Shoes and Trash

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by Sheila Connolly

Behold a ratty collection of antique shoes. Why am I showing you these? Because I have a new book coming out tomorrow (Privy to the Dead). Patience: I will explain.

1 all shoes

I have blathered on here and elsewhere about the trash trove I discovered when my husband was replacing the battered floor in a slapdash room that connects our kitchen to what was once a stable. The room was cobbled together from whatever leftovers (doors, windows, lumber) were available in 1870, so you didn’t have to go out into the New England winter to hitch up the horse. One corner under the old floor included a heap of discarded, uh, junk. Broken china and glassware, tin cans, bottles (lots!), one skeletal umbrella, one bristleless wooden toothbrush, assorted odd ornamental items, a single cannonball, a silver-plated coffin plate—and a number of well-worn shoes.

2 lace up

3 old ad

The shoes, as near as I can tell, belonged to a woman with small feet, and she wore them long enough to wear holes in the soles. It’s kind of intriguing to see how shoes were assembled a century or more ago (for various reasons I date the whole mess to around 1900). But what really caught my attention was the pair with rubber soles: I had a pair of antique sneakers.

4 sneakers

It had never occurred to me that rubber-soled shoes dated back that far, but when I did a bit of online searching I found that U.S. Rubber was making cloth-topped rubber-soled shoes starting in 1892, in Naugatuck CT, not extremely far from where I live. They later started making Keds (I still have a pair or two in my closet)

5 sneaker soles

And why do I care about this? Because (duck—here comes the shameless plug) the next book in my Museum Mysteries, Privy to the Dead, comes out tomorrow, and it’s about what was found in a former privy uncovered in the basement during renovations to the Pennsylvania Antiquarian Society building in Philadelphia.

Cover 2

The Society is based on a real building in Philadelphia, and during recent renovations they discovered a privy pit in the basement (it was left over from the former building that stood on that site, covered over more than a century ago). I learned this from a friend who works there, and I stopped him before he could tell me what (if anything) was found in that privy, because I wanted to use it for my own nefarious ends. In the book I planted clues there, which led to solving an old murder and a new one. (No, there was no body!)

I’m kind of alert to the odds and ends that people toss away, and what the “trash” can tell us about their time and who they were. From my old pile I know something about the family’s taste in china and their decorative pretensions. I guessed that one member of the family had fought in the Civil War and brought home a souvenir (I confirmed his military service). I learned who the owner’s parents had been (from the coffin plate, which isn’t as weird as it sounds, although it should never have ended up in the trash). And I’m still puzzling over why some of these things, like the well-used shoes, ended up under the floor (although of course I’ve woven a story around them).

What’s the most interesting artifact you’ve found in or around your house? Behind a wall, under a floor board, or forgotten in a dark corner of the attic?

10 Thoughts

  1. Fun! We’ve found all kinds of interesting old things in the walls of our antique houses, including baby shoes, coins, and more. Hugh saves all of it.

    1. Oh yes, I have a box for the other odds and ends too. One of the most poignant finds, from our former house, was an old half-filled bottle of liquor hidden next to a wall under our porch. I could picture a workman stashing it there so his employer wouldn’t notice he was drinking on the job. But then he forgot it.

      Wonder why they left the baby shoes behind?

  2. Sheila, you really REALLY need to go to Colonial WIlliamsburg. Visit the labs and see the “odds and ends” of what they found during excavations of the place. We are supporters of the foundation and try to get down there every couple of years for a week just to see what is going on.

    1. Noradrienne, I was there once as a chaperone for my daughter’s 5th-grade class trip. As you can guess, I didn’t see much while shepherding a batch of ten-year-olds (who always wanted to find a bathroom when we were as far from one as possible). It’s definitely on my to-do list–maybe next spring, on my way to or back from Malice. (My grandfather attended William & Mary, before the Rockefellers got started with Williamsburg.)

      1. The last time we were there I compared the cost of a one week pass vs a yearly one. Well worth the few bucks difference as you get invites to events and parties that no one else even knows about.

  3. We found so many interesting things in my grandparents basement. Sadly, someone made off with some of it but I have an autograph book from the 1800’s among other treasures.

    1. My grandmother was whatever the opposite of a hoarder is–she never saved anything. But then, she didn’t have much in her early life. I wish more had come down through the family. That autograph book sounds wonderful. Do you recognize any names in it?

  4. I am a big fan of this series, Sheila! Can’t wait till I have a chance to dive in! A couple of crazy things we’ve found in our house? Carved coconut monkey heads, possibly brought back by my FIL from his WWII time in the South Pacific, plus lots of weird old farm implements like tobacco hooks (this property was once part of a tobacco farm). I could go on and on. My parents-in-law never really threw anything away (we live in their house).

    1. Carved monkey heads? They people who lived in our house before us (they bought it in 1943) were pretty close to hoarders, although a lot of what they had was antiques. We couldn’t even see the floors, when we first looked at the place! What did they leave behind? A pair of giant pocket doors that don’t fit anywhere in the house. A broken mirror that looked like it came from above a bar. The tank from the original toilet (not in use!). A wooden barrel of nails. Not one but two folding screens (the kind you change behind for modesty). A bunch of old bottles in the basement. And a long-handled item I can’t begin to identify (I’m thinking of contacting Ask This Old House about it).

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