Untangling the myths around throwing shoes on power lines

Last updated on February 22nd, 2023 at 04:39 pm

Whether in North America, South America, Australia, or Europe, you can find an extraordinary phenomenon—a pair of tied-together shoes hanging over power lines.

Most of us have wondered why this is done, how it started, and what in the world could be the purpose of this weird practice, but no one will argue that it has become a very odd tradition across the globe.

Shoe-Tossing: The History

The true origins of the peculiar shoe-tossing practice are lost to time. It has seemingly existed since people have worn laced shoes. And being tossed over power lines has apparently been the case ever since we had power lines. We can, however, look at specific historical traditions to point to the potential roots of this tradition.

One origin source could be related to an old custom at English weddings in which the guest would toss shoes at the newlyweds to wish them prosperity, luck, and happiness. Some believe it was also used to mark the transference of authority over the bride to the husband from her father. 

If you’ve been to a wedding in the last half a century, you have almost certainly witnessed a group of bachelorettes gather around to catch a bride’s bouquet. The winner girl would symbolically be the next of the participants to get married. Well, this same tradition used to (and in some cultures still does) entail shoes. These were tossed to both women and men to symbolically determine the next to get married. 

Another consideration is a decorative one. Where would shoes be a source of decoration, you may ask? Why the Old American West, of course.

Back then, there was a habit of people hanging cowboy boots over their fence posts as a decorative custom. More recently, when military personnel completed basic training, moved to a new post, or reach a particular achievement, they too would throw their boots to hang over…you guessed it, power lines! 

But for the number of shoes, one would find worldwide hanging on electric lines these days, it would be impossible to attribute them both to military accomplishments, cowboys, or happy weddings. So in that case, why does the practice continue?

Shoe-Tossing Urban Legends

As with most traditions whose roots have been lost to history, people often come up with the most likely origins. These theories might be close to why a tradition started, but most of them descend into urban legends. There are a few of those that surround the shoe-tossing phenomenon.

Perhaps the most prevalent of such urban legends is that this was a method for gangs to mark their street territory. However, all of the evidence pointing to this is strictly anecdotal, and there is no concrete proof that this was a predominant practice by any means. Objectively speaking, this has always been an ineffective theory.

Another common urban legend is that every pair indicates a bullied child or one whose shoes were stolen and thrown out of their reach.

Other explanations point to celebrations of job promotions, a sort of “I have money for better shoes now” kind of message. Finally, some believe that it was a way to commemorate the memory of a recently deceased friend or family member, perhaps one whose life was taken by drugs or a drunk driver. 

Shoes may have been tossed over powerlines by people for all of the above reasons and more. But this still leaves a wide scope of possibilities of why these shoes ended up there. But there is certainly no way to be sure about the specifics or be sure of one commonly accepted reason.

Why People Throw Shoes Over Power Lines

The likeliest answer to why shoes are tossed over power lines is strictly out of a kids’ game to see who can toss the tied pair up on powerlines with the fewest possible attempts. It’s also a mild way of misbehaving with mild to no consequences. A benign form of rebellious youthfulness, if you will. 

However, much like another rebellious activity like graffiti, tossing shoes over powerlines has transitioned from naughty behavior to a type of art.

In fact, a pair of Brooklyn artists have hung up to 500 pairs of woodcuts, all emblazoned with different shoe images on power lines around the globe. Many others simply use this as a way to leave a mark on the world, denoting that they were once here.

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