Picture a Roman soldier walking along a cobblestone street. On the bottoms of his caligae are anywhere from 75 - 120 small pointed nails. Offering good traction on surfaces such as grass and soil, the soldier skids across the uneven street stones. Several people witness him falling, they laugh and someone points. Seconds later the pointer's face is on the ground receiving the full force of a male foot that could reliably march up to 25 miles per day while dressed for battle and carrying a pack that added 40-50 pounds.

Not invented by the Romans, their hobnails were square straight shafted nails with a conical head, they had one of the best applications. Choosing to outfit their military troops in footwear that covered all of the sole and most of the upper foot with leather, the hobnails attached to the outsole. Specifically hobnails: added traction in certain conditions, increased the life of the footwear, and as in the example above, they could be used as a weapon to trample anything that fell below a solder's feet.

Hobnails, as used by the Romans, filled functional and artistic voids. Hobnails could be pounded into almost any pattern imaginable, footwear enthusiasts should note how different arrangements resemble the efforts of certain modern shoe makers seeking to disperse plantar pressure. Reports of hobnails forming a kneeling stick figure exist. An arrangement of this type would remind soldiers that every step was vital in a military campaign, and that their enemies were beneath them. It would also reinforce the attitude that Roman soldiers were members of an elite force that did not like leaving even small details to chance.

As soldiers traveled, hobnails wore down. Sources disagree about whether caligae were repaired or discarded, possibly the type of damage would determine the fate of the footwear, but by the time the nailheads were smooth it is likely that the remainder of the footwear would need replacing as well. As time went on and the Roman Empire lost dominion over what are now portions of modern Europe the use of hobnails on the soles of footwear faded.

Accuracy note: the term hobnailed as it applies to modern footwear is a misnomer unless the nail has the traditional pointed head. Some make their own as these are purportedly difficult to obtain. Clout refers to a nail that has a broader, flatter head. Pegs and brass tacks, both of which may have appeared on the soles of soldiers who served on either side in the American Civil War should not be referred to as hobnails either.

Before the industrial revolution, nail making was frequently done at home, even by the wealthy who could presumably afford to buy nails. Thomas Jefferson was reportedly quite proud of the nails he made. Nails were valuable, often home owners would take them with when they moved, evidence of this appears in the Laura Ingalls Wilder books where Laura also mentions Pa straightening bent nails and paying back a neighbor who had loaned the Ingalls family nails. For a modern application of hobnails, see the writeups under steel-toed boots and imagine the damage caused in the second writeup had the author been wearing true hobnailed boots.

 

Lometa says: My father says that his father used to collect bent nails in a can and on rainy days, when they couldn't do much on the farm, he and his 8 siblings straightened them out.

wertperch says: Ah, the hob-nail boot, and the Lancashire clog. Both had the square nails, I remember them well. Miner's boots had them in the UK until the 60s, as I recall!

 

Sources:

  1. Clout definition
  2. Query about the stick figure pattern on caligae.
  3. Discovery of caligae
  4. History of nails
  5. Apology from jessicaj who lost all of her sources when her computer crashed. I had a picture of the stick figure who was bent in supplication and a totally cool image complete with Latin verbiage that a museum in New York has and now I can't find either of those. I did use these as sources as well but there were many more that I lost.
  6. UPDATE: Diligent searching by Mouq has retrieved lost data. See here!

Hob"nail` (?), n. 1st hob + nail.

1.

A short, sharp-pointed, large-headed nail, -- used in shoeing horses and for studding the soles of heavy shoes.

 

2.

A clownish person; a rustic.

Milton.

Hobnail liver Med., a disease in which the liver is shrunken, hard, and covered with projections like hobnails; one of the forms of cirrhosis of the liver.

 

© Webster 1913.


Hob"nail`, v. t.

To tread down roughly, as with hobnailed shoes.

 

Your rights and charters hobnailed into slush. Tennyson.

 

© Webster 1913.

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