Stepping into Sir Hans Sloane’s Shoe Collection

Sir Hans Sloane’s collection, then and now, brings together a vast array of objects from across a diverse range of themes that came from across the globe. Through analysing the 44 remaining catalogues of his collection, we can begin to get a sense of the range of topics that Sloane was interested in and collecting; these include antiquities, botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology, zoology, manuscripts, printed books and miscellanies.
Figure 1: Sir Hans Sloane, Bt by Stephen Slaughter, oil on canvas, 1736. NPG 56

Sloane’s catalogues could be seen to represent some of his own personal interests. Medicine for example, made up a third of his manuscript collection, closely followed by works on plants and animals. The well-known portrait shown here by Stephen Slaughter, (fig 1), housed at the National Portrait Gallery, depicts Sloane holding a botanical drawing of the Lagetto or lace bark. Sloane brought a sample of this plant back to London from Jamaica and this image was published in Volume I of his ‘Voyage to Jamaica’ in 1707. While the importance of observing and collecting the natural world was evidently paramount to Sloane, to assume that his collecting interests were focused on these alone would be an unjust assessment.

Sloane’s catalogue titled Miscellanies, for example, is brimming with strange and wonderful artefacts. He was fascinated by the reconciliation of the natural and artificial world, and collected objects which revealed the ingenuity of humankind’s manipulation of nature. By examining how Sloane described, ordered, and managed his collection on paper, the Leverhulme-funded Enlightenment Architectures project is using this catalogue (along with several others) to learn more about the collecting practices of Sir Hans Sloane and the construction of knowledge in the eighteenth century.

It was a common practice for collections in the eighteenth century to be divided between natural and artificial curiosities. Today, we would consider artificial curiosities as ethnographic items, which reveal an insight into different cultures and the ways in which people lived. We must, however, take caution when applying modern terms to historical periods. The term ‘ethnographic’ was not adopted until the late nineteenth century, and so it would be misguided to describe Sloane’s artificial collection as an ethnographic one. However, it is clear that Sloane and his contemporaries were eager to understand the different cultures with whom they came into contact, and collecting artificial curiosities was considered one way of learning about their customs.

Figure 2. SL Misc 201- a racquette used for walking on snow. British Museum.

This is epitomised by the various types of shoes within Sloane’s collection. Shoes reveal an interesting and unique perspective into different cultures. Sloane was also interested in the ways that natural productions could be transformed into something useful by the human hand. Thus far, 28 mentions of shoes have been detected within Sloane’s Miscellanies catalogue. Sloane’s Miscellanies catalogue reveals the extensive range of correspondents who were involved in order for him to acquire such fascinating objects, and this gives us a real insight into Sloane’s collecting practices and his contacts. In one entry, Sloane writes “A pair of Muscovite womens shoes. From Mr Wilson’s collection” (SL Misc 1398). In another, he writes “A pair of Japanese shoes for women of leather and silk. From Dr Kaempfer” (SL Misc 1074) and finally, “A small racquette and small shoe made by the savages of Canada with which they walk on the snow…by Mr Villarmont?” (SL Misc 201, see figure 2). Sloane’s collection of shoes therefore, already acts as a telling case study of how he utilised a network of people that was global in scope to expand his collection.

Figure 3- A folio from Sloane’s Miscellanies catalogue showing entries describing the various shoes in his collection. British Museum, AOA library.

Figure 3 shows a folio from Sloane’s Miscellanies catalogue. Beginning at entries 1398 to 1403, and then again from entries 1411 to 1416, we can see the array of shoes that Sloane was collecting, ranging from “An Indians shoe from Virginia” (SL Misc 1411), “A pump or Irish brogue” (SL Misc 1413), to “A Turkish shoe” (SL Misc 1414) and “One pair of strange matted slippers from Japan” (SL Misc 1400). This catalogue page also reveals Sloane’s tendency to collect similar objects in the way that he writes: “Another, somewhat different” (SL Misc 1401), “Another sort” (SL Misc 1415) and “One for a girl” (SL Misc 1416). For Sloane, even the slightest variation in a similar artefact was worth collecting, documenting and preserving.

Within his catalogue, we also see “A Shoe made of Spartum of the Miquelet inhabitants of the Pyrenees” (SL Misc 1417), “A shoe from Coromandel” (India) (SL Misc 4), “A pair of Chinese shoes for women whose feet are diminish’d by art that they may not walk abroad” (SL Misc 576), and finally, “Turkish papuches & ?… which ladies wear within doors at home at Constantinople and Smyrna” (SL Misc 1540). Sloane’s wide-ranging shoe collection seems to epitomise his desire to collect a variety of the same type of object, from a wide range of locations, in order to understand how different cultures attempted to solve the same issues.

Figure 4- The Historical Collections Room containing the Sloane Herbarium, The Natural History Museum, London.

Sloane’s letters and manuscripts shed more light on Sloane’s shoe collection and his collecting practices. The Sloane Letters Project provides a searchable database of Sloane’s letters and correspondence, now held at the British Library. One particular letter sent from the Arctic trader Henry Elking to Sloane in 1727 describes several curiosities including “A large bird called a Burgomaster from Greenland”, “the coat of a woman made of Seal Skin”, and “A pair of Children’s shoes” (BL SL MS 4049, ff.44-5). Sloane’s catalogues and correspondence are key to reconciling his collection and collecting practices. We can see from one correspondence exchange alone, the array of artificial artefacts Sloane was collecting, and the means by which he achieved this.

Sloane’s love of botany and the natural world is evident within his Miscellanies catalogue, as well as in his catalogues of natural history specimens. As mentioned, Sloane took great interest in understanding the ways in which different cultures used the natural world to create artificial items. Sloane makes a point of describing the material of which a shoe is made, for example “A Shoe made of Spartum” (SL Misc 1417), “The same made of hemp” (SL Misc 1418), and “Turkey leather” (SL Misc 1420).
Four examples from Sloane’s shoe collection are currently on display in Room 1, The Enlightenment Gallery at the British Museum. They reside in case 14, entitled “Curiosity and Curiosities” (see figure 5).

Figure 5- Four of Sloane’s shoes from his collection on display. British Museum. Author’s photograph

The shoes on display here are, from left to right, a Japanese shoe made of leather and silk, “from the collection of Dr E Kaempfer” (SL Misc 1074), a shoe “made of hemp” from the Pyrenees (SL Misc 1415), a shoe “from Coromandel”in India (SL Misc 5), and a “Barbary shoe” from Northern Africa (SL Misc 59).

The presentation of these shoes is particularly interesting. With each shoe originating from a different location, made of a different material, unique in style and worn within its own context, the display allows the visitor to instantaneously understand that footwear is not static, but subject to change among different cultures and customs.

By placing the shoes alongside each other, they communicate the message that humans have a resourcefulness of making vastly different variations of a similar object — a message that Sloane was eager to convey throughout his collection. Comparing similarities and differences was hugely important for Sloane’s method(s) of describing and ordering.

We cannot know with certainty how Sloane would have displayed these shoes during his own lifetime. However, the 1762 edition of The British Museum Guide states that, in Montague House (the original home of the museum) there were two rooms specifically designated to artificial curiosities. The first room was focused on religious items, while the second room focused predominantly on cultural artefacts. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Sloane’s artificial curiosities were arranged in a single room, which presumably included some of his shoes.

Sir Hans Sloane’s miscellanies catalogue gives us an insight into his shoe collection and helps us to understand more about Sloane’s collecting practices, especially in terms of description. It is only in recent times that Sloane’s catalogues have been dissected in such a way, with the Enlightenment Architectures project making headway in understanding their intimate structure and what this might reveal about Enlightenment collections and knowledge more broadly. Perhaps by the end of the project, more examples of Sloane’s shoe collection will emerge, and we can further fuse the pieces of Sloane’s expansive collection together.

By Laura Davidson, MA Museum Studies, UCL.


British Museum Collection Online. Last Accessed 17/04/18

Delbourgo, James (2017) ‘Becoming Hans Sloane’ Collecting the World. The Life and Curiosity of Hans Sloane. Penguin Random House Press, UK.

King, J.C.H (1994) ‘Ethnographic Collections’ Arthur MacGregor, Sir Hans Sloane. Collector, Scientist, Antiquary Founding Father of the British Museum. The British Museum Press, London.

MacGregor, Arthur (1994) ‘Sir Hans Sloane’s Catalogue.’ MacGregor, Arthur. Sir Hans Sloane. Collector, Scientist, Antiquarian. Founding Father of the British Museum. The British Museum Press, London.

Nickson, M.A.E (1994) ‘Books and Manuscripts.’ MacGregor, Arthur. Sir Hans Sloane. Collector, Scientist, Antiquarian. Founding Father of the British Museum. The British Museum Press, London.

Syson, Luke (2003) ‘The ordering of the artificial world: collecting, classification and progress,’ Kim Sloan, Andrew Burnett, Enlightenment. Discovering the World in the Eighteenth Century. The British Museum Press, London.