The renovation of a 190-year-old Walden home uncovers unexpected treasures.
If walls could talk. Lisa Melville stands outside her early 19th-century home in Walden. In her hands, she holds two of the six shoes found hidden in the house’s walls.
Photographs by Michael Polito
When Lisa Melville began renovating her 19th-century home in Walden in 2011, the last thing she expected to find behind the walls were the shoes of the home’s original owners. But she discovered just that: six different shoes, all concealed along the beams and doorways of various rooms in the nearly 190-year-old house. Melville, a local historian and trustee of the Walden Historical Society, was baffled by the previous owner’s peculiar decision to store shoes within the walls of her residence.
“When you’re doing renovations and a bunch of shoes fall out of the wall, that’s kind of weird,” she says.
With her interest piqued, she began doing some research—and discovered that her shoe-filled walls are not all that unusual. Melville shared her findings at the Walden Historical Society’s “Old House Superstitions and Treasures” event in April.
Beginning as early as the 15th century, the act of hiding “concealment shoes” in and around walls leading to the entrances of homes and other buildings has been a tradition in numerous European countries. Along with the immigration of Europeans to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries came the tradition of hiding shoes in walls, especially over doorways, as a good luck charm and deterrent to evil spirits. Some reported cases date back to the earliest settlers of the 17th century, Melville says; and a 2011 study showed that of the nearly 2,000 documented cases of this practice, more than 100 of them took place in the U.S.
“One of the theories as to why these people chose shoes is that they take on the shape of the wearer—showing that there’s a soul behind the shoe,” Melville says. “Shoes were much more of an investment back then, and were often passed down through generations due to their initial cost.”
Old fashions: Along with shoes (one of which belonged to a child), the items found in Melville’s walls included a glove, a baby’s bonnet, and fabric from a dress or bib.
This tradition is not the only one out there involving shoes, according to Melville. Due to the “personal” connection, wedding superstitions in various cultures also make use of footwear. “When a couple gets married, they tie two old shoes together and hang them from the bumper of their car,” Melville says, and notes that a popular “shoe-perstition” at English weddings was to toss shoes at the newlyweds for good luck and fertility.
Previous owners of Melville’s home concealed not only their shoes, but other small personal items: a baby’s bonnet, a glove, work records from the 1850s, and pieces of a dress or bib. In total, Melville now has two glass cases full of artifacts uncovered during the renovation; additional items were put back where she found them. “There were so many fragments that we couldn’t possibly keep them all,” she says.
Along with five different adult shoes, Melville also recovered a lone child’s shoe. She learned that up to half of the reported cases of concealment shoes in this country involved children. Because so many children died from a variety of illnesses during the 19th century, Melville says it has been suggested that putting a child’s first walking shoe in the wall would serve as good luck for a healthy life.
Melville’s house is not the only one in Walden with a footwear fetish. When lifelong resident Suzanne Bergen began renovating the kitchen of her Mills Road home in the late 1980s, her family and friends were puzzled when a small, black-soled baby shoe with four tiny buttons appeared. “When the sheetrock was pulled in our kitchen, a tiny shoe fell right down from the ceiling,” she says. “It had been hidden in the beam right above the doorway.” The shoe has been boxed away in her daughter’s attic since the discovery. Having learned about the concealed shoe practice, Bergen now wonders if any hidden artifacts were buried in the walls of her previous homes.
Melville queried other owners of aging homes in the area about what they might have uncovered during renovations. One wasn’t nearly as intrigued with his discovery as Melville had been with hers: “One person found a mummified cat in the wall,” she says.
When work on her house was completed in 2012, Melville contributed to the concealed collection by adding shoes—her own, as well as her daughter’s and grandfather’s—and a hat that belonged to her grandmother. She included a note describing what had been found, and a book she has written about both the home’s past owners and its history with concealment.
“I’m very glad [the original owners] put in so many other things along with the shoes—things that were actually touched and used by them, like a little time capsule,” she says. “I love local history, and my findings were a direct connection to the family who built my home. The most rewarding part to me was this connection.”