Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Boot + Shoe + Luck = Story

Last week I promised that I'd share the inspiration behind my second book, Sam Bennett's New Shoes. Here's my rambling tale...

As I mentioned in my Door Day post, my family lives in an old colonial farmhouse that was built around the year 1720. Did I mention that it was a total disaster when we bought it, and that the realtors thought we were nuts? (In fact, we heard that a builder had wanted to buy it as a tear-down... don't get me started on that rant.) The house had sat vacant for over a year and our kids were very, very young. In hindsight, we were nuts! But the house had so much history. And we loved it.

So-- one day, my handy husband was hanging a chandelier in the dining room. He cut a hole through the plaster and put his hand inside and came out with... this boot. No kidding! Of course we wondered-- whose was it and what on earth was it doing there? 18th century hide-and-go-seek champion, perhaps? We filled it with dried flowers, put it on the mantel and pondered.

































A few months later it was wintertime. And having nothing better to do, hubby was rummaging around in the basement. Mind you, when I say basement I don't mean the wall-to-wall carpeting, finished basement/rec room kind. I mean old house basement-- bulging stone walls, dirt floor and spider factory. But it is one of his favorite spots in the house because, seriously, an old house basement has tons of information about the age of a house and how it was constructed. So it really is pretty cool.

He was in a crawlspace section that had once been an outside porch, but was enclosed not long after the house was built, judging from the beams. As he was rummaging through old rocks and spoons and shards of pottery (since in the olden days people usually buried their trash outside) he found... this shoe. No kidding! It's hard to see in the photos, but there were still pegs holding it together. The leather was almost petrified. Now we were really curious!


















As serendipity would have it, around that time Early American Life magazine ran an article about finding just these sorts of shoes hidden in old houses. They were called "concealment" shoes-- well-worn shoes that were past their useful life hidden on purpose, probably to protect the houses from malevolent spirits.

This set us off on a lot of research and, of course, sparked my imagination. Who wore the boot and the shoe? What was life like for them? Living in an old house naturally leads you to wonder these kinds of things anyway, but somehow the boot and shoe made it so much more immediate. They had taken on the shape of their owner's feet. They seemed so personal.

I thought about this for a few years, and eventually Sam Bennett came about-- a young boy growing up on a farm in colonial times gets his first pair of new shoes, and learns about the tradition of hiding old shoes from his papa.

In case you're wondering, through the years we've hidden our own children's shoes, too. After all, who couldn't use a little more luck?

Here's some more information about concealment shoes.

19 comments:

gail said...

Serendipity for sure! OK, I got goose bumps reading this. It really can be all about timing and luck, can't it. I never tire of this story Jennifer. The part about your house almost being a "tear-down" was new though. Eeeek! I live in a city that believes in tear-downs. It's sad, and maddening. So glad you came across that old house first!

gail

Jennifer said...

Gail- Me too! Timing and luck are funny that way!

Sheesh it seems like tear downs are everywhere. So much history being lost. It is sad.

Barbara O'Connor said...

Wow - what a cool story!

christine mercer-vernon said...

i was so fascinated to read about this! i always wondered why they were there...growing up, we lived in a very very old house and my parents owned a second one we were fixing up. the walls were the old planks with lathe board and horse hair plaster that needed to come down and inside we found all sorts of things...newspapers, trash, old advertisement cards, children's wooden blocks and old shoes, usually just a very worn single child's shoe. i shared this with my mother who was so excited to finally learn why it was done!!

HipWriterMama said...

My last house was a Sear's home kit bungalow that we restored. It was a very cool house. Unfortunately, no one else thought so--the next person tore it down. It was so sad.

Thanks for sharing the inspiration behind your book. I love hearing stories like this.

Elizabeth said...

This is really interesting. A friend in Huntington with an 18th century house discovered all sorts of things when she and her husband were restoring the house - including shoes.
I will share your post with her.
I never knew it was anything to do with good luck.
A friend restoring an early 19th century house in London found complete newspapers from the period.
Whether it was insulation or historical I can't say.

Alicia PadrĂ³n said...

I LOVE this! Everything about your story is great. The fact that you guys decided to go for it and buy the old house that nobody wanted, then finding the shoes, then researching about it, and it didn't stop there.. you decided to write a book based on it and you guys have hidden your shoes as well.. Just wonderful Jennifer. Not everybody does this. I think is great!

It is very hard for me to get books delivered here, so I'm waiting desperately for the summer as we always travel to Florida for a couple of months and that's when I'm doing all my book shopping. Sam Bennett's new shoes is definitely on my list! :o)

christine mercer-vernon said...

jennifer, thank you for the link, i just noticed it :) I am very humbled.

Jennifer said...

Thanks, Barbara!

Christine-- That's great! Since this began I've come across so many old-house owners who have found shoes. Usually homeowners save them, but sometimes a contractor would be doing the work and throw them out, not knowing or caring what they were. Glad your Mom was excited! (And you're welcome for the link!)

Hipwritermama-- That is so sad... those Sears houses have such a neat history. I've found a lot of people love old houses, but not everyone wants to live in one...

Elizabeth-- Yes, there's all sorts of interesting things hidden... sometimes we think those old colonial farmers just had a wicked sense of humour... knowing they'd puzzle future inhabitants!

Alicia-- Thanks! Taking on this house was definitely a heart over brain decision... but it's been worth it. It must be so hard to not get reliable book delivery!!

PG said...

Wow, how wonderful! Over here people used to put dead cats and rats in the walls, for similar reasons - I think boots are better...

Frank Gardner said...

Thanks for sharing the story and photos with us. That is great that you saved your house from a tear down.
These comments are real interesting too. Who knew?

Jennifer said...

PG- Yes, I've heard of cats, too! Haven't found any of those, though we've had our share of mice... dead and alive. Comes with the territory, I guess. ;-)

Thanks, Frank! I agree, great comments here. I think I forgot to mention that this wasn't a very well known tradition, probably because of the superstition factor back in those days. So when people find shoes today they don't necessarily know what they have. Wouldn't you love to go back in time and ask questions?

Marc Tyler Nobleman, Author of "Boys of Steel: The Creators of Superman" said...

I saw the boot live! Cool to see it again. Such a great idea for a picture book.

Jennifer said...

Hey Marc! That's right-- lucky you! ;-)

And how exciting about your new book- let me know if you'll be doing some local signings...

Tom Barrett said...

Wow, what I neat story! Sounds like something from that show "If Walls Could Talk" on HGTV!

I am a bit envious, as my wife would never allow us to get involved in such a huge project. She is not much of a DIYer! :)

teri said...

Absolutely fascinating! I too, love buildings with history and wish more of them were preserved. We live in a big brick house that used to be a school.

Same Bennett's Shoes is on my list!

teri

Jennifer said...

Hi Tom-- I think HGTV did actually have a program about something similar. And don't be too envious... we have a cartoon on the fridge that says something like-- "hope we live long enough to see the end of our renovation." We're going on 10+ years here...

Teri-- Thanks for stopping by. A school-- sounds really interesting!

Eamon said...

There can't be too many buildings older than that in America I would have thought. Interesting.

Jennifer said...

Eamon-- There are a few houses from the 1600's around here, but not much earlier. Ours are babies compared to Europe. ;-)