Every once in a while, we like to have a look at some of the world’s greatest, historic inventions. While inventing new things is mostly geared towards changing the future, sometimes it can help to reflect upon the unchangeable past. To spend a few seconds in awe of how our ancestors have changed the course of history with inventions that were once revolutionary, but which we have now grown accustomed to. Once such invention is footwear. Do you ever think about what you’re wearing? Probably not. And that’s because footwear is now so ingrained in our society, that we don’t even give it a second though. We simply accept the fact that it is here. This is truly the hallmark of a great invention.

The Birth Of Footwear

The earliest footwear that we know of mankind’s history, are sandals that are thousands of years old, first made in 7000 to 8000 BC. These shoes were found in a cave near Oregon in 1938. These shoes were made of cowhide and were laced with a leather cord. It had seams in the front and the back. Since people didn’t have advanced technology back then, this was as good as it was ever going to get. Since cowhide protects you from outside elements, but it doesn’t cushion you, they stuffed the the shoes with straw. Imagine having to wear those kinds of shoes, after being used to your New Balances and your Sketchers.

Just because these shoes are the oldest that have ever been found, it doesn’t mean that these are in fact the oldest shoes that have ever existed. It is thought that before this time period, people were also making and wearing shoes. But since the material used before this time were so perishable, nothing is left of the shoes. The cowhide shoes from the 7000 to 8000 BC period, is how people made shoes all the way up until the middle ages.

The Middle Age Revolution

The middle ages are sometimes known for being a period in time when people were stubbornly backwards and wanted to halt all progress. But that’s not entirely correct, as there most definitely has been a lot of progress in this era. Take for example the middle aged shoes called ‘espadrilles’. These are a type of sandals that have jute soles which are braided. The uppers are made of fabric. They also used to include laces made of fabric, which would tie around the foot’s ankle. The espadrilles were named after esparto grass, the fiber from which they were made. Espadrilles find their origin in the Catalonian region, which you will find in Spain. The first espadrilles were made in the 13th century. They were very popular with the peasants in the farming communities that were situated close by.

Espadrilles were constructed using the so called ‘turnshoe’ method. With this method, the upper was turned inside out and was then lasted onto a sole. A seam was then used to join them at the edges. You could get all sorts of espadrilles, such as ones with drawstrings or toggled flaps. This would allow the wearer to tighten the shoe around the foot and make it fit better. The turnshoe method was used up until the 15th century. At this time it became obsolete and was replaced by the so called ‘welted rand’ method. With this method, the uppers are sewn to a sole which is much stiffer and it is impossible to turn the shoe inside out. You’d think the turnshoe method would be a historic relic in the 21st century. But to this day, it is still used for some specialty shoes, such as dance shoes.

The Industrial Revolution

When the 18th century came about, shoe making became way more commercialized than it had ever been before. It became what is known as a cottage industry. A cottage industry is an industry that could be called small scale, because the creation of goods is home based rather than factory based. Goods aren’t mass produced, so the quality of the produced goods could vary from home to home. Or even from one week to another within the same home. The total amount of shoes produced from this cottage industry was large enough that they had to be stored in warehouses.

Then came the 19th century. By this time, the making of footwear had been almost entirely mechanized. The industry was transforming from a cottage industry into a factory industry. Shoes were now being mass produced. But since many different people have many different foot sizes, factories still produced shoes of many different shapes and sizes.

The mass production of shoes was, unfortunately, powered by war. During the time when Napoleon was waging battles, it was inventor Marc Brunel who came up with a machine for mass producing footwear for Brittish soldiers. Thanks to Brunel, the Brits were capable of providing their soldiers with a way of standing, walking and running for miles on end, without fearing they’d ever run out of good boots. It was the year 1812 in which Brunel came up with his automated boot making machine, which fastened soles to the uppers using nails or pins made of metal.

You’d think that, after having automated boot production, Brunel would’ve kept generating riches for decades on end. But as bad luck would have it, the war ended in 1815. This resulted in manual labor becoming much cheaper and the demand for footwear declined. Brunel’s invention was no longer profitable and he was forced to cease his business.

The Modern Day Revolution

This day and age, automation in shoe making has advanced much beyond Brunel’s machine. More and more aspects of the creation process have become automated. But make no mistake, there are still many manual actions being performed in the creation of a shoe. These days, you hear more and more about artificial intelligence and robots taking over our work. It could very well be that, one day, shoemaking will be entirely automated. However, we are not quite there yet. We’d love to see the day, though. And something tells us we won’t have to wait many more decades to find out!