Let’s Tie One On
By Patrick F. Cannon
Among the many rites of passage faced by we humans – birth, death, marriage, divorce, first haircut, first step, puberty, first shave, first sex, driver’s license, first job, etc. – none is so daunting as learning how to tie your own shoelaces. We go from someone else washing, dressing, feeding, and even transporting us, to being cruelly forced to do these tasks ourselves. Most, it must be said, are instinctual. Tying your own laces is another matter altogether.
I recall my mother saying “your brother Pete can tie his shoelaces. Don’t you want to be like your brother?” Why would I want to emulate this holy terror, who did everything he could to make my life hell? Or: “you can’t start school if you can’t tie your shoelaces.” Again, a dubious incentive. But she must have found one that worked, maybe “no more Snickers for you!” At any rate, I did learn to do it, and still perform this simple task at least once a day. But why do we have to do it at all? Where did the damn things come from anyway?
Well, in case you missed it, the latest issue of the Journal of Glacial Emanations had yet another report of a body of a prehistoric man spewed forth at the bottom of the famous glacier near the Swiss resort of Dorrmatt. On a normal day, they are more likely to find the odd mastodon bone or old Coke bottle.
As you might expect, the fellow (they took a peek under the rags) had rather leathery skin, as you would expect from a cadaver more than 10,000 years old. A cursory examination suggested that his head had been bashed in with a blunt instrument. What caught my eye immediately were his feet. They were shod in a kind of shoe, held together with shoelaces!
As far as is known, this may be the first recorded proof that the now ubiquitous shoelace is much older than previously thought. Heretofore, it was thought that the practice of running strings of hide through holes or eyelets was an invention of the Vikings, who, after all, lived in a rather harsh environment and needed to protect their feet against the cold. In those days, more sensible humans tended to live in warmer climes. The Greeks and Romans, for example, favored a sandal-like affair that did have lengths of fabric or hide that wrapped around their calves to hold their footwear in place.
The shoelace as we now know it is a relatively recent invention, most shoes during the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Rococo, Georgian and Napoleonic eras having been either slip-ons or be-buckled (a word of my invention, please make note). It was only in the early 19th Century that Sir Thomas McCann, tired of having his pumps falling off as he chased the ladies at the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens in London, came up with the ingenious idea of punching holes in his shoes and running a bit of string through the holes and tying off the ends! Eureka! No lass was ever safe again. (In fairness, it must be mentioned that there is a competing claim. It seems a chap named Isadore Florsheim came up with a similar idea in the 1830s, as way of keeping his shoes afoot when trudging through the muddy streets of Lower Manhattan in New York. And it wasn’t always just mud!).
Over time, technological advances were made in shoes and shoelaces. The eyelets – the holes punched in the shoe to permit the entrance of the lace – are now reinforced with metal or plastic. And some frustrated but clever person invented the aglet, which is that metal or plastic tube that keep the lace ends from fraying and causing extreme consternation.
By the way, the most common knot for tying shoes is called the “granny knot.” I really have no idea why, nor do I much care.
Copyright 2022, Patrick F. Cannon