Inside Temple’s Secret Shoe Museum

A diamond in the rough that's definitely worth the digging.

Chinese foot binding slippers

Slippers worn by an adult woman subjected to Chinese foot binding. | Photo by Lauren McGrath.

Temple’s School of Podiatric Medicine is home to one of Philly’s hidden gems — so hidden, in fact, that the unique charm of the place doesn’t quite hit you until you leave. Temple’s Shoe Museum is a far cry from the pristine halls of Philadelphia’s iconic Art Museum; its artifacts are preserved in a cocoon of cinderblock, yellow fluorescent lights and dusty shelves. The museum curator, Barbara Williams, is a no-nonsense woman who was not too keen on giving me a tour in the first place. (You can only tour the exhibit by appointment  …  with Ms. Barbara.) Crack her shell, however, and you will find that she’s a source of infinite shoe knowledge, so put more time in the parking meter than you think.

Ms. Barbara (yes, that’s what everyone who works there calls her, so I followed suit) walked me through the cultural, anthropological and historical significance of nearly every single pair of shoes in the museum; there are about 250 on display, in a warren of cases that line the sixth floor of the podiatry school. When I looked past the underwhelming appearance – descriptions mounted on construction paper, foggy glass casing, and display shelves so low I had to squat – I was blown away by the remarkable variety of shoes in the museum. There are ancient Egyptian burial sandals so weathered the straps have fallen off; impossibly small Chinese slippers that women’s mangled feet once squeezed into; Victorian heels pitched so high a woman needed to clutch to a male escort in order to walk anywhere; a Native American princess’s intricately embroidered mukluks; splashy gold disco platform sandals.

The collection paints a picture of the fascinating history of shoes, and Barbara is its star storyteller. It’s a must-see, and just the sort of place that defines Philly: a hidden gem that’s rough around the edges but no less dazzling for it. (And it’s free!) Check out some of its highlights below.

Boots through the years

Circa 1910 wedding shoes, Depression-era lace-ups, and Ella Fitzgerald’s gold boots. | Photo by Lauren McGrath.

CLOG

Proof that fashion is cyclical. | Photo by Lauren McGrath.

ROW

Leather detailing with a pop of color. | Photo by Lauren McGrath.

Barbara Williams

Don’t be fooled: This lady is a firecracker with more shoe knowledge than maybe anyone, ever. | Photo by Lauren McGrath.

Men's

Black and white and known all over. (Left) A pair of shoes designed for Ringo Starr. (Right) A pair of shoes worn in a stage production of ‘Singin’ In The Rain.’  | Photo by Lauren McGrath.

KING

Billie Jean King’s custom Adidas sneakers; her signature tennis serve took a toll on her right sneaker toe. | Photo by Lauren McGrath.

High Heels

These Victorian boots from 1890 were designed so that women could not walk without the help of a male escort; a pair of custom Doc Martens (the soles were added by a third party and are “structurally sound.” | Photo by Lauren McGrath.

 

The Details: The Shoe Museum at the Temple School of Podiatric Medicine, 148 North 8th Street, sixth floor, Market East. Visits are by appointment only;call 215-625-5243 or email [email protected] to schedule.