A year ago, as building contractors readied to repair a section of the roof on the 1719 William Trent House, they discovered an object that wasn’t supposed to be there. And they had questions. Why was this object — an old leather shoe — placed there out of sight? Who did it, and when?
Maybe it was dragged there by a rodent or thrown there by a workman … or maybe it was an object associated with a magic ritual … A magic ritual? Yes, that’s the likely answer, says anthropologist M. Chris Manning.
On Sunday, April 7, Manning and other speakers will explore this topic at the William Trent House visitor center in a panel discussion titled “The Mystery of the Shoe in the Roof.” She will share her master’s thesis research, drawing from her paper, “Homemade Magic: Concealed Deposits in Architectural Contexts in the Eastern United States.”
The event is one of several taking place this year celebrating the 300th anniversary of the Trent House.
The mystery of the shoe panel includes Colonial Williamsburg shoemaker Valentine Povinelli, who will show how he was able to date the footwear to the first half of the 19th century and determine its likely ownership and use. And historic preservation consultant and architectural historian Kevin Joy will describe changes made to the Trent House throughout history, exploring how a shoe made in the 1800s might have been concealed in a structure built in 1719.
Concurrent with the panel (and through May) visitors can view an exhibit featuring images of the Trent House as it was modified over the years.
During the period of colonial America residents often hid objects in and around homes in a practice scholars describe as magico-religious or folk rituals, says Manning. The concealments, also known as deposits, were believed to protect the home from spiritual and physical harm. They also provided protection and well-being to the people who lived there and the animals on the property. Discoveries in the United States concentrate in the Northeast, especially New England, and the Midwest.
It is a common misconception among many archeologists that early English colonists did not practice folk magic and rituals since they were devout Christians and religious authority figures opposed such practices. Further, such practices contradicted scientific reasoning. But, says Manning, historical evidence suggests that most colonists weren’t opposed to employing a little magical assistance from time to time.
Early in her studies, Manning found that scholarly research had focused on populations from the African diaspora and Native American nations, thereby creating the perception that Europeans are too sophisticated to engage in rituals.
In fact, says Manning, rituals were shared among populations from several countries and backgrounds, creating merged practices that bridged various cultures.
While Manning’s research on concealed objects in the Eastern United States focuses on the colonial time period, she draws on religious and folk practices that reach back to pre-Christian times.
Concealed objects are usually discovered when an organization is renovating or demolishing a historic structure. Objects are often found in chimneys but also in fireplaces, under floors, above ceilings, in roofs, around doors and windows, under stairs, and within foundations. In addition to private residences, objects have been found in hospitals, work houses, public houses, and factories.
The types of objects found include garments and textiles, dolls, horse skulls, iron tools and implements, horseshoes, painted and inscribed marks and symbols, printed and written texts and charms, cats, and bottles.
Of all the objects that have been concealed, you may wonder, why shoes?
Manning points out that throughout history the shoe has played a symbolic role in many narratives related to life lessons, luck, protection, and power:
An example often used by scholars relates to the power of a shoe to combat evil. According to legend, an Augustinian monk and rector in Buckinghamshire, England, once forced the Devil into a boot. Based on this reported conquest, shoes and boots were thought to have the power to ward off or trap malevolent spirts. Thus, footwear was often concealed in chimneys or other vulnerable openings of a building.
Shoes and stockings are used as containers for rewards given for good behavior. Consider the practice of hanging a stocking in front of the fireplace chimney on Christmas Eve.
Shoes are also associated with travel and one’s journey through life. Consider the guidance that you should not judge a person’s actions until you have walked a mile in his shoes.
A baby’s first shoe is often bronzed by his parents, a practice that relates to a belief that keeping his first shoe will protect the child from harm.
Perhaps the most widely recognized symbolism of the shoe, writes Manning, is the idea that it bears a forever link to the person who wears it, and in some way, retains the essence or soul of that person. Because a shoe tends to maintain its shape, and thus the shape of the foot of the person who wore it, that shoe can be a form of image magic with more potency than an unworn shoe. It is, in effect, a portable footprint.
Not everyone accepts the idea that shoes or other objects found within building structures were placed there as deliberate acts associated with folk culture. Their view is that they were tossed into a wall cavity as rubbish or dragged there by stray animals.
But, counters Manning, patterns suggest otherwise. Today at least 2,000 concealed deposits containing one or more shoes have been discovered; they tend to reside near chimneys and fireplaces; and shoes tend to be left-footed. At least 300 deposits have been located in the U.S.
Using physical objects to bring luck or give oneself an advantage is still used today. Athletes and fans are known for practicing “sports magic.” Manning references to a Boston Red Sox fan working on the construction of the new Yankee Stadium in 2008. He inserted a Red Sox jersey into the concrete structure with the intent of cursing the Yankees with bad luck.
When other construction workers, all Yankees fans, discovered his mischief, they spent hours working to locate the jersey, eventually retrieving it from under two feet of hardened concrete.
Athletes and fans are not alone in practices related to luck. Elected officials have been known to carry good luck objects with them while campaigning.
Manning became interested in history growing up in Ohio, where her parents were public school teachers. They spent many summer months traveling across the country, and those vacations gave her opportunities to learn about different customs and ways of doing things, she says.
She attended Indiana’s Ball State University, where she earned a master’s in anthropology with a focus in archeology. Today she serves as the curator of Ohio’s Overfield Tavern Museum. She also serves as a special project coordinator at the Miami Valley Veterans Museum and has held positions at the Nantucket Historical Association; Dovetail Cultural Resource Group; and other organizations.
Manning finds that interest in concealed objects and folk rituals is growing among professionals and the public. She encourages individuals who wish to explore this topic to search the internet for “concealed shoes” or other hidden objects. She also recommends contacting state or historical museums to learn about their collections and volunteer opportunities.
Her wish for the future is that the researchers from the fields of anthropology, archeology, and other areas work more closely together to solve the mysteries behind hidden objects.
The Mystery of the Shoe in the Roof: Panel Discussion, William Trent House Visitor Center, 15 Market Street. Sunday, April 7, 2 to 4 p.m. $15, $12 for Trent House Association members.
Other 300th anniversary celebration events:
Open House, Saturday, June 1.
Community Archaeology Project, Saturdays, June 8, 15, 22, and 29, and July 6; and Fridays, June 14, 21, and 28.
Trenton History: The Immigrant Experience sculpture exhibit, June 22 through November 3.
Ice Cream Social with Colonial re-enactors, Sunday, July 21
Life and Times of William Trent Jr. lecture and book signing by Jason Cherry. Monday, July 22.
Exhibit showing changes to the Trent House over the years on view through May. www.williamtrenthouse.org/events
This article was originally published in the April 2019 Trenton Downtowner.