Concealed Shoes and Other Apotropaic Devices

The ritual concealment of charms to ward off evil has an extraordinary but largely unknown history in the building tradition of Atlantic Canada.  Its sequestered quality lends mystery to the practice and is likely to blame for its largely undocumented existence.  Placing carefully selected objects, such as shoes, in walls, attics, floors, or cellars in the belief that it will afford the inhabitants some supernatural protection or other benefit comes to our region from Britain and its roots there likely extend across Europe and beyond.

Above: In 1981 this shoe was added to the collection of the Parkdale-Maplewood Community Museum in Lunenburg County, Nova Scotia.

The Jews of the Old Testament were instructed to smear lamb’s blood on their door posts and lintels before the Spirit of the Lord was to descend on all the houses of Egypt and take the first-born of people and animals.  His Spirit passed over those houses marked with lamb’s blood on the door frame.  Did this Biblical example of household protection offer our ancestors some inspiration for other means of “marking” their homes as somehow set apart or protected?  Was placing objects in walls a physical component of Christian folk ritual or was the practice tied to pagan or non-religious traditions?  Current research does not provide definitive answers – only clues – but whatever the roots of the odd practice it appears to have been motivated by a desire to safeguard loved ones.

The practice of concealing shoes in walls enjoys slightly better than sparse awareness in our region but horse skulls, witch bottles, or even dried cats are largely unknown.   Ritual marks on framing and sheathing was another practice connected to protection and is often dismissed as carpenters’ marks. 

Collectively, these practices are termed apotropaic, a suitably mysterious word with a Greek origin that simply means to ward off evil.

So how were these charms supposed to work?  Was the intention to repel evil or to trap it in the shoe?  Did the protection relate specifically to the shoe’s wearer or to every resident – or perhaps just to the structure?  Was the shoe a fertility charm?  Did those placing the shoes wholeheartedly believe in the promises of the practice or did it eventually diminish to a mere exercise of continuing with the “old ways” simply to honour those who came before?

Now, placing a shoe in a wall and enclosing it behind lath and plaster in the expectation that it will somehow protect or bless one’s family has an endearing quality to it; but the same feelings do not easily extend to dried cats and horse skulls. The animals though are in many ways more fascinating. Most of us can recall countless experiences where a cat or a horse became spooked for some unapparent reason.  It is believed that the “sixth sense” sometimes attributed to these animals is behind the usage of their remains as apotropaic devices.  The inference being that the animal’s spirit – or simply its form – may ward off evil spirits or rodents.

The meanings behind concealed shoes, which are more likely to be retained and documented than dead animals when found, are not entirely understood.  One theory suggests that to give one protection, the shoe must be imbued with the wearer’s essence – which is one explanation for why it is well-worn footwear that is most commonly found.  A related tradition calls for burying an old shoe under a tree.

Placement is important.  Chimneys, a favoured location for apotropaic devices, were often selected because they are always open to the outside and otherwise unprotected.   Similarly, window and door openings were seen as vulnerable to entry and so adjacent wall spaces can sometimes contain a well-worn shoe or animal.

Vineberg & Fulton has endeavoured to create a database to document the discovery of apotropaic devices in Atlantic Canada and we request your help.  So far, the earliest documented find of a concealed shoe in this region occurred in Pictou, Nova Scotia in 1891.  Its discovery was lauded, and its finders marveled at its style which featured a pointed toe – a style they noted was so old that it had come back into fashion at that time!

Apotropaic practices were likely far more pervasive than we will ever know.  When we have the opportunity to peer into the “insides” of historic buildings it is helpful to know what to look for and where to look.  It is hoped that this article will raise awareness of this mysterious part of our built heritage and result in more findings being documented.  In response, Vineberg & Fulton has developed a curatorial policy and documentation sheet for recording historic concealed charms.  Please send us records of your finds so that we can add them to our Atlantic Canadian database of apotropaic objects.  The database is available in a limited format by selecting this download link.


Posted by Joe Dec 17, 2015 Posted in Architectural History, Atlantic Canada, Publications & Research Comments Off

Spooky Architecture?

The Second Empire style of architecture has become Hollywood’s “go to” setting for tales of paranormal phenomenon and spine-tingling horror.  Todd Mansion, found in St. Stephen, New Brunswick, (pictured above) is arguably Atlantic Canada’s greatest example of Second Empire domestic architecture.  Had I taken this photo at night with a full moon hanging low over the wrought iron cresting and eerily illuminating the path to the front door, you would instantly expect that I was about to regale you with some sort of scary tale associated with the place.  Don’t worry.  Even though it is just two days before Halloween, as I write this, I do not wish to contribute to the monstrous body of irrational fears that are already associated with these nineteenth century masterpieces.   Still, it is a curious association.

When did pop culture first usurp this noble style and twist it into the macabre mansion of faulty electric wiring and secret passages?  And why this particular style anyway?

I’ll take a “stab” at a few answers.  Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 thriller, Psycho, starring Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates has become so entrenched in our culture as the gold standard of the genre and progenitor of so many horror /thriller stories produced since its release, that everyone knows it – even if they’ve never actually watched it.  And the set – the Bates Motel, with that old Second Empire style house looming behind is, I hate to say it, perfect.  The choice of house is said to have been influenced by a painting by artist, Edward Hopper (1882-1967), titled “The House by the Railroad” (1925).  That house was, of course, a Second Empire house.

In 1964, The Munsters aired on CBS.  Once again, a Second Empire house was chosen as the set for the creepy characters with the over-the-top Gothic appearance.

Similarly, the Addams Family’s Second Empire residence has “endeared” itself to many as that franchise successfully introduces itself to succeeding generations through cartoons, television, movies and video games.  Creator, Charles Addams (1912-1988) first brought the family to life with single panel cartoons illustrated for The New Yorker.  Perhaps the earliest and arguably the most influential depiction of the iconic haunted house in the Second Empire style is an Addams cartoon titled, Boiling Oil.  It appeared in the December 21, 1946 issue of The New YorkerBoiling Oil depicts Addams family members tipping a cauldron of hot oil onto carolers below from the top of the central tower of their Second Empire home.

By the end of the nineteenth century, the Second Empire style had fallen out of favour with architects and builders who were busy satisfying new tastes like the popular Queen Anne Revival style.  So, by the 1940s, 50s and into the 60s the once fashionable and unique Mansard roof appeared dated.  It is perhaps the distinctive roof feature that, more than anything amplified the peculiar nature of the architecture to a point that it became a likely candidate for ghosts and ghouls.  Additionally, the iron cresting generally associated with the style is reminiscent of cemetery gates.  The often generous scale of Second Empire homes also contributes to the mystery of a “typical” haunted house.  And finally, the massing and profile of the style lends itself well to the all important interplay of light and shadow – especially spectacular on dark and stormy nights.  Happy Halloween everybody.

Posted by Joe Oct 29, 2013 Posted in Atlantic Canada Comments Off

The Endangered Belt Course

The colored band or belt course has all but disappeared in Atlantic Canada.  Historically marked by fancy butt shingles and sometimes flaring out like a skirt, the delineated mid-section of many heritage homes was usually painted a different color than the rest of the house body.

Certainly, the belt course still exists on many houses but its presence is greatly diminished by a monotone color treatment that blends it with the rest of the house body.  It is the disappearance of that traditional color emphasis that I am lamenting; and it is that authentic detail that, in most cases, is gone.  In fact, even the notion of painting the belt course a contrasting color or complementary hue has largely vanished.

The purpose of the belt course as an architectural device was to break up a perceived monotony caused by two or more stories of repeated clapboard (or shingles) all the same color.  It may not sound overly monotonous today, but the late Victorian house fashion that saw the belt course become popular was enamored with surface details and points of interest.  Variety reigned.  It was not enough to just have the first and second stories broken up with textured shingles; different paint color really was the icing on the cake.  Additional colored belts would sometimes even break up the second storey or gable end.

The plight of the flared version of the belt course, in particular, has been the most tragic.  More than suffering a fate of monotone blending, it has been the victim of complete removal where vinyl siding is installed.  These applications are unable to conform to any atypical substrates, and so instead of simply laying the offensive membrane over top (to be removed by more sensible future owners), installers remove the flare altogether.

Admittedly, it is a rare moment of snobbish satisfaction when a curious turn down a rural road or an urban side street reveals that one of these Victorian homes is inhabited by owners with a correct understanding of how a belt course should be distinguished.  If you happen to see one of these endangered specimens, enjoy it.  If you happen to own one, you know what to do.

Posted by Joe Apr 16, 2013 Posted in Architectural History, Atlantic Canada Comments Off