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Chinese Foot Binding Shoes Artifact Highlight #20

This pair of shoes was made for a Chinese woman who had bound feet sometime in the mid- to late-19th century. They were donated to our collection in 1955. They are made of silk and embroidered with silk thread. These tiny slippers, also called “arched shoes,” “gilded lilies,” or “lotus” shoes, measure about 4 inches in length with the heel height of 1.5 inches. Worn with leg wrappings and leggings, they were designed to create an illusion of smallness of already tiny feet, focusing on the pointy tip, the short profile, and a slim ankle.

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The suffering for beauty has been part of women’s lives for millennia. The practice of foot binding in China originated sometime in the 10th century and became a symbol of status, refinement, and a means of achieving upward mobility. Initially practiced by the elites, foot binding became popular among all social levels. The ideal foot was three inches long, although four-inch feet were also acceptable.

Foot binding was only practiced by females. The painful process took about two years and started with clipping toenails and soaking feet in hot water. The feet were then massaged and oiled and all toes, except the big toes, were broken. The toes were bound under the sole creating a triangle shape. The arch was bent, and the feet were bound with silk bandages that were about 10 feet long. Over time the wrapping became tighter, the shoes became smaller and the feet resembled hooves.

The procedure, usually performed on girls between the ages of 4 and 9, often caused pain, infections, lifelong disabilities, and difficulty walking. Washing of the feet was a long and smelly process that took place every few weeks. Bound feet often became infected, so they were never exposed without socks, leggings, and slippers.

It is estimated that nearly 50% of Chinese women (and almost 100% of upper-class women) had bound feet by the early 19th century. The practice was challenged by reformers, but it was not outlawed until 1912.

Placer Herald May 10, 1902

It continued to be practiced until 1949 when the Communist government came to power and put an end to the custom.

The practice was less common for Chinese women in America. The woman in this photograph is wearing what is called “flower bowl,” “boat,” or “moon” shoes.

This form of shoe was healthier for the wearer and caused walking in a swaying manner.

The shoes were donated by Mae Barnes, who was an Auburn resident and manager of the Wilmar Apartments. She was born in Michigan in 1875 and died in Auburn in 1965 at the age of 89.