Picture a Roman soldier walking along a cobblestone street. On the
bottoms of his caligae are anywhere from 75 - 120 small pointed nails.
Offering good traction on surfaces such as grass and soil, the soldier
skids across the uneven street stones. Several people witness him
falling, they laugh and someone points. Seconds later the pointer's face
is on the ground receiving the full force of a male foot that could
reliably march up to 25 miles per day while dressed for battle and
carrying a pack that added 40-50 pounds.
Not invented by the Romans, their hobnails were square straight
shafted nails with a conical head, they had one of the best
applications. Choosing to outfit their military troops in footwear that
covered all of the sole and most of the upper foot with leather, the
hobnails attached to the outsole. Specifically hobnails: added traction
in certain conditions, increased the life of the footwear, and as in the
example above, they could be used as a weapon to trample anything that
fell below a solder's feet.
Hobnails, as used by the Romans, filled functional and artistic
voids. Hobnails could be pounded into almost any pattern imaginable,
footwear enthusiasts should note how different arrangements resemble the
efforts of certain modern shoe makers seeking to disperse plantar
pressure. Reports of hobnails forming a kneeling stick figure exist. An
arrangement of this type would remind soldiers that every step was vital
in a military campaign, and that their enemies were beneath them. It
would also reinforce the attitude that Roman soldiers were members of an
elite force that did not like leaving even small details to chance.
As soldiers traveled, hobnails wore down. Sources disagree about
whether caligae were repaired or discarded, possibly the type of damage
would determine the fate of the footwear, but by the time the nailheads
were smooth it is likely that the remainder of the footwear would need
replacing as well. As time went on and the Roman Empire lost dominion
over what are now portions of modern Europe the use of hobnails on the
soles of footwear faded.
Accuracy note: the term hobnailed as it applies to modern
footwear is a misnomer unless the nail has the
traditional pointed head. Some make their own as these are purportedly difficult to obtain. Clout refers to a nail that has a broader, flatter head. Pegs and brass tacks, both
of which may have appeared on the soles of soldiers who served on either side in the
American Civil War should not be referred to as hobnails either.
Before the industrial revolution, nail making was frequently done at
home, even by the wealthy who could presumably afford to buy nails.
Thomas Jefferson was reportedly quite proud of the nails he made.
Nails were valuable, often home owners would take them with when they
moved, evidence of this appears in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books
where Laura also mentions Pa straightening bent nails and paying back a
neighbor who had loaned the Ingalls family nails. For a modern
application of hobnails, see the writeups under steel-toed boots and
imagine the damage caused in the second writeup had the author been
wearing true hobnailed boots.
Lometa says: My father says that his father used to collect bent nails
in a can and on rainy days, when they couldn't do much on the farm, he
and his 8 siblings straightened them out.
Ah, the hob-nail boot, and the Lancashire clog. Both had the square
nails, I remember them well. Miner's boots had them in the UK until the
60s, as I recall!
- Clout definition
about the stick figure pattern on caligae.
- Discovery of caligae
- History of nails
- Apology from jessicaj who lost all of her sources when her computer
crashed. I had a picture of the stick figure who was bent in
supplication and a totally cool image complete with Latin verbiage that a
museum in New York has and now I can't find either of those. I did use
these as sources as well but there were many more that I lost.
- UPDATE: Diligent searching by Mouq has retrieved lost data. See here!