EST. May 2000 (AD)


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Standard Shoe Size

Excerpted from Extraordinary Origins of Everyday things.

Until the first decade of the fourteenth century, people in the most civilized European societies, including royalty, could not acquire shoes in standard sizes. And even the most expensive custom-made shoes could vary in size from pair to pair, depending on the measuring and crafting skills of particular cobblers.

That began to change in 1305. Britain's King Edward I decreed that for a standard of accuracy in certain trades, an inch be taken as the length of three contiguous dried barleycorns. British cobblers adopted the measure and began manufacturing the first footwear in standard sizes. A child's shoe measuring thirteen barleycorns became commonly known as and requested by, size 13. And though shoes cut for the right and left foot had gone out of existence after the fall of the Roman Empire, they reemerged in 14th century England.

A new style surface in the fourteenth century: shoes with extremely long spiked toes. The vogue was carried to such lengths that Edward III enacted a law prohibiting spikes' extending two inches beyond the human toes. For a while, people, observed the edict. But by the early 1400's the so- called crakows had attained tips of 8 inches or more, with wearers routinely tripping themselves.

The crakows, arriving in the creative atmosphere that nurtured the Renaissance, ushering in a new shoe-style trendiness, as one fashion extreme replaced another. The absurdly long, pointed toe for example was usurped by a painfully short, comically broad-boxed toe that in width could accommodate an extra set of digits.

Complete mechanization of shoemaking, and thus true mass production, was slow in coming. In 1892, the Manfield Shoe Companies of Northhampton, England, operated the first machines capable of producing quality shoes in standard sizes and in large quantities

Excerpted from Extraordinary Origins of Everyday things.

CHARLES PANATI, a former physicist and for six years a science editor for Newsweek, is the author of many non-fiction and fiction books, including six works on "origins." He's considered the country's leading authority on the origins of just about everything.

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