Tag Archives: History

Automation Meditations

So, I’m a dorkosaurus. Raaawwrrrrrr. An enormous shock, I’m sure. I’ve been bingewatching the series Edwardian Farm, which first ran on the BBC. Of course our library has it.

Picture of the cover of Edwardian Farm, the DVD.

The show you never knew you needed to watch. It’s fascinating, and sometimes gross.

It’s a reality-TV-ish series about making historians live on an Edwardian Era farm, as in, technology, food, clothes, and everything from the first years of the 20th Century. Yikes. One thing that I find really striking though is the way this show illustrates how the massive changes to the economy wrought by mechanization and automation started earlier than we usually think. (Or at least earlier than panicky articles about the coming Skynet-style Robot War due to cute self-driving cars would have you believe. But look at it! It’s just so roly-poly and cute! Who could hate that?*)

A 3/4 photograph of the google driverless car. Designed to be cute, actually, like a little face.

PANIC! IT’S COMING FOR YOUR JOB! IT MURDERS KANGAROOS! IT RUNS ON HUMAN BLOOD! SOON THEY WILL FARM US LIKE CATTLE! By Grendelkhan (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

But first: some definitions!

Mechanization – the process of adopting machines to do work.

Automation – machines operating without a human operator.

Our age has a lot of anxiety about machines taking over. We write entire movie series about the idea. It permeates our pop-culture consciousness. But, over 100 years ago, the process of mechanization was well underway, and even automation was on the horizon. Technological forces have always shaped our economy, from the dawn of recorded history, even.

Cover of the DVD of the movie Terminator, with robo-Schwarzenegger crouching in some fog.

A vital entry in the cultural canon of techno-anxiety.

Cover of The Matrix DVD.

Seriously, I had a whole coffee-rant one morning this September, about how science fiction doesn’t get enough credit for tackling massive intellectual issues like technology. I still think the rest of the Matrix Trilogy makes more sense if (spoilers spoil! Click and drag between brackets to reveal!) [you think of Zion and the resistance and everything as yet another illusion to bottle up the troublesome humans who think they made it out. That’s why the other machines were so helpful, and how Neo can still have superpowers on the “outside” – he never made it out. Nobody ever does. Of course, this way, it’s way, WAY, more depressing. Less plot holes, though…]

Anyway, let’s return from these horrifying futures to the past, and the ways in which machines were already dominating the economy a century ago. This is how you till a field, by hand. This is with a horse and a plough. By the early 20th Century, you could plow more than one furrow at once, with a riding plow, in the same amount of time. Watch these different models of ploughs. Less time to do the work of a farm means that less people have to be involved to cultivate even more food than ever before. (More horses, though, until the tractor. Today, as you can see, there’s as many people ploughing that huge field as was needed to deal with a just a single large hitch of horses, 100 years ago. The mechanization process was there all along, and reducing human labor all along, but it’s gotten so much further these days. This is a huge factor in why people moved to cities from the countryside. Shrinking employment pool for farmers, all along.)

Another great example is knitting machines. Today, textiles with a knit pattern are made on computerized automatic knitting machines. For an example, look at your t-shirt. But hand-cranked machines made knitting tricky socks much easier, starting in the late 19th Century. Time-saving devices like this made it possible to free up more time and effort for other things, and even earn extra money on the side.

As much as we read panicked articles about automation eating jobs, machines have been supplanting, supplementing, and creating jobs for generations, at least. There are no wind farms without wind turbine repair technicians. Entire jobs have opened up that did not exist before, if you get the training and the education to do them: wind turbine repair requires about a two year professional degree and a good head for heights. If you like rock climbing, this could be a good fit.

*But maybe, that’s what they want you to think: a lot of work goes into designing cars. The creators of the project knew how nervous a self-driving car could make people, and wanted to subconsciously ease anxiety by designing it to look cute. You can’t really help it, because cuteness DOES literally hack your brain’s love circuitry. Mammal parenting hormones at their best. Oxytocin is a heck of a drug. DUN DUN DUUUNNNNN!!

Squeeze the Source: In Your Face

Warning: contains super-secret library hacks, severed heads, and a horse being killed. Some (illustrated) blood is involved.

Last time, on Squeeze the Source, we covered the basics. This time, we’re going to try a slightly different approach. I’ll tell you literally everything I can think of to fill in the gaps and context of the following images, and your job is to be the very best inquisitive four year old you can be and pick up on one single detail that’s literally right in front of your face. Heh. Remember when I told you last time to not take anything for granted, and throw away all your preconceptions so they don’t get in the way of the obvious? Well there’s no better time than now!

This is a detail of a much longer scroll – Moko Shurai Ekotoba – that was commissioned by a warrior named Takezaki Suenaga. None of these people would have called themselves “samurai” since the word means basically servant. They are warriors, or bushi. Let’s get that out of the way right here. Click on pictures to see them full-screen!

Scroll detail of three people and two severed heads.

Takezaki Suenaga (in green and brown) at a court hearing, seeking rewards for beheading two members of the invasion force. He brought the heads as proof. Adachi Morimune is the judge, here, in red armor on the left. The guy in black is the secretary: it’s thanks to people like him that we have so many primary sources about this. Historians are practically rolling in receipts for severed heads.

The 13th Century warrior class in Japan was very much a headhunting culture. The military government – bakufu – didn’t prevent violence so much as referee it, and regulate it with lots of paperwork. This scroll is about the Mongolian invasion of Japan, and although there are plenty of scenes of Takezaki Suenaga fighting, a large part of the story is an interlude where he goes to court and insists on being given a replacement horse, since his own horse was killed out from under him in battle. The lifestyle of a bushi was all about fighting, taking heads, and getting rewarded for taking heads.

Takezaki Suenaga on his horse. The horse has been hit by several arrows.

The pivotal scene of the horse being killed by arrows.

The bakufu didn’t just dole out rewards like lollipops, though: you had to prove you earned it. You couldn’t just say you killed an important enemy, you had to bring the head. You couldn’t just bring the head, you had to have witnesses. The witnesses couldn’t be your relatives or friends, either. Preferably, they were third-party eyewitnesses, who didn’t have anything to gain if you won your case.

Interesting, huh? Maybe so interesting that you want to read a translation of the scroll itself? You want in on this HOT CIVIL LAWSUIT HORSE-REPLACEMENT ACTION!!! Too bad the Louisville Free Public Library doesn’t have a copy. (It’s a super-specialist history academic book, and expensive, so buying it isn’t going to be much help.) Never fear, for I will show you how to use your sweet library skillz to get even the most elusive of manga-style academic works. (That’s right, it’s published right to left like a manga, so as not to break up or flip the scroll. Hardcore.)

First, you need to know about the book. The title is In Little Need of Divine Intervention: Takezaki Suenaga’s Scrolls of the Mongol Invasion of Japan ; the translator is Thomas Conlan ; the publication year is 2010. Here’s the ISBN: 978-1-885445-13-1 (ISBN is short for International Standard Book Number – it’s a serial number unique to every edition of a book or book-like publication. Use this to be sure you get the exact book you want, and not something with the same title or whatnot. Convenient!) It’s published by the University of Hawai’i Press. Nifty.

Now, with all your information about the book, you can use this to get YOUR library to borrow a book from ANOTHER library so you can read it. Not only are you not limited to all the books in OUR system, you can also read all the books we don’t have that other libraries are willing to lend out! To use The Awesome Power of Interlibrary Loan, just get all the information about a book you want that we don’t have, go to our website, and click on “services” – there you will find a link for “interlibrary loan” and a webform you can fill out to get our library to borrow a book from another library for you. First, though, be absolutely sure that we don’t already have it. You can use it three times a month. Just promise you will use your power for good, and not for evil. With great power comes great responsibility and all that.

This is all very well and good, but there’s one visual detail that’s right in your face in this picture that says a lot about this headhunting culture, and its values. Look over all the pictures we’ve seen so far. Notice anything about these gentlemen? (Especially, if not exclusively, the gentlemen, actually.)

A warrior in red armor, on a camp stool with a fan.

Shoni Kagesuke, chillin’ on a camp stool. Have a good close look. What you’re looking for is so obvious that you’ll kick yourself, I swear.

Figured it out yet? Here’s a hint! We’re lucky in that the painter of the scroll in these scenes is actually very precise and naturalistic, in terms of details, like accessories, clothes, hairdos, and hats and such. You’re looking for a detail of personal appearance that’s clearly in all the primary sources like this, but almost never reproduced in period piece movies or TV shows, no matter how accurate they’re trying to be. This is your chance to review the pictures, and look for it. It’s not something subtle, or tricky even. Channel the inner four year old.

Select between the brackets to reveal the answer: [ Adachi Morimune in the court scene, Takezaki Suenaga himself on the horse, and Shoni Kagesuke are all wearing (quite a lot of) makeup. Faces don’t match hands, or other people’s natural skin color. You can see it plainly. Go ahead and look again! Stark white base makeup with red lipstick, and in Shoni Kagesuke’s case, he’s also dyed his teeth a fashionable black. It’s not geisha makeup, It was anybody’s high-class makeup, if you were rich and pretty enough to pull it off. Geisha just happen to still wear it. ] Interesting. I can’t tell if we don’t see it in period-piece movies and such because nobody is expecting to see it, so the costume department doesn’t know (I mean, you didn’t until just now, probably), or if it’s omitted because the producers think that the audience will be distracted if half the cast is wearing it, even if they would have, historically. Also, it’s possible to infer that its use is associated with class and rank – only the higher ranked warriors have it, and not all their followers. In addition, Suenaga is shown wearing it in battle, but not the court case, implying that some warriors specifically wore it into battle, even if they didn’t necessarily for other occasions. Maybe so that they looked their best: it would be a shame if somebody killed you and didn’t think you were high-ranking enough to bother cutting off your head. I doubt the Mongolian forces cared about it, but Takezaki Suenaga and his peers sure did.

That’s why looking at actual primary sources is important. No matter how well-researched representations of the past are, they’re filtered through the culture and expectations of their own present. While you can’t remove your own cultural filters, you can look at the primary sources directly, rather than relying on second-hand versions.

Rosa Bonheur, Animal Painter

Or, the painting food chain and the revolutionary importance of wearing pants.

painting of a bull (title: monarch of the herd) by Rosa Bonheur

And that’s absolutely no bull (It’s a painting of one. By Rosa Bonheur.)

Background – The Hierarchy of Genres

Before the photographic camera caused a crisis in the arts by the early 20th Century resulting in expressionism, impressionism, cubism, and various other modern-isms, there was a well-defined hierarchy of paintings – and therefore artists. Read more about it here at the Tate Glossary. At the very bottom were still life paintings, of household objects and food, and flowers.

Van Gogh Sunflowers

Sunflowers, 1887. According to the Hierarchy of Genres, Van Gogh is a bottom-feeder painter making bottom-feeder paintings of sunflowers. That now sell for absurd millions of dollars. Things Happened between 1699 and now…

Image of the Oath of the Horatii

Jacques-Louis David, however, makes super-prestigious history paintings, and is basically a rockstar. This is the Oath of the Horatii, 1784.

For Rosa Bonheur, though, the most important thing to know is the rationale behind the Painting Food Chain: Europeans believed that literally everything belonged in a divinely-mandated Great Chain of Being, from God down to rocks, and humans were the greatest form of life on Earth. Literally, some things were created to be better than others. Have a look:

Great Chain of Being illustration.

An illustration of the Great Chain of Being, from God through angels and humans, and animals, down to rocks. Note that each tier also has higher and lower. Naturally Kings are the highest form of human life (just to either side of Adam and Eve in the middle there, connected with a line to the chain). Convenient. If you’re a King, of course: “hey, I can’t help confiscating your lands and whatever – God put me in charge.” That’s why a coronation ceremony requires clergy, after all. That’s also what’s so revolutionary about the Declaration of Independence. Either George III has the literal God-given right to put down the rebellious colonies and tax the britches right off their butts, OR ditch him and the whole framework by founding your brand-new country on principles of human rights and equality. The bedrock of our founding documents is almost literal heresy. American history is, in large part, the history of the tension between centuries-old social orders of hierarchy and the necessary rejection of hierarchy on which the country was founded. In the words of Keanu Reeves: Whoa.

And now you understand almost all European and American history better! Glad we had that little diversion. It’ll help you in history class later, I swear. So, painters of inanimate things and plants were naturally below painters of animals, who were naturally below painters of the human form. But, in order to paint the human form, you have to practice, and spend quite some time observing and sketching actual humans. This means you have to have anatomy lessons, and live nude models. Now, in the days before first-year college students, the only people who would take their clothes off for money were literal prostitutes, or the truly desperate and destitute. Becoming a painter of the human form required seeing people naked and hanging out with sex workers. Because this was off-limits for women, women were denied the education and therefore the chance (with a few exceptions) to break into the highest ranks of painting.

(If you want to take a deep dive, check out this super-crunchy primary source at archive.org – in which Andre Felibien literally lays out the food chain of painters for what would become the French Academy. Hope you’re OK with clawing your way via google translate through some barely-modern French. I can’t really read this, since I took Spanish in High School, but it’s still a fascinating book, nonetheless. When you look at it, you’re looking at the book that shapes European art for the next several centuries, and casts a shadow, even today. If you’ve ever thought of some things but not others as Real Art; if you’ve been to an art museum or gallery; if you’ve ever wanted to know what it took to be a Real Artist; if you’ve ever wondered why some paintings are stupid expensive, but others are cheap – all of this means that the ideas in this book have gotten into your brain – and you haven’t even read it! That’s what people mean when they say something about how books can change the world or how knowledge is power. Now that you know, you can consciously choose to agree or disagree with the book’s view of art. Maybe YOU can be a Real Artist.)

The Hierarchy of Genres did get pushback, right from the start, however: as you can imagine, artists didn’t like being arbitrarily assigned to a lower income bracket forever. Landscape painters started sneaking people into paintings, and portraitists would sneak in allegorical details and landscape.

Lady Hamilton as a Baccante by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1790. Portrait, or Genre Painting?

Lady Hamilton as a Baccante by Louise Elisabeth Vigee Le Brun, 1790. Portrait, or History Painting?

Paulus Potter - The Young Bull, 1647

Paulus Potter – The Bull, 1647. This painting is actually about life-size, which means it’s enormous.    o_O    Bad Paulus Potter! You and your edging in on history painting turf with huge paintings of bullocks.

Which brings us right up to the middle of the 1800s. Painters were sneaking in attacks on the Great Painting Food Chain, the French Academy had a stranglehold on what art even means, and who gets to be a Real Artist – and then photography was invented, and massively jacked everything up.

Photgraph of Crown Princess Liliuokalani and Queen Kapiolani at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, 1887.

Crown Princess Liliuokalani and Queen Kapiolani at Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee, 1887. Now even if you’re a queen, you can get photographic portraits anyway. Even if you’re NOT a queen, too.

Photography caught on like wildfire, and now you didn’t need a specialized artist to paint people, or anything else, really. The painting world faced a crisis. The hierarchy of genres (and therefore artists) could no longer hold, if anyone with a camera and a darkroom could make images of anything they wanted. Artists pushed harder than ever to break the art food chain, which brings us to the incredible life of Rosa Bonheur…

 

The Artist

Rosa Bonheur was an animal painter, which was traditionally ranked above still life but below portrait and history painting. She went to slaughterhouses to study animal anatomy, and spent enormous amounts of time sketching in the field.

Rosa Bonheur sketch of bulls with notes.

Rosa Bonheur sketch of bulls with notes.

She went to zoos, and studied exotic animals, and animals she couldn’t get close to in the wild.

The Wounded Eagle by Rosa Bonheur

The Wounded Eagle by Rosa Bonheur. Golden Eagles are not known for their tameness and docility.

She was immensely popular during her lifetime, although tastes in art have changed, and she is less remembered now than some of her contemporaries, who were on the fringes of the art world at the time. Like Vincent Van Gogh.

A Ghillie and Two Shetland Ponies in a Misty Landscape by Rosa Bonheur. Hey: it's got a human in it! I see what you did there.

A Ghillie and Two Shetland Ponies in a Misty Landscape by Rosa Bonheur. Hey: it’s got a human in it! I see what you did there.

As it turns out, riding horses, tromping across cow pastures, through heather, and forests, is pretty challenging in a corset and ankle-length skirts. Fed up with the restrictions of women’s clothes and gender roles getting in the way of her work and life in general, she got a prescription for pants from her doctor, so she could get an Official Pants Permit so the police wouldn’t arrest her for wearing men’s clothes.

Rosa Bonheur's actual police permit to wear pants.

This is Rosa Bonheur’s literal Police Permit to Wear Pants. I don’t know what’s worse, the fact that this exists at all, or the fact that this happened often enough that there’s AN OFFICIAL PRE-PRINTED DOCUMENT FOR THIS. I don’t even. Just let people wear pants. Sheesh. Also: it looks like it was good for only six months at a time.

Anyway, armed with an official Pants Permit, Rosa Bonheur went on to go to farms, and hunting grounds, and all sorts of rugged places, and rode lots of horses (astride, of course, not sidesaddle, because she has a permit to wear pants now). Her most famous painting is The Horse Fair (1855), which she worked on with her friend, Natalie Micas.

Picture of Rosa Bonheur's The Horse Fair

Rosa Bonheur, The Horse Fair. The artist herself is visible wearing a black hat and a blue shirt, behind the head of the rearing grey horse in the center of the image.

 

Rosa Bonheur went on to continue to wear pants, and paint acclaimed and highly-sought-after paintings – whose outrageous success despite being animal paintings further eroded the Hierarchy of Genres – until her eventual death at age 77 in 1899. She was an animal painter, but with the success and fame of a history painter.

Lithograph of Rosa Bonheur in her studio.

You know you’ve made it when other painters are painting paintings of you as a painter painting paintings. This is a lithograph, though. Possibly based on a painting, but there’s a photograph of her in an almost identical pose.

This one’s a real painting:

Anna Klumkpe, Portrait of Rosa Bonheur.

Portrait of Rosa Bonheur, by Anna Klumpke. You see that medal on her jacket? That’s the French Legion of Honor. She was even promoted to Officer, too. That’s how important she was, during her lifetime.

 

You can also get all the info on Rosa Bonheur straight from the horse’s mouth (or at least really close), and read this book! Rosa Bonheur: the Artists (Auto) Biography by Anna Klumpke; Gretchen van Slyke, translator.

A picture of the cover of the book.

Protip: it’s at the library.

Squeeze the Source!

After all those science-y posts, here’s a return to history, with the very first ever Squeeze the Source challenge!

Last time we did history, the topic was the amazing history of high-heeled shoes. You can be a historian too, if you learn how to squeeze information out of sources. Pretty much everything around you, past and present, has a lot to say about who made it and why, even to the point of throwing light on the society and technology of the world they were made in.

Since squeezing sources is a skill, and requires some practice, I’ll show you how it’s done, and then demonstrate with a few sources, before turning you loose on poor, unsuspecting Caravaggio. (Don’t feel bad for him though: his biography reads like a laundry list of every possible crime against public order you could commit in late Renaissance Italy, punctuated by massive amounts of corruption – hey, it was Renaissance Italy, what did you expect? – and artistic brilliance. Besides, he’s been dead for centuries. He won’t mind.)

Cover of the book Caravaggio: a Life Sacred and Profane.

“Troubled Artist” doesn’t even begin to cover it. Getting into constant brawls with street toughs is one of the least ridiculous and drama-filled things in his life. Why, yes, the library has this book. Why do you ask?

How to Squeeze a Source:

  1. You know things too. Don’t forget that.
  2. Unleash your inner four-year-old.
  3. Don’t take anything for granted, or make assumptions.
  4. Ask the blindingly obvious questions.
  5. Answer everything with equally obvious answers.
  6. Follow those obvious answers to their conclusions.
  7. Collect and connect these conclusions to the broader world.

Demonstration: Coconut Cup

A photo of a coconut cup. carved coconut with silver settings.

A Coconut Cup.

What’s this? A coconut cup.

What’s it made of? Coconut shell and silver.

Fancy or Plain? Really fancy. Carved coconut and lots of silver work. Engraved writing. Some serious time investment and skill went into this. Probably specialized artists involved.

So, writing: more about that? In a Latin alphabet, like English, but I can’t read it. Looks like it’s Dutch maybe?

Where was the cup made? Northern Europe.

Any other details? The carving on the coconut shows a woman with scissors, and a sleeping man in her lap, with soldiers standing by. Sampson and Delilah! Clothes look contemporary to the time the cup was made though. I’d guess 1600s ish.

Artists make art because people buy it. Who’s buying fancy coconut cups? Rich people.

What do I know, based on the coconut cup? Northern Europe in the 1600s has specialized carvers and silversmiths – an economy capable of supporting artisans. Coconuts are special and extra fancy to them, for them to bother encrusting one in silver, and going to all that trouble to decorate it. They also got the coconut from somewhere, so they either have trade networks to the tropics, or someone’s very carefully hoarding the precious coconuts that wash up on the beaches. Religion (Sampson and Delilah – they’d have to assume that others would know what the carving is of), wealth, and trade literally on display in this one object. I’m sure if I understood the language, I’d know even more.

And that’s how you squeeze a source. The catch, however, is in the unexpected stuff. I can’t read the language on the cup, and I don’t know why Sampson and Delilah are so important, in this context. I just don’t have enough cultural knowledge of the social world in which this cup belongs.

The most important thing is this: if you get in a plane, and travel to a different place, you find yourself in another culture, and you will be missing some important information to help you understand the world around you. The most fundamental things are up for grabs, as soon as you find yourself operating in a new cultural environment. Here’s the kicker, though: if you had a time machine, and travel to a different time, even if you stay in your own place, you’ll find yourself in a different culture too. There’s things we take for granted that someone from just 100 years ago would find alien. So always go with what the source is telling you, and don’t let your assumptions blind you to what’s right in front of your face.

 

It’s Your Turn!

Cardsharps by Caravaggio. Italian, Circa 1594.

Cardsharps by Caravaggio

Have a good look, ask the questions, and see what you can learn about Caravaggio’s world.

Ask yourself questions like:

What’s going on in this painting? What objects do you see? Anything recognizable? Materials? Behaviors of people? Clothes? What are people doing? What can you tell about each person in the painting? Their interactions? Who would buy this painting? Why? What does this tell you about Caravaggio’s society?

 

Good luck, and happy source squeezing! (By the way, squeezing lots of sources to make some kind of cohesive Ultimate Source Fruit Punch Medley is called historical research. One source is a nifty thing, but lots of sources, all consistent – that’s the basis for a thesis.)

A Picture History of High Heeled Shoes

Everything in our world has a past. Literally everything. Machines, everyday objects, words and languages, feelings, people. Everything.

Hiding in plain sight everywhere are fascinating histories. Today, I’m going to tell you the story of these:

Louboutin shoes. Red sole, black uppers.

Louboutin Shoes
By Arroser (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

But, before we get to the shoes, we’ve got to start with something completely different.

a Belgian horse

MaleneThyssen [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5), via Wikimedia Commons

Huh. This is already headed in some unexpected directions. During Europe’s early adoption of horses as cavalry mounts, people sat on blankets, or right on the horse’s back. The stirrup hadn’t been introduced yet.

Like so:

Marcus Nonius Balbus sitting right on a horse. No stirrups. Or even a blanket.

Marcus Nonius Balbus sitting right on a horse. No stirrups. Or even a blanket. Take a good look.

If you want to shoot a bow from horseback, you need a strong, compact-sized bow (or one that you can swing over the horse’s neck), and a really steady seat on the horse. The stirrup was probably invented by horse-archery cultures in central Asia, and spread like wildfire. As it turns out, having a way to engage your feet in staying on an already panicky and high-strung large animal is a really good idea.

Everybody’s got stirrups.

Mongolian horse archery with stirrups.

Nobody does horse archery like Mongolia goes horse archery. Stirrups FTW. (Pretty much literally.)

But there’s another problem. If Marcus Nonius Balbus falls off his horse, he faceplants in the dirt. If you have stirrups, and nothing to stop your feet from slipping through, this could happen:

Painting of cavalry trooper dragged by a foot caught in the stirrup of his horse.

Giovanni Fattori: Lo Staffato, CA 1880
Dragged and trampled. Ouch.

So, stirrup-using cultures (that didn’t change the shape of the stirrups to a closed-toe design like Japan did) wore boots with heels to minimize the risk of being dragged and trampled to death by a panicking horse. That’s why cowboy boots have heels.

Black cowboy boots. Heels evident.

By Ealdgyth (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

So far, then, we have heeled boots = cavalry. Did I mention that horses are really expensive? They’re expensive. They get weird, often fatal health problems for bizarre reasons. They eat a lot, and need lots of grassy pasture. You can’t really shear them for wool, and in Europe, people don’t drink horse milk. They’re pretty much only for transportation. Given how expensive horses are to maintain, horse troops were the elite branch of pre-modern militaries. Cavalry, Cavalier, Chivalry. Heeled boots = cavalry = high status. Eventually, European gentlemen (or any man who wanted to look like one) started wearing heeled boots and shoes and commissioning portraits of themselves in fancy riding gear purely as a statement of status.

Portrait of a man in fancy riding gear with boots.

Willem Heythuijsen by Frans Hals 1634 “I’m just gonna lean my chair back casually so you can appreciate how much I’m in the painting-commissioning horse-owning class.”

So, by this point in the late 1600’s through the 1700’s, men’s fashionable power-shoes had heels.

Women’s fashion had adopted heeled shoes too, as an edgy, fashion-forward touch. (I wanted portraits, so you could get a good look at context, but was too hard to get a good portrait of a woman with her feet visible in normal clothing at this point in history – I could only get a couple of ballet dancers in heeled shoes, and that’s not really a representative occupation. So here’s the shoes themselves.)

Men’s SERIOUS BUSINESS Power Boots:

Nice brocade-faced men's boots with ribbon trim.

Nice brocade-faced men’s boots with white silk ribbon trim.

Women’s fancy heeled shoes:

Women's fancy brocade shoes.

Women’s brocade shoes. French.

Even a century later, by 1800, Women still wore flats sometimes:

Women's slippers, 1800. You wouldn't look twice at these, if someone wore them today.

Women’s slippers, 1800. You wouldn’t look twice at these, if someone wore them today.

Even small children often wore heels:

Children's shoes, could be worn by girls or boys.

Children’s shoes, could be worn by girls or boys.

Men’s Boots for When You Want to Look Like a Greek Hero and Still Ride a Horse While Not Compromising Safety or Style:

Boots of white calf leather, with gilt leather on top, and heels, made to look like Ancient Greek sandals, while actually being riding boots.

I included these, because I love them so much. The sandal parts were probably covered in gold leaf, too. We have to get these back in style, guys.

But it was Louis XIV of France who took heeled shoes beyond fashion statement and into politics.

What you need to know: Louis XIV became king at an insanely young age, when his father died, and he was only four. What were you worrying about when you were four? Louis faced a massive power struggle between his mother, the Catholic church, and the nobility that eventually devolved into a civil war – the Fronde – that pitted the nobles against the crown. Although the rebellion was put down, and Louis XIV confirmed as King, clearly drastic steps had to be taken to control the aristocracy, reduce their riches, and sever them from their power bases in the provinces.

Louis XIV decided to solve this complicated political crisis by holding the nobility hostage to their own social-climbing at a purpose-built palace: Versailles. The previously powerful French aristocracy literally became victims of fashion. You could only get involved in politics (Promotions! Appointments! Bribery! Sweet Kickbacks!) if you got access to the King. You could only get access to the King by attending elaborate ceremonies when Louis XIV got up every morning, and by being there to hand him his undershirt, and maybe whisper suggestions to him. People fought fatal duels over these privileges. You could only get invited if you impressed the right people with insane, extravagant parties. The nobility quickly left their lands, and moved to Versailles, living in apartments on site and attending crazy entertainments and dances, and gambling enormous sums of money.

Louis XIV rewarded those who came to the court at Versailles with the right to wear red-heeled shoes. The right shoes became a status marker, dividing those who were politically in from those who were outcasts. To underline his uncontested power, Louis XIV also commissioned several ballets starring himself and lots of portraits showing off his legs. Legs were very important: until the advent of pants after about 1810, a man had to have good strong calves (which look better in white stockings and heeled shoes). If you were worried that your calves were too weak, you could get calf pads to beef them up a bit.

Louis XIV as Apollo. Ballet costume.

Whether in costume as Apollo

Louis XIV showing off his legs in red stockings.

Or in red stockings

Louis XIV showing off his legs in white stockings.

Louis XIV had great legs, and won’t let you forget it.

Louis XIV portrait, with an ermine lined cloak and red heeled shoes.

Everything about this portrait is about projecting power and wealth. Massive ermine-lined cape. Silk stockings (the better to show off his perfect legs) with diamond-encrusted garter buckles. RED HEELED SHOES.

Anyway. That’s how high heeled shoes became a fashion statement, and why Louboutin shoes have red soles – subconsciously we read it as: the shoes of a rich and fashionable person. Eventually, men started to wear pants after about 1800, and since there were no stockings to show off nice legs, men’s truly high heeled shoes went extinct except for actual riding gear. Women continued to wear heels, though, especially once hemlines rose high enough to show off stockinged legs. These boots were made for walkin’ indeed: go-go boots basically require miniskirts.

For extra bonus points:

Louis XIV on a horse as a quote of a Roman equestrian statue.

Louis XIV on a horse, based on a Roman equestrian statue. Note the lack of stirrups and heels. This gives an idea of the relationship of heels to horse riding, as well as just how much of these portraits are put together out of the artists’ imagination and bank of visual references, rather than painted from life. This is the seventeenth century equivalent of Photoshop. If Louis XIV really did ride a horse in costume, for safety’s sake it would be with stirrups and heeled sandal-imitating boots, like the example earlier. I love it when sources back each other up so neatly.

For even more, here’s General George S. Patton!

General Patton and his dog, Willie. Also note the famous riding boots.

An adorable photograph of General Patton and his dog, Willie. Also note the famous riding boots. This is one modern case in which the footwear becomes part of the identity of the person. Clothes are all about communication, as much as protection from the elements.