Recently we speculated about a pair of shoes that tradition claimed had been worn by Queen Anne Boleyn. They were pretty shoes with a pretty story, but the facts won out, and reluctantly we had to agree with historians who said the shoes couldn't be hers.
Today we offer another shoe that may or may not have graced a famous foot. This elegant mule is made of pigskin, silk, and gold galloon lace, and was likely produced in England or France around 1650. It's a stylish shoe, with a curved heel, raised sole, extended vamp, and a square toe that's so exaggerated that it's sometimes called a forked or horned toe. There's no doubt regarding its date; see another similar shoe here, at the Victoria & Albert Museum.
The legend connected with it is another story. The shoe is exhibited in the Pilgrim Hall Museum in Plymouth, MA as "thought to have been worn by Penelope Pelham (1630-1703) at her wedding to Josiah Winslow in 1651." That qualifying "thought" probably puts the shoe's provenance into the realm of wishful thinking, much like the countless rings worn by Martha Washington.
But whether worn by Penelope or not, the shoe does challenge some deeply ingrained traditions from American History. Every American school child knows how the Pilgrims dressed – in all-black suits or dresses with big white collars and funny hats with buckles on the front, and more big square buckles on even bigger shoes – because that's how they look on every school bulletin board and in every Thanksgiving advertisement. Pilgrims never wore shoes as elegant as this one.
Yet there's no doubt Penelope qualifies as a member of the early Puritan "aristocracy" of the Plymouth Colony. She was a Pilgrim. As a child, she emigrated with her parents to Massachusetts, where her father became the first treasurer of Harvard College. Though she and her family returned to England, Penelope eventually married another Plymouth Colony resident and Harvard graduate, Josiah Winslow (1628-1680), whose parents had been aboard the Mayflower. In 1655 the couple returned permanently to the colony to manage the Winslow estates. Josiah eventually became the colony's first native-born governor, while (more) legend claims that Penelope set the standard for beauty and culture.
Beauty and culture? Pilgrims? The truth is much more complicated than the Thanksgiving stereotypes. Despite their religious and political beliefs, many of the Plymouth colonists were educated, sophisticated individuals. They weren't afraid to display their wealth with possessions like elegant, lace-trimmed shoes.
While they lived in London, Penelope and Josiah sat for matching portraits. The image of Penelope, right, shows her as a stylish lady with curled hair and a gold chain around her throat. She sits swathed in bright-colored satin that follow the idealized romantic traditions of 17th c. court portraiture – and this in a Puritan London ruled by Oliver Cromwell and Parliament.
Odds are against anyone ever knowing for sure whether Penelope wore this particular shoe on her wedding day. But she could have – and we don't believe for a moment that she would have worn those cartoon Pilgrim clodhoppers with the big buckles.
Above: Women's shoe, c. 1651, associated with Penelope Pelham Winslow, Pilgrim Hall Museum
Below: Penelope Pelham Winslow, unknown London artist c. 1651, Pilgrim Hall Museum