Scuffs, House Shoes, Fuzzies, Mocs, whatever you call them, they’re back and quite possibly, keeping us healthier.
When arriving at the door of a home, many visitors ask—either by observation or by direct question—“Shoes on or off?” Families usually have a protocol: Maybe dressy shoes are OK but muddy cleats are not. Perhaps shoes are allowed in the summer but not during the winter. I once visited a home where shoes were removed in the mudroom and the host presented a basket of slippers in various sizes to guests.
Wearing versus removing shoes differs greatly among countries and cultures. The custom of removing shoes inside the home (and sometimes school, religious house or workplace) is common among most Asian countries and throughout the Middle East. Reasons for this practice range from cultural norms to religion. In the United States, removing shoes is much more common in wetter climates, like the Northeast and Northwest.
Alison Henrie learned that when she moved from Las Vegas to Portland. In Nevada it was common for people to leave their shoes on wherever they go, she says. “You might kick your sandals off inside,” she says, “but if you’re wearing sneakers or anything with laces, buckles or zippers, they stay on.” The dry Las Vegas climate keeps soles cleaner—there’s no mud season and not a lot of rain. “When I moved here and saw my first winter, the shoes-off thing made so much sense,” Henrie says.
Bethany Record, also of Portland, feels the same. “In Maine with winter, and in Portland with the city, there’s nothing on the bottom of a shoe that I want tracked through my house.” Removing shoes is also a way for Record’s two young children to participate in taking care of their home. At her condo in the West End, Record keeps a shoe rack outside the interior front door, in a place her kids can easily access. It helps manage expectations for visitors, too. Most will instinctively remove their shoes when they encounter the rack, but if they don’t, she doesn’t push the issue. “Guests should feel comfortable,” Record says. “I usually don’t say anything if their shoes appear clean(ish).”
“When I moved here and saw my first winter, the shoes-off thing made so much sense.”
It turns out there is some gray area between appearing clean and actually being clean. In 2008, University of Arizona microbiologist Charles Gerba was commissioned by the Rockport shoe company to study what we drag indoors on our shoes. The report was released in collaboration with the Cleaning Industry Research Institute, an industry group. Gerba told the Today show: “93 percent [of shoes] have fecal bacteria on the bottom of them.” According to his findings, the gross stuff originates from public restrooms and animal waste on the ground outside. And to make matters worse, Gerber found the transfer rate of bacteria to clean floor was somewhere between 90–95%.
Even bigger eww if you have small children at home; crawling babies have their hands all over the floor and in their mouths. Shoes also bring in pollen, mold and other allergens, which can add to the problem, especially for anyone with a compromised immune system.
Besides immediately initiating a hard-line no-shoe policy, there are a few things you can do to tackle the germs. An easy place to start is an antimicrobial doormat (although some health experts say antimicrobial products are overkill). Several on the market claim to remove 90% of debris. Consider a no-shoes-on-the-rugs rule, because fibrous surfaces are tougher to deep clean than hard surfaces like tile and wood. If your shoes can be washed, wash them. Leather shoes obviously can’t go in the washing machine, but an antibacterial wipe or a spritz of disinfectant can’t hurt.
“My aunt washes the bottoms of her shoes every day with a dedicated scrub brush,” says Jennifer Foy of Kennebunk. In her household of five (plus two dogs), Foy doesn’t take the time to wash soles, and her love of slippers is more about comfort then a sparkling floor.
“It started when I was pregnant,” Foy says. “My feet hurt so much, and I always wanted something on them.” She received a gift of L.L.Bean shearling-lined booties and was immediately hooked on the concept of slippers. In her collection, Foy has a moccasin-style with a rubber sole that she wears most because, “I can run to the mailbox with them on, and I’ve definitely driven the kids to school in them.” She leaves a second pair at the office, and for the summer months she has fuzzy flip-flop slippers. She brings slipper socks with her when she visits friends’ homes. That way she knows she’ll be comfortable wherever she goes, regardless of rules or variable home temperatures.
Her habit of bringing slippers to social engagements at private homes is a throwback to Victorian aristocracy. The Prince Albert Slipper—named after Queen Elizabeth’s husband and eventually known as a “smoking shoe”—made its debut in the homes of aristocrats in the 1840s. Initially created to be worn when moving between rooms (those houses had a lot of rooms) it wasn’t uncommon for the upper class to wear fancy, fashionable slippers to formal, at-home dinners.
Like so many trends, the house shoe is coming back around. Slippers have become serious business for many apparel and footwear companies, with stylish options available for every occasion and in every price range. For those who aren’t comfortable in bare feet or socks alone the plethora of stylish choices makes it easy to complement, not detract from, any outfit. Plus, those cute new kicks will help reduce the amount of bacteria sneaking into your home.
Sarah Holman is a writer living in Portland. She is enthusiastic about cheese plates, thrift shop treasures and old houses in need of saving. Find her online at storiesandsidebars.com.