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1908 Book Discusses the Ideal “Barefoot Shoe”

“…no material comfort can equal the luxury of a well fitting, broad-toed, flexible, heelless shoe. Of course, the secret is that a good barefoot shoe enables us to walk naturally and to find in simple natural exercises not only health, but sanity and happiness as well. If I were a fairy and asked to bestow one gift on the man and woman of the twentieth century I would give them each a pair of model shoes.”

–Bliss Carman, 1908

Before I start this post, I’d just like to express how much I love this quote! The image of a shoe fairy just makes me happy. Ok, now on with it.

One of the things I enjoyed most about writing my own book was digging through old books on running. I spent a lot of time poking around on Google Books and borrowing old books via interlibrary loan in the hope of finding interesting tidbits about footwear and running form. I discovered that a lot of what we are debating now in these areas has been discussed in books for quite a long time.

A few days ago I got a message from a colleague in the Psychology Department at my college (he is also the cross-country coach) indicating that he had found an old book in his collection that had a chapter that talked about the “beauty of the foot.” The book is titled “The Making of Personality,” and it was published in 1908. The author, Bliss Carman, was a Canadian poet, and was Canada’s poet laureate in the early 1900’s.

Earlier tonight I read the chapter on the foot and was pretty amazed to see references to “barefoot shoes” from over 100 years ago! Read the following pages – it’s as if they could have been plucked directly from any number of blog posts written by minimalist advocates over the past few years (the Google Books embed feature is pretty sweet!):

 

There is a lot of additional interesting content in the chapter, and there are a few additional chapters in the book that I plan to read as well – one on graceful movement, and another on the virtues of being outdoors. Sometimes going back to these old books really puts things into perspective – there is a simplicity and clarity in the writing that often gets lost in many contemporary books. One thing that this book reminds us of with specific regard to shoes is that ill-fitting footwear is not a modern problem. Yet, over 100 years later we are still battling fashion for the health of our feet. Truly strange, isn’t it?

If you want to take a look at Bliss’s book, the full text is available on Google Books (I’ve also embedded the full text at the bottom of this post).

I’ll leave you with a few more quotes that I particularly liked – enjoy!:

“The modern shoe with its toe and high heel may be interesting as a bric-a-brac, as all human fashions are interesting however extreme or bizarre; but its comparative uselessness, its lack of anything like perfect fitness to meet the demands which be put upon it, make it essentially an inartistic invention. As long as it remains so artificial in shape and so ill adapted to its requirements, it can never be a really beautiful foot-covering. It is little less than an instrument of torture, and we wince at realizing it.”

“Whenever the foot is liberated from its fashionable bondage, it returns to the glad service for which it is formed; and all its added freedom and exercise bring back its lost suppleness, strength and grace It grows sensitive and mobile and adequately serviceable again, and so again become interesting and beautiful with the beauty of life. A withered member be it hand or foot cannot be made lovely by being encased in expensive trappings.”

“The hand or foot – or the whole body for that matter – cannot be kept beautiful by disuse. It was designed for use for motion not for immobility. It attained its present normal beauty its present formation through constant service and motion and only by being used freely and lovingly can its beauty be preserved and perfected.”

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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. Thank you for posting that excerpt.   It explains very eloquently what I have tried and failed to express to friends/family about footwear for some time.  I just shake my head when I see a woman “pegging along as if she were wooden from the knees down.”  How heels ever became so popular, I cannot figure out.

  2. Bob Newman says:

    That was unexpected!  Great find, and just reinforces:
    “we didn’t start the fire, it is always burning since the world’s been turning” – Billy Joel 

    Reminds me of the debates about sugar/low carb diets now and in the 19th century.

    Why we need History in the curriculum :)

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks Bob – that was the really cool part of doing all the research from the book. So much of what we are talking about now has been said before, even the “humans evolved to run” bit was talked about by guys like Arthur Newton back in the 1930′s.

      Pete

      —-
      Pete Larson’s Web Links:
      My book: Tread Lightly – Form Footwear and the Quest For Injury Free Running<http: 1616083743=”” gp=”” product=”” ref=”as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&amp;tag=thviofli-20&amp;linkCode=as2&amp;camp=1789&amp;creative=390957&amp;creativeASIN=1616083743″ http://www.amazon.com=“”> Work: link to anselm.edu
      Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
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      Twitter: link to twitter.com</http:>

  3. Dave Robertson says:

    Love it Pete. Well done for digging up this gem for us all to enjoy.

    I especially like the simple yet often forgotten notion: ‘Muscles are strengthened by use, not by support and disuse.’

    Also had a chuckle at the terms ‘wooden ankles’ & calfless shanks’. Both good descriptions.

  4. Dan Stoner says:

    A great find!  Wonderful writing.

  5. Bobjmp1 says:

    Can seem to get the full txt anymore?

  6. Ashwyn Gray says:

    This is fantastic! It’s so easy to think these types of arguments are new and unique to our generation. Great stuff here! Thanks for posting it.

  7. Cody R. says:

    this is amazing…
    go away fashion…I never liked you

    it really makes me wonder how books and ideas like these get ignored…

  8. Madolyn Leigh says:

    This is cool!

  9. Adolfo Neto (UTFPR) says:

    Thanks! It seems to be a great book. The book is also on archive.org:

    link to archive.org

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