Boys' Shoes: 19th and 20th Century

Boys' shoes changed significantly at mid-19th century. Well dressed boys from affluent families often brought slipper-style shoes for boys still in dresses and later in the skeleton suits and tunics of the first few decades. By mid-century much heavier boot and-high top shoes were more in vogue, even with formal or party clothes. A mother in an affluent family would necer let her boy leave home without shoes as it would suggest the boys' parents were nit well healed and that the boy himself was "rough". During the 1920s boys began wearing modern oxfords. Other styles develoed such as saddle shoes. American boys in the 1930s began to wear canvas tennis shoes or sneakers. The dominante brand became Keds which could be purchased for a couple dollars. These sneakers developed into the fashionable sports shoes today marketed by Nike, Rebok, and Adidas. British boys never wore sneakers in the 1930s. They had "plysols" for gym, but for school and play wore Clarke's school sandals, a kind of "t" strap, closed-toe shoe.

This page will survey several different styles of boy shoes, including the pracrice of going barefoot.

Note: Space limitations do not permit me to provide more information on boys' shoes or historical photograhs, other than the initial chapter on going barefoot. There is, however, additional information and many historical photographs on the expanded Boys Historical Clothing web site. For details click here >>>>>> Expanded Site.


Most American boys, at least during the summer went barefoot. American boy 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 had nothing to do with poverty in mid-nineteenth century America. Interestingly, in Britain at this same time, it was 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.

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". (See Fig. 1) [Image available in expanded site] Fig.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.

A modern illustration of America's (and the world's) two favorite barefoot boys, Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn is remarkable in its accuracy (Fig 2.). [Image/image available in expanded site.] Fig 2. Huck & Tom Here again, Tom Sawyer, on the right, is depicted as dressed in a very stylish, short 1840's roundabout jacket, with a white, broad collared shirt, and well kept trousers with "mule ear" style pockets. He is wearing a small straw hat which is in good condition. His trousers are rolled up at "just the right length" for him to give the impression that he's a 12 year old "grown-up" (i.e. knee pants were for "little" kids). His compatriot, Huckleberry Finn (age 14?) is as Twain described him, wearing oversized men's garments including a dilapidated men's frock coat, ripped oversized trousers, and a well worn "slouch" hat. Thus, Huck shows true evidence of his impovershed state (though an enviable one-at least as far as his playmates were concerned!)

There are probably many reasons for the lack of shoes in American (and Australian/New Zealand) youngsters of this time period. First and foremost, shoes and boots were expensive, and parents probably disliked their children from wearing them out too rapidly, so they may have encouraged the affectation. 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.

Even today, American and Australian youngsters, and even more so New Zealand boys, go barefoot in summer as a rule, especially at summer seaside and lakeshore resorts and camps. Often they do so at shopping malls or just "around the neighborhood". It still is viewed in the States as a sign of "toughness" and freedom. One wonders if this affectation doesn't somehow hark back to the Irish, Scots-Irish and Scottish roots of so many of the pioneers of these colonies of the British Isles?

Related Links: Careful these interesting links will exit you from the Boys' Historical Clothing web site:
Civil War era reenactors

Christopher Wagner

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