Once, it was considered a necessity to have clean shoes. It was such a necessity that architects incorporated special implements for removing the detritus from your shoes within the very fabric of the buildings they created.
You can still see shoe-scrapers at the sides of doors: a little cubby-hole with a bar and a niche for collecting your accumulated dirt. You see them built into steps, in the form of a minimalist but effective piece of iron. You only see them on the steps and by the doorways of old buildings, though. The modern world has decided to do away with them. Even the Collins dictionary definition acknowledges that these tools were formerly placed outside some houses, and are no more.
Oh, you can still buy no end of implements suitable for getting the mud off your wellingtons after a spot of gardening but you won’t find them built into a modern townhouse.
Why did we need shoe-scrapers then and not now? The answer is simple.
The mellifluous name of these objects in French — “decrottoir” — helps to date their arrival. The name conveys the need to remove excrement from your footwear. You would have needed to do exactly that if you’d been out walking before the twentieth century arrived. You would literally have been walking through the carbon emissions of the Victorian era: the piles of manure left behind by the horses that pulled the carts and carriages through the streets.
As cities grew during the 1800s, so horse-based transportation grew also, as people and goods needed to be moved from place to place. In London in the 1890s, around 50,000 horses were pulling things about.
An average horse produces up to 35 pounds of manure every day; each horse produces several tons of the stuff a year.
Multiply several tons of manure from each horse by 50,000 and you can soon work out that the city streets were in fact paved with slurry. Thousands and thousands of tons of it. In 1894, The Times predicted: “In 50 years, every street in London will be buried under nine feet of manure.” This became known as “The Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894″.
Along with the manure came flies, disease and stench. Dead horses, too.
Of course, if we look about ourselves now, we’re not peering through nine feet of manure. The invention of electric trams then cars sparked a rapid collapse in the horse population. The manure problem simply evaporated.
A little look at the scrapers that still adorn our doorsteps, however, reminds us that we have a lot to be grateful for. At the time these houses were built, you needed to get a lot more muck off your shoes before you entered a house than an ordinary doormat could cope with.
Gaze upon them and give thanks, perhaps, that you’re only breathing in benzene and lead from traffic fumes instead, rather than the sweet smell of manure and putrefying horse-flesh. And that, if you haven’t already insisted on all your visitors adopting the Japanese method of removing shoes at entry, a simple mat can now take care of what’s on your shoes before you come in.
Manure sorted. Let’s worry about the particulates next…