Children’s Literature – History Revealed Through Shoes

Historically children’s literature was written with both a moral and political purpose, usually depicting extremes of character and the political climate of the times. Folk tales were explicitly gruesome, depicting torture and death for children who misbehaved, or riches and rewards for children of good character. These stories were not considered unduly harsh, since children’s roles in the stories often represented adults and children alike, as well as the economic and political conditions at the time in which they were written.

In Hans Christian Anderson’s tale The Red Shoes, the heroine, Karen, fools her stepmother into purchasing her a pair of leather red shoes, and wears them to Church, a blatant sign of disrespect and personal vanity. The red shoes themselves punish Karen. They force her to dance mercilessly until an executioner cuts off her feet to rid her of the shoes. These moralistic folk stories were typical for their day.  It was told from a religious perspective: Karen attended a Christian mass and her shoes were red, generally known as the devil’s colour. Andersen explained the origins of the story in an incident he witnessed as a small child. By his report, his father was sent a piece of red silk by a rich lady, to make a pair of dancing shoes for her daughter. Using red leather along with the silk, he worked very carefully on the shoes, only to have the rich lady tell him they were trash. She said he had done nothing but spoil her silk and he cut up the shoes in front of her. Story:  The Red Shoes

However shoes also brought rewards to characters of purity. In Little Goody Two Shoes, a folk tale penned in 1765, Marjery is presented with a pair of black leather shoes that console her after her brother has gone missing. Marjery is a a child of exemplary behaviour, hence the title.  She grows up to marry a rich widower, another reward for her good character. Story: Little Goody Two Shoes

Cinderella also illustrates a heroine of pure character. It is a small, glass slipper that provides Cinderella an escape from a life of drudgery as a reward for her good behaviour. Although the Disney version of Cinderella doesn’t emphasize the size of the glass shoe, the original version centered around its tiny size. For this reason historians believe the Cinderella story might have been based on the tradition of foot binding in Chinese culture. However there is evidence that the Cinderella was of Ancient Egyptian origin, and was recorded in the first year B.C.
story: The Original Cinderella Story 

Perhaps the most famous children’s shoes in literature belonged to Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. However, unlike the previous folk tales, Oz was written for entirely political purposes. The movie adapted its own version of the ruby red shoes, as they were silver in the novel, a significant material for the story’s political theme. Dorothy represents Everywoman, beleaguered by the corrupt President of the United States, being Oz himself. Frank Baum wrote the story in 1900, 40 years after the civil war. It was written chiefly about the Midwestern states, where  silver was in plentiful supply. Private banks pretended that money was based on gold and used this deception to control the circulation of money in the states. Baum wanted money to be based on investments in silver which the banks would not be able to control because of its availability in the Midwest. Dorothy encounters three significant characters in her travels: the Scarecrow, representing the impoverished Midwestern farmer, the Tin Man, unemployed industrial workers, and the Cowardly Lion, politicians who had the power but lacked the courage to confront the private banks, or The Wicked Witch.  Story Background: The Story Behind The Wonderful Wizard of Oz
Interestingly, there were issues of a different type of political nature during the casting and filming of Oz. video:  Wizard of Oz Casting Tin Man

The Elves and the Shoemaker also presents the theme of poverty as an imposition by government and corporate enterprise. The Industrial Revolution was a period from the 18th to the 19th century where major changes in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, transportation, and technology had a profound effect on the socioeconomic conditions of the times. Robert E. Lucas Jr. was quoted as stating, “for the first time in history, the living standards of the masses of ordinary people have begun to undergo sustained growth. … Nothing remotely like this economic behavior has happened before.” Although this statement was true in terms of national averages, poverty-stricken people comprised the majority of the population. In fact most people suffered severe reductions in their living standards. However, the impoverished shoemaker attains wealth at the story’s end, a metaphor for the increased wealth of the overall nation.

The story also centres around the immorality of forced child labour in the form of the tiny elves who work without wages. There was limited opportunity for education except among the wealthy and the rising middle class, and as a result, children were expected to work. Employers paid a child less than an adult even though their productivity was comparable. Children as young as four were employed. Beatings and long hours were common, with some child coal miners working from 4 am until 5 pm. Conditions were dangerous: children were killed when they dozed off and fell into the path of the carts, while others died from gas explosions. Many children developed lung cancer and died before the age of 25. Workhouses sold orphans and abandoned children as “pauper apprentices“, working without wages for board and lodging. Those who ran away were whipped and returned to their masters, with some masters shackling them to prevent further escape attempts.  story: The Elves and the Shoemaker

The historic eras of children’s literature is usually woven into folk and fairy tales. Two central themes are that of poverty and moral character. Sometimes the latter is revealed through journeys into the unknown. Other times, it is objects such as shoes that bring the tales’ characters reward or punishment, depending upon their morality and behaviour.

prezi:  Shoes in Children’s Literature

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