A Look at Decorative Heel Plates and their History

Updated: Sep 22

Have you ever found a metal heel plate when out detecting? In the 19th century, shoes were quite costly. People tried to get as much life out of their shoes as possible. It was common practice and much more affordable to get your shoes repaired rather than buying a new pair. The heels of the shoes would wear down more quickly than the soles. Metal heel plates helped to sustain the shoes life. Heel plates came in many styles and we're made from both brass and iron. My favorite type of heel plates to find are the decorative variety. I have only personally dug a couple of them. They were in fashion during the second half of the 19th century. The center of the heel plate is cut out in the form of a symbol. The heel plates were designed with a slight taper on the edge so that the dirt would not collect and get stuck inside them. A variety of different designs have been discovered. The heel plates pictured above were found by Dave Wise. If you are interested in seeing more of Dave's finds, check out his YouTube channel heavymetalnut. The picture below is taken from the book Relics of the Coastal Empire: The Civil War Years. It gives you an idea of some of the different types of designs that have been found.

There is much speculation regarding the history of these decorative heel plates, specifically the heart shaped ones, and their role, if any, in the Civil War. It seems that a lot of the decorative heel plates with center cut outs match various army corps emblems. Many of the decorative heel plates we find detecting though, most likely, have no connection to the Civil War. Some researchers debate that the decorative heel plates did not come in to use until after the Civil War had even ended. There's a lot we don't know. We do know that the decorative heel plates were a civilian item and not military issue. Several decorative heel plates have been found at Civil War encampment sites. Given the amount found at different encampment sites one could reason that some most likely were around during the Civil War and went into battle on the soldier's boots. To keep their boots intact both the Union and Confederate armies used metal heel plates. The decorative heel plates might have been brought with the soldiers from their homes or sold to them by camp sutlers.

During the Civil War, soldiers did a whole lot of walking. Some days they might march 30 miles. Shoes and or boots were a coveted possession and heel plates were in high demand. Obviously, a soldier with boots had an advantage over a soldier who was barefoot. Shoes allow a person to move more safely and comfortably and they keep your feet protected from the elements. Soldiers needed for their boots to last. When their shoes wore out, they didn't know how long it would be before they were able to get another pair.

One theory I have heard regarding the decorative heel plates is that different designs may have been worn by different groups of soldiers during the Civil War. They could have used the different symbols to communicate messages to other troops who were nearby. At the very least, the prints in the dirt might have let the other troops know if there was a friend or foe nearby. Some people believe that the heart shaped heel plates may have been worn by the cavalry. During the Civil War, Cavalry Officers privately purchased martingale hearts that were used to adorn the chest of their horses. Maybe they also purchased heart shaped heel plates for their boots?

Several of the heart shape heel plates have been discovered at Civil War Encampment sites. They had to get there somehow. Could they have been worn by the soldiers? I don't know. It's very hard for me to picture a bunch of soldiers wearing heart shaped heel plates on their boots as they went off to war. All the men walking behind them would be following heart impressions on the ground as they walked into battle. Wouldn't that kind of kill the soldier's morale? Poor morale could lead to failure and the last thing you want to do when your off at war is fail.

We do know that an intact woman's boot was discovered at an 1880's town dump and attached to the boot was a heart shaped heel plate. The discovery of a woman's boot with a heart shaped heel plate is super exciting. To my knowledge it is the only boot or shoe to ever have been discovered with a heart shaped heel plate attached to it. A decent number of men's boots from the second half of the 19th Century have survived, including boots worn by Civil War soldiers, and none have been found to have heart shaped heel plates. This, however, is not irrefutable proof that the heart shaped heel plates were not also worn by men too. The heart shaped heel plates may have been worn by men, women, and children for all we know. Fashion certainly was different during the 19th Century than it is today. Fashion trends change over time. For instance, most people today consider high heels to be feminine. However, did you know that high heels were originally made exclusively for men? The origin of high heels relates to soldiers and horseback riding. The heels were used to help to secure their feet within the stirrups. Men wore them for an actual, practical purpose. And given the great need for a soldier to make their shoes last, who's to say they didn't just wear whatever type of heel plates they could get their hands on? Need often eliminates or removes choice from any equation.

Another theory I have heard about the heart shaped heel plates is that they were worn by public women or prostitutes. When someone was wearing a pair of boots with heart shaped heels plates attached, as they walked down the road, they would leave behind little heart impressions in the sand. Some people have suggested that ladies of the night may have used these heel plates as a way to signal to potential clients that they were in the area. Men would follow the hearts left in the sand to find the women. No one has ever discovered any factual proof to support this theory.

Following hearts of sand seems like an awful lot of hard work too. Especially when you consider that most men who spent any amount of time in a town, most likely, already knew where the local brothel houses were located. But say they didn't know, wouldn't it be a whole lot easier to just ask another guy? Can you imagine actually tracking someone's specific location down by their heel prints? It can't be easy. How would you even see the heel prints at night? During a dry spell would the heel plates even leave behind heart impressions? How about on a windy day? Wouldn't the prints be blown away? What about when the tracks got washed out by a heavy rain? If you were relying on hearts in the sand to bring you clients, things were probably pretty slow when the weather didn't cooperate. More importantly than all that though, wouldn't it be extremely risky for the ladies to walk around with evidence like that on their shoes?

The decorative heel plates may have served a greater purpose than just fashion. It's possible that all the styles, including the heart shaped ones, were worn by men. They have been found in a variety of different sizes, some larger than others. Some may have been worn by soldiers during the Civil War. It would certainly help to explain why so many have turned up at different encampment sites. Could the decorative heel plates have been used during the Civil War to communicate messages between the troops? No one really knows for sure. Unfortunately, there are a lot of questions out there that can't be answered regarding the history of these heel plates. What it really boils down to is that without any factual proof or documentation, we are only able to speculate.

Let's be honest, it's also highly possible that the heel plates could have had no special meaning at all. Some researchers strongly believe that they didn't even come in to use until after the Civil War had ended. It's possible that the heel plates that have been found at various Civil War encampment sites were lost by civilians sometime after the war had ended. It's unlikely that all activity at these locations just completely ceased following the end of the war. It may not be all that thrilling to consider. It certainly would be much more exciting if they had some sort of meaning or special connection to the Civil War. However, they might just simply have been worn, by whomever, because they were in fashion at the time and that's all there is to the matter. If you have any thoughts you'd like to share, please leave a comment in the section below. Posted below are a couple more pictures of different decorative heel plates for your viewing pleasure. They were found by Doug Bowden. Doug is the President of Awesome Relics New England, a metal detecting club located in Connecticut.

I would really love to see pictures of the decorative heel plates you have found while out metal detecting. I encourage you to share them in the section below. I hope you have a wonderful Valentine's Day and a great week! Thanks.

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