Did you know that until the first decade of the fourteenth century, people in the most civilised European societies, including royalty, could not acquire shoes in standard sizes?
And even the most expensive custom-made shoes could vary in size from pair to pair, depending on the measuring and crafting skills of particular cobblers. That began to change in 1305. when King Edward I decreed that for a standard of accuracy in certain trades, an inch be taken as the length of three contiguous dried barleycorns.
British cobblers quickly adopted the measure and began manufacturing the first footwear in standard sizes. A child’s shoe measuring thirteen barleycorns became commonly known as, and requested by, size 13. And though shoes cut for the right and left foot had gone out of existence after the fall of the Roman Empire, they reemerged in fourteenth-century England. A new style surfaced in the fourteenth century: shoes with extremely long spiked toes. The vogue was carried to such lengths that Edward III enacted a law prohibiting spikes’ extending two inches beyond the human toe. For a while, people observed the edict. But by the early 1400s, the so-called crakows had attained tips of eighteen inches or more, with wearers routinely tripping themselves.
The crakows, arriving in the creative atmosphere that nurtured the Renaissance, ushered in a new shoe-style trendiness, as one fashion extreme replaced another. The absurdly long, pointed toe, for example, was usurped by a painfully short, comically broad-boxed toe that in width could accommodate an extra set of digits. In the seventeenth century, the Oxford, a low calf-leather shoe laced up the front through three or more eyelets, originated with cobblers in the academic town of Oxford, England.
However in America shoe design took a step backward. The first colonial cobblers owned only “straight lasts,” that is, single-shape cutting blocks, so right and left footwear was unavailable. The wealthy resorted to British imports. Shoe selection, price, and comfort improved in the mid-eighteenth century when the first American shoe factory opened in Massachusetts. These mass produced shoes were still cut and stitched by hand, with leather sewn at home by women and children for a shameful pittance, then assembled at the factory. Complete mechanisation of shoemaking, and thus true mass production, was slow in coming. But finally in 1892, the Manfield Shoe Company of Northampton, England, started to operate the first machines capable of producing quality shoes in standard sizes and in large quantities.