historical culture. Although shoe horns are small, they are also an important part of shoe culture.

Before the establishment of the People's Republic of China, the shoehorn was a tool held by shoe store clerks, and it was also a means for clerks to make a living and support themselves. In those days, shoe stores were operated differently than they are today. Store clerks were not only responsible for selling shoes but also for helping customers try on shoes and providing personalized customer service.

While working, store clerks had to hold the shoehorn in their hands, greet customers with a smile, help customers choose their favorite styles, and assist customers in trying on shoes. If a customer purchased a pair of high-quality shoes, the store would gift them a beautiful shoehorn with the store's name and logo engraved on it. This was both a rule for attracting customers and served as a form of advertising. The engraved name and logo on the shoehorn served as a reminder to customers about the shop they visited and the quality of the shoes they purchased.

At that time, it was popular for male customers to wear small round cloth shoes, while female customers wore embroidered shoes. Since the shoe openings were usually tight, using a shoehorn was quite common. The shoehorn made it easier for customers to try on shoes and ensured that they didn't damage the shoes while doing so.

The most prosperous shoe market in Shanghai was located at the intersection of Zhejiang Road and Guangxi Road, known as the "little garden," which was famous both domestically and abroad. There were 54 shoe stores lined up here, one after another. These stores were known for their excellent customer service and high-quality shoes.

Today, shoehorns are still useful tools for putting on shoes, but they are not as commonly used as they once were. The shoe industry has evolved, and with the advent of new technologies and materials, the shoe-making process has become more streamlined. However, the history of the shoehorn is an interesting reminder of how the shoe industry has changed over the years and how important personalized customer service was in the past.

In other nations and regions besides China

It is reported that many countries such as the United States, France, Japan, Russia, Pakistan, and Vietnam still commonly use shoe horns.

Outside of China, many people believe that the shoehorn originated in the late Middle Ages or Renaissance period. The English word "schoying horne" was mentioned in the 15th century, but the French word "chausse-pied" only appeared in the second half of the 16th century. However, the exact time and place of the shoehorn's emergence remain a mystery, as there is not enough physical evidence or literature to prove it.

Between 1563 and 1566, Queen Elizabeth I purchased 18 shoehorns from her cobbler, Garrett Johnson, and then ordered four steel shoehorns from blacksmiths Gilbert Polson and Richard Jeffrey in 1567. No more was needed until 1586. These data reflect the lifestyle and trading habits of 16th century England. At the time, shoehorns were not only used to assist in putting on shoes but also served as a luxury item and a noble gift.

Furthermore, over 20 known English shoehorns have signatures and dates, made by Robert Mindum between 1593 and 1613. All the shoehorns are inscribed with the owner's name, such as "JANE HIS WIFE" in 1612. All the shoehorns have other carved decorations, including heraldic badges, geometric patterns, and flowers, covering most of the surface, which is the later style of whalebone carving. Their shapes are very similar to modern examples, with the longest being 11 inches; five of them are bent backward at the narrow end, forming a hook. These details not only demonstrate the shoehorn's craftsmanship but also provide insight into the aesthetic tastes and cultural backgrounds of 16th century English people.

Several shoehorns have perforations, which may be used to pull out shoes or hang shoehorns with leather straps. One owner ("Hamlet Radesdale," 1593) was described as a London cooper. Joan Evans believed that, given the nature of the inscriptions, Robert Mindum made these shoehorns as a hobby and gave them to his friends. He also made a similar inscribed and decorated powder horn. The British Museum also has a similar inscribed and decorated horn made by another manufacturer. These details not only showcase the creator's skills and creativity but also provide a glimpse into the culture and lifestyle of 16th century English society.

These shoehorns showcase the creator's passion and talent, not only in the intricate carving and decoration process but also in their history and cultural background. In today's world, shoehorns have become a part of our lives. They may no longer be luxury items or noble gifts, but they provide us with convenience while also allowing us to understand the past culture and history. Through their stories, we can better appreciate and respect our cultural heritage.

In a nutshell

Things just like shoe horns are ordinary things and they can be seen in our daily life. However, gizmos show great wisdom. Shoe horns and shoes are like a pair of twin brothers, with a much smaller historical legacy than shoes.

Shoe horns generally have marks from shoemakers or shoe stores, as well as marks from shoe horn workshops or copper forges. These marks are important evidence for researching the culture and development history related to shoe horns.

It's not a big thing, and even the story of it has been forgotten, but it's just as small a technique for enjoying life, a very practical creation, and the crystallization of wisdom. It is in the accumulation of a variety of seemingly small "cleverness" through the ages, only gave birth to such as the ancient "four great inventions" and today's computers. Thus, a the history of a shoe horn is also a dynamic witness of improved living standards.

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