Here’s an op-ed that appeared in a rural Iowa newspaper back in June of 1957.
Where is the Barefoot Boy?
Recently we read an article commenting on the absence of America’s “barefoot boy” and we also realized that he has just about walked out of the modern scene. If a kid suffers a stubbed toe these days it is probably because he is up to some mischief when he should be in bed. Today’s boy will never know the old thrill of showing off that stubbed toe, preferably the big toe, wrapped up in a piece of rag with the ends dangling pridefully. It seems that the modern pavements have ended the days of the barefoot boy.
Going barefoot a generation or two ago wasn’t just an occasional thing, but a season long process, interrupted only by Sunday School and starting as soon as the frost was out of the ground. Even small girls often went barefoot.
Going barefoot also took courage, character and a certain amount of decisiveness, kids learned to scorn the caution approach on gravel drives and cinder paths. To stroll across a new cut hayfield, when the stubble made it look and feel like a well filled pin cushion was a stern test indeed. Some “tenderfeet” never did master the quick assurance and little side-to-side twist of the foot that pushed the stubble harmlessly aside. They proceeded in timid slow motion to disaster, hopped around in agony and often had to be piggy-backed in shame to safety. Another hero of those days was the boy who would walk slowly along the sidwalk when the sun was boiling down making it run around 100 degrees in the shade. Even the “Pecks bad boy” of those days was tempted, to slide over into the much cooler grass.
We do know that millions of Americans still under fifty will always wiggle their toes when the barefoot season comes around. They still remember the sensation of squishing good clean mud between their toes, wading in gutters, walking through the morning an evening dew or just running aimlessly in the cool grass under the stars.
So I guess, historically, barefooting was disappearing at that time even in the rural areas. The op-ed attributes it to modern pavements, but I also suspect it was just part of the trend of easier availability of what I’ll call “lazy-makers”. Cars were more available so people stopped walking or riding bicycles. More and more buildings had escalators or elevators, so people mostly stopped taking the stairs. People were getting climate-controlled houses with air conditioning, so fewer had to learn to deal with hot weather. There were all sorts of labor-saving devices. And it is easier to wear a shoe your whole life than do the bit of work necessary to build up feet that could handle just about anything.
I’m not saying these weren’t good things, since they opened up all sorts of opportunities. But in some areas, we’ve also started to recognize that such changes may not have always been a good thing.
We no longer get enough exercise, so we end up going to gyms to build strength (instead of loading hay bales, or carrying around big tools). We end up going jogging for cardiovascular health instead of working around a farm. Even when it comes to food there is a realization that we need to pick and choose between what really works and what is convenient.
So maybe we can also help build a realization for civilization that footwear is another one of those items that has made us lazier in developing the capabilities of our bodies, and even that much footwear actually damages our feet. We’re seeing it a little bit in that sandals and flip-flops are more popular than ever.
But they still need that last little nudge.