Bare Feet and Kids from Long Ago

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In addition to shoes really not being very good for kids’ feet, there is also a very long tradition of kids going barefoot. Additionally, kids can often go barefoot in places that adults are frowned upon if they do it. It’s as if at a certain age, a cute kid’s foot turns into . . . um . . . something unreasonable(?).

I do a lot of hiking, including various guided hikes at various local or state parks, usually in southeastern Ohio, which is right on the edge of Appalachia. On these hikes, invariably, an older couple, in their early- to mid-seventies, will say to me, “You know, when we were kids, we would go barefoot all summer long. And we used to be able to run on gravel without even thinking about it.” And then they conclude with, “But I could never do that today.”

Well, they probably could. It would just take a bit of conditioning.

But a lot of kids really did go barefoot all summer long (or even longer) and they did just fine doing so. Some kids even went to school barefoot, as can be seen from some historical photos. Here’s one (via the Ohio Historical Society) from a Greene County, Ohio school (near Dayton, Ohio), taken around 1910:

Greene County Schoolyard, 1910

Quite a few barefoot kids can be see in the schoolyard. The Ohio Historical Society has a few other similar photos at another school, here, and here.

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8 Responses to “Bare Feet and Kids from Long Ago”

  1. Martin Says:

    I just think about if kids in those days liked going barefoot or was it just something they had to do to save money?
    When kids went barefoot all the time, didn´t they stop thinking about it?
    When kids went barefoot all the time, didn´t they get so tough soles that they didn´t feel the ground or did they enjoy the feeling of going barefoot?

  2. Bob Neinast Says:

    Martin,

    From what I’ve seen in historical documents, it was a combination of liking to go barefoot and saving money. Certainly richer, city kids did not go barefoot as much, but then that also may have been related to peer pressure. But I’ve seen poems from the time really extolling how much the kids liked to go barefoot.

    However, I’ve come across many resources in which kids who have gone barefoot all summer long really complain about having to put shoes back on for school, or once “barefootin’ season” was over.

    Regarding thick soles and feeling the ground: While thicker soles do reduce sensitivity (particularly sensitivity to things that hurt), they don’t diminish from the joy of feeling the textures of the ground. Or at least they never have for me.

  3. A Poem « Society for Barefoot Living Says:

    [...] By Bob Neinast In one of the comments, Martin asked about whether kids used to go barefoot because they liked it or because they were [...]

  4. Beach Bum Says:

    Here Martin, these are memories of older Americans:

    “I was struck by your quotation from 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.” I was a young child in the late 1940s and early 50s growing up in the mid-west and mostly in Kansas. I can say without any doubt the same was true during that period of time as well as almost all of the kids both boys and girls spent the summers barefooted nearly 100 percent of the time. The very few that did not were excluded from all activities and boys especially were thought to be peculiar and often became the target of teasing. In the areas I grew up in I did not see a decline in children going barefooted during the summer until sometime in the late 50s or early 60s. By the early 1970s most but not all children still went barefooted in their neighborhoods but not in stores and other public places as they commonly did in the 1940s and 50s. ”

    “When I was growing up in East Texas during the 1930s and ’40s, going barefoot during the warm months was the norm. Many people still believe that this custom came about because of rural poverty during the Depression. ‘Tain’t so. I was an avid barefooter, and I can tell you that all the boys I knew went barefooted by choice, not because they did not have shoes. You must remember that this was long before television, iPods and computer games, and southern boys spent most of their time outdoors, climbing trees, playing cow-pasture baseball, swimming or playing cowboys and Indians with homemade rubber guns. And going barefoot was not just a rural phenomenon. I was a town kid and all of the pre-teen boys I knew doffed their brogans in mid-April and did not put them back on until the first cold snap in late fall. This custom was almost universal in East Texas and most of the Deep South states.”

  5. Paul Says:

    Growing up in South Carolina in the seventies, I was normally barefoot in the summer. Being barefoot was just the norm.

    Now that I have kids of my own, I am shocked by the number of complete strangers who feel compelled to comment on them when they don’t have shoes. (My son still loves to go barefoot in the summer and even runs around in the snow barefoot in the winter, but I don’t feel strongly enough about bare feet that I’ve pushed the issue with the schools, and so on. My daughter tends to wear shoes).

    People are always looking at him and saying “where are your shoes?” as if they fell off his feet somewhere and he needs to go find them. I can understand that when he’s walking around in the snow, but it just strikes me as bizarre in the summer. When did it become the fashion for kids NOT to be barefoot in the summer time.

    One friend felt that it might just be New Mexican culture, and that bare feet are associated with poverty.

    It all seems very strange to me.

  6. Giulia Says:

    Hi, may I relate my childhood memories, from Italy, in the same years. I was born in 1947, in Milan, Northern Italy. I lived in a big city, but every summer, from June till September, I and my younger sister went to the village where some relatives were living, 150 miles north east of Milan.
    We travelled to the village by car, in a time when they were very rare in Italy, so this put us apart from local children, and we hated this. So we were eagerly waiting to “go native” as soon as possible ! This did not happen immediately, but in stages. In the first few days Dad, who had driven us up the hills to the village, stayed there, and he wanted his little girls smartly dressed, tidy and clean ! As much as we loved our Dad, we anxiously waited for his departure . We hadn’t to wait long, as after a couple of days, Dad usually left, and so we gained significant freedom. It was a complete change: in the city, we stayed most of the time at school or at home, never went about unsupervised, we were always well dressed middle class little girls, and very well behaved (well, most of the time).
    The first thing we did, was to kick off our shoes! I still remember the freedom feeling it gave us running about all day, and barefoot. Well, the first few days were not easy, but before long we were able to go everywhere with all the local children. All this freedom was surprising for me, as in Milan mom would always insist on us wearing appropriate clothes and shoes, even at home. But once we came to live in the country, we were left free to roam about barefoot and scantily clad, get dirty, and enjoy ourselves ! Mom let us adapt to the local customs, accepting that when in the country, we should do as the local people do.
    Mom stayed with us only for a few days more. The moment she left, we entered the second stage of our “liberation” process: we went on to live the same life as our cousins. We joined the other children in the gang they formed. We bathed in a little creek nearby, were free to roam about the countryside, and only came back for lunch and dinner. I learned to walk barefoot through the fields as well as on the rocky paths, every day and everywhere. I still remember how the warm, soft sandy soil felt good between my toes, but I also appreciated paddling in the creek or walking barefoot on the tiled pavements of the church.
    By the early 70s, when I had my first child, this “barefoot kid culture” was completely gone, even in the remotest villages. I presume that as in New Mexico (see above), in Italy countryside, too, bare feet came to be associated with poverty, ignorance and unhygienic customs.

  7. Paul Says:

    Hi,
    I grow up in Romania. My childhood was during The ’80’s. It was in our comunist era. I spend a lot of summers at my gradparents from my mother in a small rural vilage near Black Sea.
    I remember that my mother send me to his parents only with common clothes on me and a few other nice clothes in a litle bag for special ocasions including Church sunday visits…

    All the summer from the end of Juny to the end of August (near school begining), for my usual activities like outside games and house’s chores I was barefoot and moustly only with my short pants on with nothing under :)

    From my earliest memories to my 9 or 10 aniversary, when me and my siblings / playmates was on the beach – alone or with our parents / grandparents, like many other boys under 10 years old, my sunbath was in my birth-suit :)
    My grandfather was fisherman like many other men from vilage, and a lot of my usual chores was in or near beach area, soo, even in a bussy day, when the temperature was hot, we (kids) was jump in the sea water…

    My family was’t poor… Barefoot living for kids in this vilage was just a common thing…
    Every sunday at the churh we (kids) was very beautiful dressed with coton suits and leather shyny shoes :)

    The rest of the year I was just a regular town-boy from Bucharest.

    I think that was one of my happyest time of my life.

  8. Peter Unglaube Says:

    After the Second World War, many refugees and displaced persons came from former German territories in the East to West Germany. They had many children and little money, not enough to buy shoes for all family members. The children were doing well to have no shoes or even a pair for 3 or 4 of them, because they were already gone barefoot in the former home and on the way to the west. But here they were sometimes ridiculed by the locals as they came to school without shoes, at least in the warmer seasons. Some of them had to go barefoot even on cool days of March and were so hardened that they went to school barefoot even through the first snow in November. I think that their parents encourage them to go barefoot still a few weeks more, and another few weeks – and were happy when their children finally got used to live totally without shoes. I know some former displaced persons, now aged 70 or 80, which, when they were children, actually went barefoot all year long, without any exception, always and everywhere. They were sick less often than other children and had a lot healthier feet – and most of them were avid barefooters.

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