If These Walls Could Talk

Concealed Shoes at Sycamores

Three shoes were found in the west wall of the red ell at the back of Sycamores, the 1788 home of Ruggles Woodbridge owned by the South Hadley Historical Society.  The red ell attached to the west side of Sycamores has been dated by professional architectural historians, on the basis of building details, to about 1900-1910, although recent discoveries point to a much earlier date.

Ken Williamson, chairman of the Sycamores Committee, assisted by Katelyn Perchak, who was an architecture history major at UMASS were working alongside the professionals of Marois Construction Co to connect Sycamores to Rawson House, built in 1733 as the home of South Hadley’s first minister.  In the process of removing part of the northwest wall of the red ell Williamson found three very old shoes in the uninsulated space between the outside sheathing and the interior wall, which was made of wood boards.  

When Sycamores was a dormitory for Mount Holyoke College between 1915 and 1970 the room at the northwest end of the ell functioned as a pantry, as it may have long before 1915.  It was filled floor to ceiling with large shelves.

The shoes were put aside with other artifacts uncovered during the restoration such as half an ox shoe and a clay pipe bowl, but they raised no particular interest until brought to the attention of Barbara Cummings, another member of the Sycamores Committee and a master guide at Historic Deerfield.  “I know all about concealed shoes,” she said.  “I have an article about them.”  And indeed research by Cummings, Perchak, and Williamson disclosed that shoes concealed in walls, while not common, are by no means rare in New England.   The Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, SPNEA (now known as Historic New England), has records of more than 100 concealed shoes, the majority found in Massachusetts.  A unique cache of some 40 shoes was found in the walls of the birthplace of John Adams, although the fact that the home was once owned by a shoemaker may explain many of those. 

In England June Swan of the Northampton Museum has collected information on more than 1100 shoes concealed primarily in walls and near fireplaces throughout Europe. 

From their methods of construction and style the shoes in the United States can be dated from the end of the 18th C to as late as 1916, with the majority dating to 1830-1840. 

Almost all of the shoes recorded by Historic New England are, like the ones found at Sycamores, very well worn.  Collectively these shoes tell a story unlike most of those preserved in museum collections. They document what the common person was wearing--the farmer, the housewife, the schoolboy.  These are not wedding shoes, or fancy ball shoes or the shoes of famous people.  Where else but in the dry walls of a house would one find well preserved worn old shoes?  But these shoes carry no documentation, no explanation of who put them there or why.

The presumption is that shoes were concealed in walls and near fireplaces as good luck tokens, to ward off evil spirits.   The idea that shoes are a good luck token is an old one.  Shoes were thrown after newly married couples and more recently tied to the rear bumpers of cars bearing the newly wed (back in the old days when cars had real bumpers).  Shoes have conveyed the idea of fertility—witness the little old woman who lived in a shoe.  A certain magic has been ascribed to shoes such as the glass slipper of Cinderella and more recently the ruby red shoes that carried Dorothy back to Kansas in The Wizard of Oz.

The three shoes found in Sycamores seem to date from about 1840, although two are in a bad state.  The third shoe is a small woman’s boot with metal eyelets and cloth strings.  It is, according to Edward Meader, curator of textiles at Historic Deerfield, hand sewn and pegged with wood.  It has been repaired numerous times as were the other two shoes, and its pointed toe is worn through on the top, as if the wearer had spent much time kneeling, perhaps to scrub floors. 

But these are not the only concealed shoes found in South Hadley.  Rawson House was moved a few hundred yards from 40 Woodbridge Street in January, 2005.  It was attached to the rear of that 1786 house which has undergone extensive restoration this year.  In the course of this renovation workmen found a black boot concealed in the walls.  They regarded it as unlucky and would have nothing to do with it, until one workman discarded it.  The Strong House in Amherst has also had a shoe concealed in its walls.  The shoes found at Sycamores are on display--appropriately enough in a niche in the wall a few feet from where they were found.


Weekend, May, 2014

A Brief History

Montagues at Sycamores

Joseph Brodsky

Brodsky Exhibit

The Sycamores Committee

Outline History of Sycamores and Rawson House
Mount Holyoke Alumnae of 

Sycamores Restoration 

Parlor Wallpaper

Wallpaper and Paint

Concealed Shoes

Rawson House

Water Tower
HABS, Historic American
Buildings Survey

Reflections from the House

Letter from Sycamores, 1832

Bark of the Tree