Sunday, April 6, 2014
Best foot forward
Last week I gave a talk about the history of shops and shopping, an occasion made especially enjoyable for me because of the variety of questions and anecdotes from audience members afterwards. Several stick in my mind but one of the most memorable was from a man who, now retired, had started his working life in a shoe shop many moons ago. He recalled that the crucial thing was to get everyone entering the shop to sit down and remove their shoes. The assistant could then helpfully bring many pairs of shows for the customer to try on, while the customer, parted from his or her own footwear, was effectively glued to the spot. In this position it was almost impossible for them to escape without buying a pair of shoes – as well as the polish, polishing cloth, shoe horn, or whatever else the enterprising assistant could persuade them that they needed.
A lot of my talk had to do with the way the design of shop fronts attracted the customer, but I didn’t discuss the old-fashioned symbolic shop signs that were widely used until the early-20th century. These signs are not so common now. You’re more likely to find them in a museum than on the High Street, but my photograph shows one still hanging above a shoe shop in Worcester. The golden boot was once a popular sign for a shoe- and boot-maker and golden boots also survive in Launcesron and Maidstone, amongst other places. Others in the trade used a shoe, patten, or slipper, often together with a crown, and cobblers sometimes had a painting of St Crispian, their patron saint. Allied trades, such as saddlers, leatherworkers, and breeches-makers had their own signs – a saddle or horse, for example, or a pair of leather breeches.
A beautiful golden boot like this certainly helped make a shoe-maker’s shop visible and distinctive, and was of course very effective in an era when many potential customers could not read or write. Now that few shops have such signs, and most retailers try to stand out with a more or less well designed two-dimensional sign, the old-fashioned 3D sign once again helps its owner stand out from the crowd.