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Man's Shoe Leather, with hobnailed sole and heel, slashed, 1660-1669
Photograph by Mitchell Feinberg
By Cathy Newman
At first sight, the 17th-century leather shoe slashed into strips sent a chill through June Swann, then Keeper of the Boot and Shoe Collection at the Northampton Museum in England. The shoe, found in the eaves of an old farmhouse, was deliberately sliced into ribbons and hidden, but Swann doesn't know why. "I do know it would take a carving knife to cut leather that thick and tough," she says. "Someone worked hard to do that."
Swann, 76 years old, face framed by a triangular wedge of white hair, walks around in size six Ecco sandals, and always carries a plastic bag with her shoe-inspecting tools—tape measure, flashlight, and magnifying glass. She is tart, opinionated ("Athletic shoes show how tolerant of ugliness we've become"), rigorous about scholarship, relentlessly intolerant of those who are not ("Her book is full of errors," she says of a colleague. "On page seven it says—oh never mind—it's rubbish!"). Museums around the world hire her to identify shoes in their collections, and Queen Elizabeth awarded her an MBE in 1976 for her work at the Northampton Museum. Swann doesn't just read books for plot. She reads them for shoes. Madame Bovary's lover gave her a pair of pink satin shoes trimmed in swan down. Jonathan Swift mentioned wood-soled shoes in Gulliver's Travels. Recently, she saw a film version of Pride and Prejudice and noted with disapproval an Edwardian boot peeking out from an early 19th-century gown.
Manolo Blahnik doesn't interest her. He's "a decorator." The subject of concealed shoes does, and has been a passion of hers since 1958, when someone brought her a pair of 1840s children's ankle boots that had been found in a thatched roof.
"I worried about that pair of boots for a long time," she recalls. "What parent would let a child play on a thatched roof? Why would they allow a good pair of shoes to be left behind?" When a colleague mentioned someone had brought him old shoes found beneath floorboards, the light clicked. Swann realized the shoes found in a thatched roof were put there intentionally. Since then, some 1,700 concealed shoes have been found—not just in Britain, but in Germany, Australia, Canada, the United States—and recorded in a registry started by Swann.
"Concealing shoes is tied up with superstition," she says, "but I still don't have the answers." She hasn't found any written explanations of the practice. No evidence, so no conclusions. As for the slashed leather shoe, it feels malevolent, provokes interesting scenarios (an unhappy wife? a disgruntled servant?), but remains a mystery.
Perhaps, suggests June Swann, the secret must remain one. Kept secrets have power. Revealed secrets have none.