Apotropaic Magic, Size 9

I don’t know if the custom of hiding used shoes and clothing in a house under construction to ward off evil influences ever crossed the pond to North America from Britain. If you know of instances—or of people still doing it—let me know in the comments.

I first learned of this custom at an archaeology conference at the University of Southampton some years back. Archaeologists are delighted with such finds. Often they provide the only samples of ordinary people’s clothing, which otherwise would have been worn until it fell apart.

The custom apparently went to Australia with the convicts and other early settlers, however.

Convict's shirt (BBC).

A few blocks away from the Sydney Harbour Bridge is the imposing, vivid orange structure of the Hyde Park Barracks.

Built to house some 50,000 unfortunate convicts transported from the UK between 1819 and the mid-1840s, the jail was among the first substantial structures constructed in the city.

On the second floor, under the boards of a wooden staircase, workers found a striped prisoner’s shirt.

[Historian Ian] Evans rejects the idea that the shirt could have been put under the stairs by accident. Just like the Harbour Bridge shoe, he believes it was hidden for a purpose.

But if you are renovating an 18th or 19th-century building and find an old shoe under the floor, now you know why it was there—maybe. (And did this custom die out completely, and if so, why?)

2 Comments

  1. Dana says:

    Back when Ohio was still the frontier, mid 19th century, old clothes were put into the openings (ie, around windows) as insulation. Beat letting the wind come through the spaces between the lathe and plaster!!

  2. Chas Clifton says:

    No doubt. But if you will follow the links, you will see that the garment deposits are often found in interior spaces—under staircases, tucked in beside attic beams, etc.

    The dead cats might be in exterior walls.