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UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES – Periodically – usually the 4th Tuesday of the month – we’ll bring you a brief overview of a unique architectural feature. Most of these features have become unique to old buildings because they are now obsolete. Finding surviving features is rare as they often fall victim to updates and renovation. However, we think it’s important to be aware of them – besides, learning about them can be a lot of fun! This month’s feature is: THE BOOT SCRAPER. 

Boot scraper at the John Maddox Denn House, Alloway, Salem County, NJ. See our project page on it here

 

What is a boot scraper?

According to the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Architecture and Construction (2003), a boot scraper is:

“A horizontal metal plate set in a small frame, once  located  near the front steps of most  buildings; used to scrape dirt or mud from the  bottoms of  shoes or boots before entering the building; common before the advent of paved streets.” 

 

Most people today do not know what boot scrapers are because they are no longer a necessity. In fact, they did not come into use until two- to- three centuries ago. Prior to that, people either did not travel much, or if they traversed the muddy countryside or farm fields, they likely lived in humble homes and were unconcerned about dirt or used other methods to clean. Paved roads were also uncommon for quite some time in Europe and the United States; mud and horse excrement, garbage, and all manner of undesirable debris were unavoidable when traveling. Consequently, there were many deterrents to walking.

Attitudes toward walking changed from the mid-18th through the mid-19th century. Walking was now viewed as a popular pastime instead of a sign of vagrancy or something adverse. The Romantic Movement’s appreciation for nature and civil improvements such as parks and pavement intensified the appreciation for walking. But, even as paved thoroughfares and pedestrian outings proliferated, processes for waste removal evolved at a much slower rate. Not surprisingly, the decision to enter a stately home following a walk through dirty streets presented a dilemma. The solution? The boot scraper.

Initially, boot scrapers were typically made of hand wrought iron. Their composition evolved to cast iron designs in the 19th century. They were generally secured into a stone or other base, or sometimes built into front steps, stair railings, or even built into the side of a building (a practice often seen in Europe). Boot scrapers were always placed at or near the entrance to the building. Unusual designs and materials can also be found (see here), a testament to people’s creativity. Some also included brushes into the design for extra cleaning power. Several patents for boot scrapers were also filed in the 19th century. Boot scrapers became so ubiquitous that they were often included in builders’ and architects’ plans. J.C. Loudon referenced boot scrapers in his Encyclopaedia of Cottage, Farm, & Villa Architecture & Furniture (1839), stating that:

“There are various forms of scrapers for building into walls, which may be had of every ironmonger…”

 

There are many fine examples of boot scrapers throughout Europe. Brussels, Belgium reportedly has a significant number of extant boot scrapers, as detailed here. The French called them “decrottoir” (translated to: “excrement remover”), with some Parisian examples here. English versions also include some built into the walls of buildings, as seen here

 

Examples of American boot scrapers:

 

Boot scraper at main entrance to the Upsala Mansion in Mount Airy, Philadelphia, PA, built in the Federal architectural style in 1798

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress

 

Boot scraper outside Arch Street Friends Meeting House in Philadelphia, PA, building dating to between 1803 and 1805. 

 

 

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

Boot scraper from the “Banker’s House” on South Canal Street in Natchez, MS – an example of Greek Revival Architecture dating to 1836

 

 

 

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress.

 

Boot scraper by main entrance to Stan Hywet Hall – a fine example of Tudor Revival architecture from 1915 – in Akron, Ohio. 

 

 

 

 

 

The image above was taken by staff of the Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS), in 1933. Image source: Library of Congress

 

Boot scrapers today

Where to see them. 

  • Scavenger hunt – Hit the pavement in a historical neighborhood and see how many boot scrapers you can find. Don’t forget to inspect stair railings for the subtler scrapers (just be mindful of private property!).
  • Photo gallery – Visit the boot scrapers flickr page, here

Where to get them. 

  • Antique/Salvage Business – If your home is missing a boot scraper, you can find historical scrapers via salvage and antique businesses, including this one.
  • Historic Reproduction Business – If searching for originals proves unsuccessful, search for reproduction types like these.
  • Modern Options – Even if you’re not looking for the historical variety, you may find a use for the modern styles, like these

 

For further resources and reading:

  • For another overview of the boot scraper, read the article here.
  • Take a virtual “tour” of American places with boot scrapers, here and here

 

Stay tuned each month for a new installment in this UNIQUE HISTORICAL FEATURES SERIES!

 

SHARE WITH US!

DO YOU HAVE AN ORIGINAL BOOT SCRAPER ON YOUR PROPERTY, OR DO YOU OWN AN UNINSTALLED ONE?

FEEL FREE TO SHARE BELOW!

 

 

 

Authors

About Laura Kise

Laura Kise has worked most of her adult life in the health services field, but has never lost her love of history. Her ancestral roots run deeply in Central Pennsylvania, and some of her earliest history-loving experiences included riding restored train cars behind antique steam engines, as well as participating in Civil-War reenacting, and visiting battlefields with her parents. She has been an administrator with Keperling Preservation Services since November 2019, and is excited to explore new opportunities to promote historical education and preservation throughout Central Pennsylvania and beyond.

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