Humans are a curious species. We are, perhaps, the only species with enough imagination for the creative arts. We are the only species that we know of to think about the universe and our place in it. This includes the metaphysical and superstition. One of the most curious superstitions is the idea that it is unlucky to put new shoes on a table.
This is one of the most difficult to deconstruct by simply thinking through logically. There are, however, several competing theories for this.
The first reason for why it may be bad luck to put shoes on a table is based on basic medical science. We wear shoes outside, tramping across muddy ground, standing water and so on. These environments can carry all sorts of nasties. In a time when polio was rife, the act of putting shoes on a table was a hazard to human health. The table, after all, is where people eat their meals. The danger that viruses, bacteria and other nasties could infect our food and water was a very real threat.
New Shoes for the Dead Theory
One superstition about shoes is that one should never put new (unworn) shoes on a table. Unlike the sanitation theory, these unworn shoes were highly unlikely to carry anything dangerous. After all, they are made from fresh leather which has come from the factory or cobbler by way of a shop. The reason for not putting unworn shoes on a table is that recently deceased are placed on a table along with the dress clothing they are to wear for their funeral. This would include a new pair of shoes.
Coal Mining Industry Theory
This is specific to the coal mining regions of the north of England, but it seems that placing shoes on a table was a mark of respect to a dead miner who passed away carrying out his job. Rituals for the deceased are a common form of human behaviour so this is certainly believable. To put one’s shoes on the table for something other than a mark of respect to a dead miner invites death into the family. How this spread to outside the coal mining areas of the north of England is up for debate though.
Actors are a superstitious bunch. Wishing somebody good luck actually brings bad luck. Actors wish each other bad luck such as “break a leg” in order to bring good luck. In one explanation, an actor who puts a pair of costume shoes on a dressing table invites bad luck on himself/herself or on the performance as a whole. This could be tied to the other theories or it could be independent of them.
The Hangman’s Theory
Some of the theories above are relatively recent. The final theory in our collection goes back to medieval times. When people convicted of a crime were hanged, naturally their feet were suspended above the ground. It is believed that their feet were at table level. Therefore, putting shoes on a table is a euphemism for somebody hanged. It invites bad luck.