Just how barefoot-friendly was the past?


We’ve seen in other entries that bare feet were fairly common in the past. However, a lot of that really did depend on where you were, and who you were. For instance, kids were always allowed to go barefoot. In the early 1800s, on the frontier of the United States, adults would go barefoot simply to save on shoe leather. In the “hollers” of the Appalachians, most folks would also go barefoot most of the time.

But in the early 1900s, adults in the cities were expected to be shod. This may have been the influence of Victorian England making its way across the ocean and the attempt of its former colony to feel sophisticated. In fact, not only was being barefooted usually mentioned with derision, so was being bareheaded. Somehow, we’ve managed to cure ourselves of the bareheaded stricture, but the barefooted one still hangs on.

We can see part of this from a story that appeared in The Paducah Evening Sun, November 8, 1904, p. 8:


Lexington, Ky., Nov. 8.—Minnie Johnson, a member of the local Salvation Army corps, was arrested yesterday at the instance of Chief of Police Reagan for preaching on the streets in bare feet. The woman created a commotion Sunday night by appearing in front of the Phoenix Hotel without shoes or stockings, and when she made her appearance again this morning Chief Reagan ordered Officer Sweney to make the arrest. She was turned over to the Humane Society and an effort will be made to get her a position with a family.

Ensign Nelson, of the Salvation Army, said that the woman had been a member for several months, and that when she appeared in her bare feet it was against his orders. She is said to be a member of a prominent family of Ashland, Ky.

It wasn’t the preaching in the street that was the problem; it was doing it in bare feet.

There might have been another factor, though. That is brought up in another version of the story, from the Blue Grass Blade, November 27, 1904, p. 1:


A woman named Samantha Johnson, from Huntington, W. Va has been preaching on the streets in Lexington.

She is, as all agree, a perfectly well behaved woman and preaches the same old gospel that is preached by the regular professional male sky-pilots.

She says that God told her plainly not to wear any shoes and so she preached barefooted.

The police arrested her several times for being bare-footed, and she was finally adgudged [sic] a lunatic and sent to the Lexington asylum for the insane, with no charge in the world against her except that she will go barefooted.

All the pictures of Jesus Christ represent him as bare-footed and the big picture of God that I saw in Bethlehem of Judea represents him as being bare-footed. So that if Jesus Christ or God should ever take a notion to come to Lexington they better get them some shoes for if they come into Lexington bare-footed the police will also send them to the lunatic asylum—that is unless the police discriminate between males and females.

It’s rather ironic that this should have occurred in Lexington, Kentucky. Probably not too many miles to the east were both men and women going barefooted regularly, but then that was the social norm there. In Lexington, it was considered an oddity, and an excuse to impose strict societal sanctions.


4 Responses to “Just how barefoot-friendly was the past?”

  1. Beach Bum Says:

    Yes, this is true – I wonder how much of the extreme anti-barefoot reaction to the hippies was not only to the fact that they were considered unpatriotic, but that whole look and how they dressed, including the bare feet, may have been seen as ‘adults dressing like kids’. During the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, kids all over the US did go barefoot during the summer, all over their neighborhoods, including stores and such. It was considered socially acceptable for kids to do this, but not adults. There was some arbitrary age that was agreed on that you were now a young adult, and you no longer wore jeans, overalls, or shorts out to play, but you wore dress pants and button down shirts with dress shoes out in public. And in cities, it probably was different than in rural areas. I doubt there were grown women walking barefoot all over New York City in the 1940s the way they did in 1970. But it would not surprise me if some kids did, though far fewer than in rural areas or suburbs. Those of us who were around during the 1960s and 1970s remember that even the wearing of jeans by young people everywhere was seen by many older adults as being sloppy – they thought, “why would you wear farmer’s work clothes while out shopping or going to a restaurant?” Add bare feet to that, and you really were considered a slob.

  2. Barefoot Josh Says:

    Attitude, schmatititude. I’d rather be barefooting now than in the past because of indoor plumbing. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: thanks to indoor plumbing and modern road construction technology, now is the best time in ALL of human history to be a barefooter.

  3. Beach Bum Says:

    You are right Josh. Today’s cities and small towns are clean and sanitary when compared to the first half of the 20th century and before. There were outhouses, not flush toilets in the country. Raw sewage and garbage in city streets was common. And before cars, horses were the main form of transportation, with horse poop everywhere. And later on, but before pollution control laws, industrial and automobile pollution was far greater than it is today. Even in the recent past of the 1970s, when all those young people were going barefoot in New York City, that was a dirty, dangerous and polluted city when compared to today’s cleaned up NYC, with it’s ‘pooper-scooper’ laws in effect and such. Going barefoot there today is very easy and much safer by comparison.

  4. barry scott Says:

    i think that that shouldn’t make ant differance.Jesus said come as you are.We are to preach his word in season and out of season.

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