Whether you sport a pair of Nikes, Jimmy Choos, or ugly old Crocs, everybody reading this list owns a pair of shoes. Footwear plays an important part in our lives, whether it’s keeping our toes safe, making us look cool, or helping us seem just a little bit taller. And as one of mankind’s oldest inventions, shoes have had plenty of time to change our lives and take their toll on our bodies.
Bill Nye is one of the most popular scientists on the planet. He’s popped up in the news lately thanks to a series of public debates, but when he’s not dancing with the stars or posing with Jay-Z, Nye keeps himself busy by, oddly enough, inventing ballet slippers.
Nye is very concerned about ballerina feet. After filming an episode of Bill Nye the Science Guy at the Pacific Northwest Ballet, he noticed something disturbing. A lot of the ballerinas were wearing bloody shoes. Bill realized when the dancers perform en pointe, gravity pushes down on their bodies while the floor pushes back up. These combined forces wreck dancers’ feet, so Nye decided to invent a better ballet slipper.
Named the “Toe Shoe,” Nye’s slipper comes with a specially-designed box that protects the toes while supporting the soles, saving ballet dancers from some really nasty injuries.
Remember that scene in The Gold Rush where Charlie Chaplin eats his shoe? Trapped in his cabin during a horrible snowstorm, the starving Tramp decides to boil his boot and eat the laces like spaghetti. Fortunately for Chaplin’s digestive tract, the shoe was actually made out of licorice, courtesy of the American Licorice Company. Werner Herzog, on the other hand, wasn’t so lucky.
One of Germany’s most prominent filmmakers, Herzog has directed classics such as Aguirre, the Wrath of God and documentaries like Grizzly Man. He also enjoys making crazy bets. According to Herzog, he was chatting with future director Errol Morris one day when Morris mentioned how difficult it was to find funding for his films. Wanting to challenge his buddy, Herzog told Morris to keep trying, and then added that if he ever finished a movie, “I am going to eat my shoe.”
In 1978, Morris finally released Gates of Heaven, the first of his many documentaries. Always a good sport, Herzog stuck by his word and kept his bargain in 1980. With filmmaker Les Blank filming the proceedings, Herzog cooked his shoe in garlic and duck fat and started chowing down. While completely edible, it probably wasn’t as palatable as Chaplin’s candied boot.
Whether it’s a creepy dog park or a portal to hell, every town has its mysterious secrets. Hanover Township is known across Indiana for a particularly strange phenomenon. For the past 50 years or so, a mysterious pile of shoes has grown on the corner of the intersection on 109th Avenue and Calumet Street.
Over the years, every kind of shoe imaginable has shown up at the intersection, from cowboy boots to flip-flops and even a pair of clown shoes. Most of the shoes are rather worn, but a surprising number are brand new, straight from the store. The highway department regularly scoops up the footwear, but the pile is never gone for long. As soon as one clump of shoes disappears, another takes its place. While students are the most likely culprits, no one in town has ever taken responsibility, and no one has ever been caught in the act.
Weirdest of all, no one has any clue how the tradition got started. One prominent theory is that, once upon a time, a bum sat at the intersection, begging for shoes. After he moved on, people just kept on dumping their sandals and sneakers in his memory. Another theory states that the good citizens of Hanover Township started leaving gifts for a poor farming family too proud to ask for help. However, the most fantastic theory is that someone originally left a single men’s shoe and a women’s shoe. The two did what males and females are made to do, and soon, shoes covered the place.
Though technology has evolved in the last few thousand years, human nature has barely changed at all. For example, check out the Romans. They were just as fashion conscious as we are, and when they woke up in the morning, they dressed to impress. Shoes played a big role in Roman life, and both plebeians and patricians knew that footwear sent out an important message. It let everyone know who you were and how much money you had, just as it does today. Only, in the Roman days, the system was a bit more formalized.
According to archaeologists working at the Vinolanda fort in northern Britain, Roman kids wore shoes that looked exactly like their parents’. And it wasn’t due to some cute wish to be like mommy or daddy. These identical shoes were a way of saying, “I belong in this social class.”
When researchers discovered the lodgings of a prefect named Flavius Cerialis, they found a baby shoe that was a miniature version of a rich man’s boot. Even though it was designed for a kid who couldn’t walk, the shoe was made of pricey leather and was held together by a solid set of iron hobnails. But when archaeologists went poking around the barracks area, they found child-sized boots that looked like what an average Roman soldier would wear. Just imagine a modern military man dressing his kids in combat boots so the world would know their dad was a soldier.
However, for one of the most powerful armies in the history of mankind, Roman legionnaires certainly committed their share of fashion crimes. In 2010, researchers were analyzing a pair of Roman sandals when they realized the rust on one of the nails contained traces of fibers that came from a sock. Yes—Romans indulged in the horrible habit of wearing open-toed sandals with socks. Of course, as the sandal was found in North Yorkshire, the soldier probably needed them to fend off the cold, so we’ll forego tossing him to the fashion gladiators.
It was December 23, 1979, the Boston Bruins were playing the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden, and things were heating up. After Boston won the game by one point, Bruins left winger Al Secord decided it was a good time to punch the Rangers’ center, Ulf Nilsson. The situation was quickly devolving when a crazy Rangers fan named John Kaptain leaned over the glass and whacked Bruins enforcer Stan Jonathan in the face with a rolled-up magazine. Adding insult to injury, Kaptain then stole the man’s stick and rushed off into the stands.
There’s an old joke that goes, “I went to a fight the other night and a hockey game broke out.” Well, that’s pretty much what happened. Eighteen Bruins players jumped over the glass panel and did battle with the Rangers fans. As for Kaptain, he had the misfortune into running into Bruins players Peter McNab and “Mad” Mike Milbury.
What happened next has become enshrined in hockey lore. While the two players held him down, Milbury yanked off one of Kaptain’s shoes and started beating him with it. After he finished pouring out his sole, Milbury tossed the shoe into the rink, forcing Kaptain to walk home barefoot.
After the fight (and subsequent riot), Milbury and two other players were suspended, and all but one of the Bruins were fined $500 each. But while Kaptain threatened a lawsuit, the Shoe Incident didn’t lead to any serious repercussions other than higher barriers in Madison Square Garden. Mad Mike went on to become a commentator and general manager of the New York Islanders, but nearly 35 years later, he’s still best remembered for the time he whacked a fan with his own shoe.
The 1960s was the decade to work for NASA. The Space Race was in full swing, the moon was on everybody’s mind, and astronauts were the coolest people on the planet. But space travel could’ve been even more awesome if scientists had finished working on a certain sci-fi project. NASA researchers were testing a pair of fully functional jet-propelled space boots.
The genius behind these crazy clodhoppers was NASA Langley engineer John D. Bird. Inspired by the “Flying Platform” and the way divers propelled themselves with flippers, Bird created a pair of shoes that blasted astronauts through space like Tony Stark. These futuristic boots were worn over an astronaut’s shoes and hooked up to a special backpack full of pressurized oxygen. If the spaceman wanted to move forward, he’d activate a switch inside his shoe using his big toe, releasing streams of oxygen from each boot.
Since these things didn’t come with a steering wheel, astronauts would direct their flight paths with their legs and feet. Not only did this system play on man’s sense of balance, but it allowed astronauts to keep their hands free in case they needed to do any work.
As nutty as all this sounds, the jet shoes actually passed a series of tests, but researchers still had their doubts. They weren’t sure the toe switch would function in a pressurized suit, and they were worried the shoes were just too heavy. The jet shoes were eventually scrapped, leaving the world a little bit less awesome.
What’s a chef without an apron, a doctor without a stethoscope, a prostitute without platform shoes? Footwear has always been an important part of a hooker’s ensemble. In Japan, royal concubines tottered around elevated getas, and courtesans in Renaissance-era Venice accompanied noblemen while balancing on 75-centimeter (30 inch) heels. However, perhaps the strangest pair of seductive sandals came from Ancient Greece, where everything was legal and prostitutes paid taxes.
Back when the gods hung out on Mt. Olympus, the lowest of the lowly hookers were known as “pornai” (care to guess which modern-day word derives from that?). Many of the pornai were slaves, stolen from areas like Thrace and modern-day Turkey. Considered barbarians because they couldn’t speak Greek, the pornai worked the streets, hustling on the dusty, unpaved roads.
While these dirt paths were probably murder in the rain, they were perfect for free advertising. The pornai wore studded sandals that imprinted phrases like “follow me” in the sandy streets, leaving a trail for any prospective john. And not a lot has changed since the days of Zeus. Inspired by these ancient shoes, a group called The Aphrodite Project has created a special pair of heels that come with a siren for scaring off attackers and a GPS tracker in case the wearer disappears.
It’s rather stressful being a world leader. They have to deal with pressing matters of state, and, worse, they always have to worry about their shoes. Take the president of the United States for example. His tootsies are stylishly covered thanks to the hard work of Johnston & Murphy. Founded in William Dudley’s basement in 1850, the company has provided shoes for every president from Millard Filmore to Barack Obama. And while we’re on the subject, Abraham Lincoln holds the record for the Oval Office’s biggest foot (a whopping size 14), and Rutherford B. Hayes has the smallest (a shrimpy little 7).
But when it comes to style, Queen Elizabeth outshines them all. Attended by a team of fashion experts, the Queen’s outfits are listed in a computer program which keeps track of when she wore what and why. This way, she never wears the same thing to the same kind of occasion twice. Her attendees even have nicknames for her clothing, like a yellow dress they’ve codenamed “buttercup.”
Extra precautions are made to take care of the royal feet. As the Queen can’t exactly slip off her heels in the middle of an event, her designers have to make sure her shoes are as soft as possible. To achieve maximum comfort, the Queen has a servant break her shoes in until they’re nice and comfy. It’s one of the little perks that comes with being a queen.
If you know one of those marathon maniacs known as “joggers,” you’ve no doubt heard of the latest exercise craze: barefoot running. Obviously, this isn’t great for running over rocky terrain or shards of glass while battling terrorists. However, Harvard biologist Daniel Liebman claims that jogging barefoot might actually be better for our bodies than running in sneakers.
Running shoes have only been popular for the past 40 years or so. Before that, people had to do without the luxury of cushioned heels. And as Liebman discovered, those cushions make a huge difference in the way people naturally move. Liebman observed several groups of US and Kenyan athletes running with or without shoes. Some had spent their whole lives running barefoot, some were lifelong shoe people, and others had recently converted to one camp or the other. Sneaker people hit the ground heel-first, while the barefoot bunch stepped toes- or mid-foot first.
When you strike the ground heel-first, you send a massive shock wave up your body. According to Liebman, it’s like “someone hitting you on the heel with a hammer two to three times your body weight.” Running barefoot is a totally different story. When you land toes-first, almost no force slams into your feet because your weight is better distributed and your steps are bouncier.
As Liebman points out, there’s no way our ancestors—without the aid of Adidas or Puma—could have run heel-first. It would’ve put too much stress on their bodies. So running shoes have changed the way we move.
High heels were originally invented for men—specifically, for Persian soldiers. Women only picked up on the trend in the 1630s. Ever since then, however, high heels have been a female fashion staple, and while some see them as symbols of oppression, others view them as objects of empowerment and sex appeal. But beauty comes with a price, and anyone who’s ever slipped on a pair of pumps knows heels are painful, especially if you don’t possess perfect movie star feet.
However, procedures have come along that promise to change the high heel game. Known as “Cinderella surgeries,” these operations make it less painful for women to wear their favorite shoes. A few procedures are relatively simple, such as snipping away irritating bunions. Then there’s the collagen injection where doctors stick a syringe in a woman’s sole and fill her up with loads of fat. Voila! Instant cushion.
But the most shocking surgery involves the toes. Say a woman has a few toes on her left foot that are longer than the rest, forcing her to wear two different sized heels. Well, thanks to the “Cinderella surgery,” doctors can shave off a few centimeters of toe, and now her problems are solved. Even worse, some women are completely lopping off their pinky toes, leaving them with only four piggies per foot.
While these operations are radical and, according to the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons, rather dangerous, it helps to remember the pressure women are under to live up to certain expectations of beauty. As one patient put it, “Unless you’ve been there, and you can’t find shoes, and you’re in pain, don’t judge.”