The common bad luck superstition of shoes on the table portends death, but why? A historical method of photography involving corpses provides the likely explanation.
Image via Wikipedia
How many times have you told your children that shoes go off the table? Have you explained to them that it’s unsanitary to do so? Are you even worried about mud, soil, or whatever contaminants soiling it? For those who believe in many superstitions regarding luck, putting shoes on the table means more than contamination from dirt – the taboo practice is associated with foreshadowing death.
So why does putting shoes on the table mean death? Some historians attribute it to the times when mining was commonplace in rural communities. When a fellow worker announces to the family that their relative who worked there died, they placed his boots on the table. Most others see shoes-on-table as a reminder of the olden times, when people buy new shoes to dress their dead, embalmed relative.
Another set of others trace the superstition back to times when people were hanged for their crimes, for the table represents the final platform before being suspended from a noose until death. Whatever the case may be, shoes-on-table practices foretell bad fortune in the case of death, but I have another historical reason for a superstition.
Recently, I was reading about post-mortem photography, which was very common during the Victorian Era. Since the the invention of the daguerreotype in 1839, people wanted to see what their child looked like should he or she died in infancy or youth (Adults were sometimes photographed in that manner too.), and photography was once a luxury thus families saved money for those elaborate funerals and picture-taking should the child(ren) die.
Before they were commonly placed in open coffins or caskets and (in some cases) propped up in an incline to see them in full view, undertakers embalm them (later, starting with the Civil War era), clothed them typically from head to toe (with footwear included), and posed them. Before caskets became common, the photographers mostly laid them on beds (or cribs or prams if an infant) or sofas (probably explaining why shoes are also forbidden on the bed or sofa, as another story tells) and propped the corpse’s heads on the pillows, still in everyday clothing with footwear.
In some cases (and mostly in slightly latter times), they even laid them on specially decorated tables fashioned as catafalques with flowers and satin. (Propped-up corpses sometimes had their eyeballs or pupils painted on their eyelids later once their photos were developed for the optical illusion to make them appear as animate, but that’s another story.)
Once the photos were taken, they usually sent copies (since the invention of the carte-de-viste, multiple prints taken from a single negative) to relatives who were unable to attend a funeral of a dead child, but wanted to remember them as formerly living beings.
Until the mid-20th century, the photos fell out of favor due to the taboos attached to them, but they were recently revived (slightly) by infant bereavement photography organizations like Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, founded in 2005. In my perspective, the deceased in today’s photos are less nightmare-inducing than their origins, but the old photos, as disturbing as they seem, are captivating and beautiful. Upon seeing image after morbid (but serene) image of post-mortem photography, whether it’s Victorian or current, the corpses that lay on tables-turned-biers reminded me of the shoes-on-table superstition.
If you want to understand why your superstitious mother or whoever you know well tells you not to put shoes on the table, here’s my advice – read about how Victorian post-mortem photography worked (and looked like, if you have the guts and emotional toughness) in its heyday. Photographers captured the beauty of the corpse on a silk-draped, flower-laden table that resembles a funerary bier, and the photos of them explain the reason of the jinx in mainly antique pictures.
If you have the emotional strength or the guts to view galleries of photos of the dressed deceased (especially in little, often-white coffins or caskets), I recommend those galleries: Tear Drop Memories and The Museum of Mourning Photography and Memorial Practice.