Given that it’s Au­gust, you may be wear­ing your pair as you read this: but for how long have we been wear­ing the hum­ble san­dal?

Your Family History - - Contents -

The An­cient Greeks and Ro­mans loved them – and their pop­u­lar­ity hasn’t died out yet. We look at the long his­tory of the sum­mer san­dal.


Many of us have a pair of sandals in our cup­board, gath­er­ing dust over the win­ter, but then com­ing into their own as soon as we get a hint of sun­shine. There isn’t much to a pair: they are open, and con­sist mainly of a sole that is at­tached to your foot with straps. Although they have sim­i­lar­i­ties to other types of shoe, they leave most of the up­per foot ex­posed, and should cost less than shoes, as they re­quire less in terms of ma­te­rial and con­struc­tion.


Did you know that the old­est known sandals – found in Ore­gon – were wo­ven from bark and were con­structed at least 10,000 years ago? This shows that open footwear has an in­cred­i­bly long his­tory, although more of us will know of their use by the an­cient Greeks, Ro­mans and Egyp­tians.


The word ‘san­dal’ it­self de­rives from Greek. The An­cient Greeks had two types of san­dal, in fact – those made of wil­low leaves or twigs were known as bax­eae and worn by co­me­di­ans and philoso­phers; and the ‘colthur­nus’, sandals that were more like boots, stretch­ing up the leg, were worn by horse­men and hun­ters, or those of high rank or pres­tige. These could be like more mod­ern built-up shoes, with cork slices added to the sole to make it wearer look taller.


Women tended to usu­ally wear sandals, made with lots of straps. The tops were made out of leather, and the soles from lay­ered cat­tle skin. Sandals may not have been prac­ti­cal for very ac­tive in­di­vid­u­als, and as An­cient Greek women were in the home more than their hus­bands, they may have found them to be more suit­able and thus wore them more.


Mean­while, an­cient Egyp­tians pre­ferred to make their sandals out of palm-leaves or pa­pyrus, with priests be­ing made to wear the lat­ter. Ro­mans, mean­while, in­di­vid­u­alised their sandals by carv­ing de­signs into them.


An­cient Ro­man sol­diers wore a spe­cific type of san­dal for march­ing. This was known as cali­gae, and it had a heavy sole to cope with ter­rain and ac­tiv­ity. All ranks up to, and in­clud­ing, a cen­tu­rion would be re­quired to wear cali­gae. The open parts of the cali­gae were de­signed to re­duce the chance of blis­ters form­ing as a re­sult of long marches, and they were also health­ier for the feet in damp con­di­tions. In Ro­man Bri­tain, with its of­ten cold weather, woollen socks were some­times worn with cali­gae.

These items of footwear were more sim­i­lar to boots, as the Ro­mans usu­ally re­garded sandals as be­ing in­door footwear. In­deed, higher class Ro­mans would make their slaves carry a pair of sandals for them to change into be­fore in­door oc­ca­sions such as ban­quets.


In Ja­pan, straw sandals known as ‘waraji’ were tra­di­tion­ally worn not just by sol­diers but by mem­bers of the sa­mu­rai class, although they were seen mainly as the footwear of com­mon­ers. Usu­ally made of rice straw, they could also be con­structed with

hemp, palm, or cot­ton. Waraji were of­ten worn with toes stick­ing out over their front edge, but the method of ty­ing them de­pended on who the wearer was – a farmer ty­ing them dif­fer­ently to a sol­dier, for ex­am­ple. To­day, it is mainly monks who wear these sandals.


The OED’s first recorded use of the word sandals in writ­ing comes from a 14th cen­tury edi­tion of the Bi­ble, in Mark’s Gospel. An early 16th cen­tury edi­tion has the line: “And the an­gel said unto him: gird thy­self and bind on thy san­dalles”. Late 17th cen­tury and early 18th ref­er­ences make the san­dal some­thing ‘for­eign’, with ref­er­ence be­ing made to it be­ing an item of footwear for Moors, Per­sians, Basques and Navar­rois peo­ple. Sa­muel Pepys, in his di­ary, wrote of a priest in his cell, “with his hair-cloths to his skin, bare-legged, with a San­dall only on.”


One of the more ubiq­ui­tous san­dal brands to­day is Birken­stock – the maker of ugly, but prac­ti­cal, sandals with cork or rub­ber soles. The com­pany has its roots in the 18th cen­tury, when Jo­hann Adam Birken­stock is recorded as mak­ing shoes in a small Ger­man vil­lage. Over a cen­tury later, in 1896, his de­scen­dant Kon­rad de­vel­oped a con­toured in­sole, and opened two shoe shops in Frank­furt. How­ever, it was only in 1964 that another mem­ber of the fam­ily, Karl, turned the in­serts into a san­dal. In­ter­est­ingly, af­ter WW2, the Birken­stock be­came pop­u­lar with sol­diers re­turn­ing from fight­ing, as it had or­thopaedic ben­e­fits.

Other 20th cen­tury favourites, how­ever, were far more ‘dressy’ than the hum­ble Birken­stock, with lat­tice work or other dec­o­ra­tive fea­tures, and heels. Chil­dren, too, wore sandals, or a cross be­tween sandals and shoes, and mar­ket­ing in­creas­ingly tar­geted ad­verts at a dis­tinct san­dal-wear­ing au­di­ence.


To­day, we still wear Gre­cian sandals on oc­ca­sion – lit­tle more than a sole that is kept on the foot by laces or straps that fas­ten round the an­kle and up the calf. A sim­i­lar type of san­dal is also called the gla­di­a­tor, which de­rive from the cali­gae of the Ro­man le­gionary sol­diers.

Sandals of­fered ‘care­free com­fort’, ac­cord­ing to this North­ern Ir­ish ad­vert of 1942

Apairofveg­etable fi­bre­san­dals­from an­cien­tE­gypt

Ja­panese straw sandals, known as waraji

A re­pro­duc­tion of a Ro­man sol­dier’s caliga

Birken­stock sandals as we know them were de­vel­oped in the 1960s, although the firm dates back to the 18th cen­tury This 1931 ad­vert shows the de­vel­op­ment of the san­dal from an­cient times to the mod­ern ‘danc­ing san­dal’

A col­lec­tion of dif­fer­ent types of san­dal from an­cient Greece and Rome

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