Scandinavia is not the sort of place that you usually associate with bare feet. Being so far north would tend to suggest that, historically, folks would be shod all of the time.
But it turns out that their history of going barefoot isn’t much different than what we’ve seen in a lot of other countries.
I recently came across the book History of Footwear in Norway, Sweden and Finland, by June Swann. Ms. Swann used to be the keeper of the Central Museum and Art Gallery in Northampton, England, and is a real expert on things shod. She is featured in this article from 1992, You are what you wear on your feet, which has some interesting tidbits, such as that when anaesthetics were first developed around 1867, “fashionable” women were already having toes amputated to fit them into shoes. Ms. Swann is even the expert that National Geographic goes to when it needs something shoe-related explained.
Being an expert in things shod also makes her an expert in things unshod.
Here are some of the interesting barefoot-related things she says in the book.
Just as the pioneers here in America were going barefoot much of the time, so too were the Scandinavians. From page 173:
By the 1790s too Norwegian servant men and women were described as going barefoot in summer, which confirms my impression of husbanding of meagre resources there.
We also find that, no less than in America, folks would have their good pair of shoes that they would save for going to church (pp. 240-242):
Many of the above shoes were made for special occasions or church-going, and kept for that wear only, rather than bought for Sunday best and then worn for work as they became shabby, which was practised in less remote areas. This may explain the impractical nature of so many of the shoes and their archaic features. They were obviously shoemaker-made, and similar shoes are known in Finland to have been given by groom to bride for the wedding, and often proved the first of such shoes she would have worn. The alternative was farm-made shoes, with the joy of going barefoot from spring to autumn, though this excluded the Sami. Even for church- going, people would walk either barefoot or wearing the more homely shoes, only putting on the bought shoes on arrival at church. Many examples are known from at least the eighteenth century onwards, and the practice was widespread through society into the twentieth century.
And here is a photograph (from 1917) by Lilli Zickermann of just that:
Once again we notice that, even when it is cold, the part that gets “unbundled” first are the feet, which can handle it just fine if they have not been coddled to much.
Something I found quite interesting is that, shortly after the Napoleonic Wars, shoe fashion really diversified. From page 176:
Given the turmoil of this period, beginning and ending in revolution, with so much talk of liberty, it is not surprising that there is enormous variety of footwear styles, as strict etiquette succumbed to the wishes of the people. There is a great range of colours, and even some new materials, including the shiny varnished patent leather. In toe shapes there is a choice of the eighteenth century pointed, or oval or square, which latter was to become the style of 1830 onwards. Heels for women ranged from the old high slender, impractical Italian, soon abandonned for a lower version, then wedged or low block heels, until it became just a single lift above the sole, or no heel at all. Even barefoot was tried, though only briefly in fashionable society.
One wonders why barefoot didn’t flourish more. Well, actually not. One of the purposes of fashion is to flaunt wealth, and going barefoot is way too inexpensive to do that effectively.
Interestingly, Ms. Swann went on a bit about just how normal going barefoot was back then (and not just Scandinavia, but also the British Isles):
But throughout Scandinavia, certainly in recent centuries, going barefoot from early summer for as long as conditions allowed, was the norm, a concept now totally alien to the English. There, changeable weather and long residence in villages and towns with metalled roads and pavements, with varied occupations, industrial as well as agricultural, have necessitated protective footwear. It has divorced most of us from the natural way of living, and it is difficult now for us to understand how tough the human foot can be, when conditioned to walking barefoot from childhood. While our usual assumption that our neighbours, the Irish, went barefoot from poverty may have some basis in truth at some periods, there too the terrain of wild land and bogs made barefoot footless stockings more practical than leather shoes. Likewise in Scotland the rough mountains might make brogues a necessity in their vicinity, but the uppers were pierced with holes to let out bog-water. The time is overdue to record the regions where barefoot was normal, whether summer only or all the year as in parts of Africa and the Pacific, and the types of terrain where this was sensible and practical. The English have long forgotten what is obviously the joy of discarding footwear at the earliest opportunity and enjoying the summer months to the full in a more natural way.
Somehow we have totally gotten away from that. Too many folks see shoes as necessities when all they need to be are occasional accessories.