Monday, January 7, 2019

Big Shoes To Fill!

By Susan Zehnder, Education Director

Stepping into the position of Education Director at the Chemung County Historical Society, and into the big shoes left by my predecessor Kelli Huggins (a shout out to all the trails she blazed!), has got me thinking about the different kinds of shoes we wear in life. Shoes, both figuratively and literally tell stories about who we are, who we aspire to be, and maybe what makes us tick.

Here in our collection, we have footwear for practical reasons, like arctic explorer Ross Gilmore Marvin’s fur-trimmed boots.

In 1905, Marvin commissioned these boots, made by Inuit artists in a traditional style. Boots like these, often made from seal fur, were part of a necessary outfit to keep cold and damp at bay. Marvin wore these while traveling with Admiral Peary and exploring the Arctic.  You can currently see these boots on display in our Elmirans Abroad exhibit. 

Inuit people had perfected the art of dressing in extreme conditions, and boots like these might consist of as many as five layers protecting the wearer's feet out on the ice. And, in order to add insulation and absorb sweaty feet, wearers might add feathers or dried grass to pad the inside. Not only did these boots do service for Marvin on the ice, but after one of his trips, he brought them back to Elmira to share their unique look and feel with the Elmira community. He encouraged children to try them on and imagine what being an Arctic explorer might feel like.

Other shoes, also on display in the same gallery, are humorous, alligator-shaped oversized shoes.

These were shoes with an entirely different purpose. They come to the museum from the collection of Matt Lockwood -  check out our August 18, 2014 Blog for more information on him. Briefly, Lockwood was a white Elmirian who performed with and accumulated theatrical objects from minstrel shows.  We don't know who in Elmira actually wore the shoes, we just know they were worn for local minstrel performances. While Marvin’s heavy fur boots helped him walk steadfastly on ice and snow, these humorously shaped shoes helped performers in a different way. Namely, they dictated how the wearer walked and carried himself, requiring him to pay close attention. Neglecting to watch each step might result in his tripping and falling during a performance. This may be great when desired, but disastrous when it is not. And, when performers wore shoes like this during sketches, the audience saw someone who was clumsy and slow, which helped elicit laughs and push negative stereotypes of African Americans, as all minstrel shows did. Here shoes functioned as props for performers as they guided audience laughs and guffaws. For a comedian, if timed right, physical pratfalls came in handy when entertaining no matter what the message was.

Thinking this way, what function did Mrs. Georgianna Archibald Palmer’s elegant blue damask slippers have, and what do they say about her? 

These shoes from our collection seem to suggest a woman of means, because these materials wouldn’t hold up to everyday wear or outside travel, and certainly some leisure time, since what else could you really do in these shoes? 

And while out of expensive cloth, these colorful silk slippers from China could only fit if the woman’s feet had been broken and bound as a status symbol proving to the world she was above household tasks and duties. 

Shoes tell us things. Growing up, my family splurged for one night’s stay in a very fancy hotel in Banff, Canada. Dressing in our finest clothes, but wearing sneakers, we strolled around hoping to impress other guests, only to have our cover blown by the doorman. He said our shoes gave us away. 

The stories shoes tell-what materials they’re made from, who made them, where they come from or who owned them and why, are part of our story. Unpacking these stories is a little of what we do, discovering more about the history of people from our Chemung County community every day. 

Author's shoes

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