What I'm Reading Meme

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I started this blog entry more than two weeks ago--in fact, in a conversation about this book, I told someone I'd finished the entry and would be posting it the next day--and that was two weeks ago. At the time, I really did plan to post this the next day--but then I looked at what I'd written and decided this book deserves a more interesting and thorough write-up. Here it finally is.

Anyway, here's a meme I've seen going around, along with its rules:

* Grab the nearest book.
* Open the book to page 123.
* Find the fifth sentence.
* Post the text of the next four sentences on your blog along with these instructions.
* Do not dig around for the 'cool' or 'intellectual' book on your shelf. Do not go to the other room to find an old textbook. Just pick up whatever is lying at hand.

I grabbed the book I was currently reading: Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers, edited by Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil. It is a thoroughly fabulous book and I plan to blog all about it eventually, but for now I'll focus on the chapter in which page 123 occurs: Chapter 5, "War and Wellingtons: Military Footwear in the Age of Empire" by Alison Matthews David.

I have to fudge a little: page 123 is actually an illustration of some French "support the troops!" propaganda poster from World War I, so I'm providing four sentences from page 124:

Another telling design feature is the heel of the boot, which has a small, inverted metal horse-shoe shaped reinforcement hammered into the leather itself. Unlike officers, soldiers were beasts of burden who carried packs weighing up to sixty pounds. Like the horses that served in wartime, they were literally "shod" to protect their feet from lameness. The thin, smooth sole with a few small, invisible nails were the hallmark of a man who sat on a horse, rode in a carriage, or wore his boots on newly paved urban streets.

And there you have it: the origin of the term "well-heeled" as a descriptor of superior wealth and up-bringing: it literally refers to the well-crafted, solid, carefully maintained heels on an officer's boots. Because not only were the heels attached to expensive boots, they were also equestrian in style and function (even for officers in the navy), which announced their wearer as a man who owned (or aspired to own, with some chance of success) horses, as well as stables to keep them in and land own which to build the stables.

The beautifully photographed and presented illustrations (this is both a coffee-table art book and a collection of scholarly essays) demonstrate just how cloddish, clumsy and unattractive were the boots of working-class and enlisted men. In other words, the contemporary belief that men should have big feet, because "big feet equal big other things" did not hold true for earlier times. Rather, men

who had them were proud to show off their "neat" small feet and suffered accordingly from corns, hammer toes, bunions, ingrown toenails and other painful conditions. Toes were crammed into the tips of boots that alternated between exaggeratedly square and round-toed models.... Medical men compared fashionable male footwear with the barbarous practices of tight-laced corsets for women and Chinese footbinding.... While the British "Tommy" [of World War One] was said to have a "special affection for his boots" because they were his "best friends" in wartime, his boots still marked him as a working-class man. They had thick, metal-studded soles and laced up to the ankles. Most importantly, they had an unfashionably broad toe. A small, narrow "smart" foot held cachet. By the early 20th century, infantry soldiers complained not that their boots were shoddy, but that they were too large and wide.

Chapter 5 was one of my favorite chapters--after all, I have this thing for war literature and maritime history, so it was already on a topic that would interest me, but there were other reasons I really liked it: it was smart and informative and like the video about cannons I describe at the end of this post, taught me stuff I hadn't known I didn't know.

In particular, it taught me about military marching. Maybe because of the trauma of being in marching band in high school (someday I might be able to address the pain I still experience when I think about how horrible that was), I always thought that all that regimented, precise marching soldiers had to do was just a form of torture, a way to fill hours and make men so bored and unhappy and tired and frustrated they'll be ready to kill just about anything, given the opportunity.

But no! I mean, that's ONE reason soldiers march, but it turns out there's another:

Martial movement was highly specialized and ritualized. Generals and superior officers had to know the exact pace of their men for tactical reasons. By knowing how many miles or kilometers a troop could cover in an hour or a day, they could calculate how much time it would take to deploy battalions or bring in reinforcements.

In order to achieve this end, recruits were drilled until they could move with mechanical precision. Soldiers never "walked" in formation: they marched. Both pace and cadence were crucial.

I also learned that it was only in the 20th century that western military powers regularly supplied soldiers with socks, and that the miseries of the Crimean war were exacerbated by the lack of decent footwear--both socks and boots--among British and French troops. Tell me if this general scenario, if not the details, sounds at all familiar:

Unscrupulous military contractors had supplied shoddy goods to the French and British armies. The shoemaker James Devlin railed against these abuses of power and equated the plight of the underpaid shoemaker with that of the soldier: both were forced to suffer physical and economic misery on account of military footwear. Writing after the deadly winter of 1855, Devlin singled out firms such as Messrs Almond of St. Martin's Lane in London, experts in leather equipment, who had been awarded a contract for footwear they had no experience in making, or corrupt army inspectors, who overlooked manufacturing defects in order to send some boots to the Crimea rather than none.

And then there was this, which I'd also never thought about, but which is completely obvious now that I consider it:

Much of the male (and also sometimes female) wardrobe has been inspired by military styles. Cravats, lapels, pocket flaps, khaki pants, camouflage gear, even the simple T-shirt, worn as an undershirt by American troops in the Second World War, have all crossed over from military to civilian dress.

I will have more to say about this book--it's truly, truly remarkable, but I could never write about the whole thing at one go, so I'm happy to provide this introduction here. And I hope someone else will rush out and buy a copy as well. I originally got it from the library, but about half way through I decided I had to own my own copy. Even now that I've finished reading it, I keep picking it up to flip through and look at the photographs, and the layout of the pages--it's a beautiful, beautiful book.

2 Comments

That book sounds like a must-have.

In reading about cowboy culture, one of the things that struck me was that cowboys wanted to have their feet perceived as small and delicate, too. Thanks for putting this in a larger context.

What a wonderful meme! This book also sounds lovely.

I was in marching band as well. I played the trumpet and had braces at the time. For a year, the inside of my mouth was hamburger.

One small clarification on marching: soldiers don't walk in formation, but there are important occasions when they must "fall out" of formation and walk. On bridges, for example, the sympathetic vibrations could weaken stone bridges or on suspension bridges, marching can create waves that will throw people off the bridge.

Nikola Tesla, champion of alternating current, did experiments with mechanical resonance and developed a device which created sympathetic vibrations in his lab in New York City -- the first experiment created resonances with surrounding buildings but not his, a later experiment found the resonance frequency of his own building and drove home the point to Tesla as his oscillators started to shake his building apart. The police found him frantically smashing his machines with a sledge hammer to get them to stop before they could bring the whole building down.

Which is all a long way from shoes, but maybe someone can help me get to Kevin Bacon.

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on August 6, 2007 2:01 PM.

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