Excerpt from About the Size of It

Shoe sizes, vegetables, and little things

I’ve talked a lot about shoes and boots so far, and how they relate to the width of your hands and the thickness of your thumbs. If you’re sick to the back teeth of them by now you can skip this bit and go onto the next section, because I want to talk a bit more about shoe-sizes and how they work, and, along the way, about cereal crops, and turnips, and how you measure things smaller than your thumb.

You are a shoemaker. Well, maybe you’re not, but let’s imagine that you are. You’ve got a big sheet of leather in front of you, and some marking and cutting tools; but because of the way we’re doing things in this book, you’ve got no measuring equipment. Your task is to use your leather to cut out the insoles for a range of shoes for children and adults.

Let’s start with the children’s shoes first. If you put your palm flat on the leather and mark out a hand’s breadth, that’s about the smallest shoe you’ll need to make for any child who actually needs proper shoes. You can call that a size zero.

Now mark out a second hand’s breadth. That will take you, roughly, to the size of a child’s foot just before puberty. So for children, you need to make a range of shoes with insoles between one and two hand’s breadths in length.

One more hand’s breadth after that will take you to the sole you need for a fully-grown man.

But people’s feet differ, and you want to make a range of sizes, not just three. The smallest size we’ve developed in this book so far is a thumb’s thickness, or inch; which is all very well for knocking in nails, but too big for the intervals between shoe sizes. A child with growing feet won’t thank you at all for a pair of shoes a whole inch bigger than the ones that have just started to pinch.

So what are you going to use for your smaller divisions? Given that there aren’t many (or any) obvious body-parts that spring readily to hand, and that fit neatly into the system of measures you’ve developed so far, you’ve got two choices.  One would be to take an inch and halve or quarter it; the other would be to find something common, and small, and roughly standard-sized that happens to be lying around, and use that.

Both approaches have been used, both for shoes and for lots of other things; the French, for example, used a quarter-inch scale for shoes for centuries. But for more than centuries, for as long as people have farmed the land and grown the food they eat, they have had seeds and grains, small and handy and evenly-sized, laying around in their houses or huts by the sackful; and throughout history these seeds and grains have been used as standards against which to weigh and measure tiny things. And some of these ancient seed and grain measures are still with us today, even though most of us aren’t aware of them.

Way back in the days of the ancient Greeks, people used keration, or carob seeds, for weighing and measuring, and from them we get the jeweller’s carat.

In Anglo-Saxon England, the staple crop was not carob but barley. And turnips as well, probably. However, for a number of technical reasons, turnips – even very small ones – never really caught on as recognised subdivisions of the inch in Anglo-Saxon England. But the barley-grain, on the other hand, was used both to weigh with and to measure with.

If you take three grains of barley, from the middle of the ear, and lay them end-to-end, what you end up with is an inch. And this is how a third of an inch became known as a barleycorn. This is a fact you might be interested in, or indifferent about, depending upon your outlook; but it would seem to have very little relevance to anything much nowadays, or to anyone save for historically-minded barley farmers, were it not for the fact that most of us own at least two items measured in barleycorns, and some of us considerably more; and we use them every day of our lives. This is because one of the few places where the barleycorn has survived, in the English-speaking world, is in the measurement of shoes.

Barley: puts corns on your feet

Here’s how it works: the ‘base’ size of the smallest proper shoe, a child’s zero, is a hand, or four inches. The shoe-sizes go up in thirds-of-an-inch or barleycorns to a children’s twelve, at twice the width of your hand, or eight inches long. From there you go on, still in barleycorns, to an adult zero (or child’s thirteen) at eight-and-a-third inches and so on up to an adult ten, at 11 2/3 inches, and beyond. This is the insole size, remember – so if you add on another bit more - a third, or barleycorn, say, you’ll get to your external dimensions, which gives you a size ten shoe typically a foot long, or three hands.

Unless you live in the USA, that is: there’s a one-size difference between the USA and Britain. Our two is their three; and our ten is their eleven. This comes from the fact that the two nations start off differently: where the British call the smallest size a zero, the Americans call it a one. It’s the same difference that you find in the numbering of floors in tall buildings: what the British call the ‘ground floor,’ and number as 0 or G on the buttons of what they call ‘lifts,’ the Americans call the ‘first’ floor and number as 1 on their ‘elevators’. More than this, they say ‘eether’; while we say ‘eyether,’ and they say ‘neether’ where we pronounce the word ‘neyether’. Contrary to certain views, though, both nations say ‘potaytoes’ and no-one but no-one ever says ‘potahtoes.’ I hope that makes things clear.

Shoes. There are other ways of measuring them, which don’t involve cereals or vegetables. Or elevators or lifts. The most common system outside the English-speaking world is the Paris Point. It’s sort of metric, in that centimetres are involved somewhere along the way, but it’s sort of not, as well, because Paris Points don’t fit neatly into any other metric unit by a factor of ten. Or indeed by a factor of any other whole number, unless you count sixty-six and two-thirds points to the metre as in some way ‘whole’.

A millimetre, you see, is too small to be a meaningful diference between one size and the next, but a centimetre is too big, so instead of either of those, a unit of two-thirds of a centimetre was settled on. There were a couple of reasons for this. One is that it is a decent sort of interval, given the speed at which children’s feet grow, and given the spread of adult foot-sizes. The other reason is that a Paris Point is the old French shoe-size unit of a quarter of a pouce, or French inch, by another name. If you want to be really precise, then redefining it as two-thirds of a centimetre does change it slightly, technically, by nought-point-nought something; but you’d be hard pushed to spot the difference. A Paris Point is also, as it happens, more or less halfway between a British half-size (half a barleycorn or a sixth of an inch) and a whole size.

The system, like the English version, starts at a hand’s breadth, which is ten centimetres, or fifteen points, in length. This means that the base continental size, the equivalent to an English zero, is a size fifteen; and it goes up from there all the way to the biggest sizes.