A History of Shoe-Tossing: Why Do People Throw Shoes Over Power Lines?

By Karen Harris

Three pairs of shoes hang from power lines near 19th Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. in Long Beach. (Allen J. Schaben/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Mysterious pairs of shoes that have been tied together and hung from power lines can be found all across North America, Europe, Latin America, and Australia. It's not clear when or why this tradition began, but there is no shortage of theories as to why people throw shoes over power lines.

History Of Shoe Tossing

The origins of shoe tossing may be lost to time, as it's something we've done pretty much since we began wearing shoes and specifically over power lines ever since we got those. It may have its origins in an English wedding custom of indeterminate age in which celebrants threw shoes at newly married couples to wish them good fortune and symbolize the transference of authority over the bride from the father to the husband. Yeah, it was pretty weird. Shoes were also sometimes thrown for the same reason as bouquets in modern ceremonies, meaning that whoever caught it was believed to be the next to get married, except it was thrown to both the women and men in attendance. It's also been theorized that the practice stems from the habit of people in the Old West of decorating their homes with cowboy boots hung over fence posts or the military tradition of throwing one's boots over a power line after completing basic training, moving to a new post, or completing some other milestone. There aren't nearly as many wedding venues, soldiers, or cowboys in the world as there are shoes hanging from power lines, however, so why do people do it now?

A pair of shoes hanging from a wire in Thornbury, Melbourne, Australia. (Lachlan Hardy/Wikimedia Commons)

Urban Legends About Shoe Tossing

We may not know why people throw shoes over power lines, but that does mean we probably know why they don't. One of the most prevalent urban legends about shoe tossing is that it marks gang territory or a location where drugs are sold, but despite anecdotal evidence provided by current and former gang members, there's no proof that this has ever been a widespread practice. It would also be an objectively ineffective system. Over the years, explanations for shoes hung from power lines have ranged from memorializing the dead to celebrating a move or job promotion to bullied children whose shoes have been stolen and thrown out of their reach. There's no doubt that someone, somewhere has thrown shoes over power lines for each of these reasons, but with so many different possible interpretations, no one can ever be sure about any of them, and "sure" is what you want to be when you're looking to buy drugs or do some ganging.

Shoes hanging from overhead wires in city Oryol, Russia. (Alexey Vasiliev/Wikimedia Commons)

Why Do People Throw Shoes Over Power Lines?

If we know, largely, why people don't throw shoes over power lines, then why do they? The most likely answer is that it's just a thing kids do. Often, it's just a game to see who can get their shoes up there with the fewest number of attempts or a way to be mildly naughty, like graffiti or littering. As with both of those things, however, it's been elevated to an art form in modern times. A sibling duo of Brooklyn artists have hung 500 pairs of woodcuts emblazoned with images of shoes from power lines all over the world, and many people still use the real thing for decoration or simply to declare to the world that they were here.

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Karen Harris

Writer

Karen left the world of academic, quitting her job as a college professor to write full-time. She spends her days with her firefighter husband and four daughters on a hobby farm with an assortment of animals, including a goat named Atticus, a turkey named Gravy, and a chicken named Chickaletta.