18th Century Solutions: Waterproofing Boots

waterproofing1 These are my winter boots. They were new last year, pardon the grubby appearance, I wear them as barn boots. This is not something the manufacturer likely would approve of.  My little boots are from a Swedish company and are called Icebug  Their claim to fame, and why I love them, is they have carbon steel studs on the bottom… this last winter was the first winter I didn’t have a bad fall on the ice.

This isn’t a minor matter. Falling on ice, especially for older women, is a serious winter hazard. To help people get around on the glare and glassy manufacturers have created grips for shoes which, with great effort, can be stretched over your everyday boots.  The problem is, these things are 1/4″ thick, or thicker.  Older women tend to drag their feet slightly (it’s the pelvic girdle weakening with age) and it is much too easy to trip on these cumbersome grips.  Anyone who has had a mother or grandmother fall while wearing ice treads, going up the stairs, knows exactly what I’m talking about.  I’ve sold those treads for years, and they might be better than nothing.. but for something which is supposed to prevent falls, they’re much too easy to trip over.

These aftermarket grips also don’t do well in a barn. You can imagine what they pick up and track around.. and once it’s been picked up and gummed up the works? They don’t work.  At all.  Except to track the barn into the house.

Which just doesn’t add to that ambience you’re trying to create with your ginger cookies and holiday tree.. eau du barn.

So I’m thrilled with these boots with their little studs. My car has studded snow tires, and when I walk around in these boots? I sound like a studded snow tire. The sound is so distinctive when I stopped in to pick up maple syrup this spring the sugarmaker almost leapt over his counter to check out my feet.. and headed straight to the ski shop to pick up a pair for his wife.

But they’re not waterproof.  They’re not insulated either, but neither are my rubber boots, so I won’t hold that against them.  But not being waterproof, as the weather warms up and I have to step through slush over slick ice? That’s going to be a problem.

I work in a ski shop, so it isn’t as if I don’t have access to modern waterproofing gunk, but what a great opportunity to see how people in the 18th century solved the problem of soggy footwear!  Now, I remember Claire.. I think she’s slogging her way to a meeting with Dougal Mackenzie.. thinking she should have applied more otter fat to her boots, because the waterproofing was failing.

European Otter, England

Wait a sec.. otter fat?  While otter fat may have waterproofing properties, certainly otters themselves seem to do rather well around water, hunting down an otter to harvest it for fat seems a little extreme.  And messy.  And probably illegal.

Moving right along to plan B.  During the 18th century, in fact for hundreds of years, fabric was treated with wax to waterproof it.  There are several ways to waterproof with plain wax, for example brushing liquified wax that’s been thinned with an oil (either synthetic or… otter fat) on to the garment.  This is how canvas was treated, and those famous Scottish waxed fabric macintoshes.  Done right it apparently stinks to high heaven.. not something you want to do in the house.

Or we could go for the even simpler, lower tech, method: a solid wax rubbed onto the item in question, in this case a boot, then applying heat to melt the wax into the fabric.

My husband is not going to be happy if I release another experimental poltergeist of pungent into the house (especially since it is about ten degrees out there and opening the windows is not an option), so the liquified wax method is out.  But soggy boots being decidedly uncomfortable…  I’m going to apply another layer of wax to the one I put on last spring.

This method of waterproofing a fabric boot worked so well I’m surprised I can sell waterproofing compounds in the shop… but fair warning: Icebugs have an inner rubber gusset behind the zipper.  That rubber gusset makes the zipper, which is definitely the weak spot of any casual boot, waterproof.  If these boots didn’t have that gusset all the 18th century, and all the 21st century, waterproofing in the world wouldn’t make a bit of difference when the wet reached the zipper.  But because of that gusset.. and a little candle wax.. I can wear these boots into slush and come out with happy dry feet.

Candle stub from dining room..

Candle stub from dining room..

Crayon it onto the boots..

Crayon it onto the boots..

Hold in front of the woodstove (or use a blowdryer) and like magic...

Hold in front of the woodstove (or use a blowdryer) and like magic…

Presto! Waterproof boots!

Presto! Waterproof boots!

Naturally, I was a little suspicious something so simple might actually work. But I poured a whole glass of water over these boots and not a drop stuck to them, let alone leaked in.  I wore them all spring, in wet and slush and mud, and my feet stayed dry!  Now I’m reapplying the wax under the suspicion that they’ll need a bit more wax applied where the boots bend and flex as I walk, but once again ten minutes spent in the 18th century has yielded a cheap, handy, solution to the everyday problem of waterproofing fabric based footwear.

You can now buy Icebugs online.. last year when I posted this, you couldn’t.. and I got WAY too much mail telling me my link to a dealer wasn’t coughing up any boots. Obviously someone besides me heard your cries of dismay..so there ya go!

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