Ask the Antique Expert: Little Golden Shoes
by Allan Blackburn
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Dear Allan, I went to a craft fair recently and spotted these little gold shoes. I asked the lady about them and she didn’t really know what they were except for decoration. She just said that shoes were once a symbol of love and I should buy them for a loved one as a gift. I just thought it was a selling tactic, but they were sweet so I bought them and gave them to my nana for her birthday. She said the same thing, that these were a love token in days gone by and so I thought I’d write to you. I don’t need a valuation, there’s obviously no real worth here, they cost me less than £5, but I would love to know if there’s any history of symbolism to them.
Well, aren’t these pretty? While the lady on the craft stall obviously sounds like she has a good sales technique going on there, she is actually quite right -the shoe has been a symbol of good luck for thousands of years. There are lots of old superstitions out there involving shoes.
It seems ridiculous now but shoes used to be thrown at weddings to wish the couple a good, long and happy life. Scottish bridegrooms would often put a sixpence in their shoe for luck and to represent financial security and future wealth. Shoes had great significance to those in love and the connection between luck, love and marriage continues today. Shoe-shaped love tokens are therefore quite common.
The Victorians often gave shoeshaped love tokens and collecting small shoes was popular especially then and after World War II. These could be snuffboxes, pin cushions or any number of things. Often made of wood these small ornate shoes were sometimes given as a wedding present: in one would be a piece of coal and in the other a sugar cube, ensuring that the newlyweds would always enjoy sweetness and warmth! A set of snuffbox shoes may be worth as much as £300 today.
The shoe was also a sign of fertility and many years ago a boot was often buried in the home of the newly wedded couple. A grain of corn was placed inside the boot, which it hoped would attract mice to nest and breed. From this came the idea that the wife would bear lots of children, who would look after her and her husband. To remind us of this, many Victorian miniature shoes show a mouse playing in the shoe.
Miniature shoes can be made from all sorts of materials including wood, porcelain, leather, copper, silver and of course nowadays plastic. Even today people have very special relationships with shoes and by extension miniature shoes.
The tradition of giving love tokens is centuries old and was particularly prevalent among rural and maritime communities. Love tokens could be given at any time, not just Valentine’s Day.
But love tokens weren’t just restricted to shoes. The types of objects people collected were varied. Some were simple paper ephemera, love tokens in the form of book marks, paper fans and small
cards commemorating the time and date of a wedding. Other items would be lockets containing a lock of hair from a loved one: a famous example of this being the lockets containing the hair of Lord Nelson and Elizabeth Hamilton. Some love tokens would be just that, tokens stamped or decorated with the date and perhaps a few words from a poem or psalm. Embroidery was also a popular decoration for tokens, small hankies or pieces of fabric would have names and dates stitched onto them.
Perhaps the earliest British love tokens are wooden love spoons. This tradition originated in 17th century Wales and was the perfect way for the mostly illiterate, young rustic men to convey their love!
Unfortunately, by the 1950s and 1960s, there weren’t many love tokens around. Charm bracelets were the new sentimental bracelet. Charms representing children, anniversaries, birthdays, places
traveled, and such were added one at a time to the bracelet. Husbands bought charms for their wives, while mothers bought for their daughters.
Of course giving flowers, jewellery and cards is the most obvious way to treat your sweetheart on Valentine’s day, but if you’re looking for something different and perhaps more traditional, then think about a shoe. You certainly won’t be the first person to use the symbolism of a shoe to proclaim your love.