Codes, Inspectors, and Horse Skulls

At risk of stating the obvious, the way we build our homes today has evolved drastically from eons ago when our ancestors erected the first hut. Today’s building methods and materials generally ensure a very sound structure made to last for many, many years to come. Modern building codes guide tradespeople during construction and give them a solid foundation of knowledge to rely upon when erecting new structures. Then as a final measure to ensure the safety of our homes, we send in the building safety inspector to check all the construction work was done correctly.

Of course, this was not always so.

It’s true that we have called upon the skills of trained stonemasons and carpenters for millennia. But not long ago – certainly not as long ago as one may think – it wasn’t building codes or safety inspectors that ensured a safe and prosperous home. It was superstition and magic. Up until the early 20th century, it was common practice to incorporate or “immure” objects imbued with special powers into the very building itself.

The older a home, the more likely it is to have one of these magical devices hidden somewhere. Stories of such amulets being found in older European homes is quite common. However, if your home in the Eastern United States dates back to the 1800’s or earlier, you can almost bet there’s a “concealed object” protecting your home too!

One of the most regularly found items within or under homes are the bones and skulls of animals. Irish builders were known to have the superstition of burying horse skulls underneath the thresholds of dwellings. They were meant to bring good luck and keep out the bad.

Another common find are “witch bottles.” The earliest vessels were made of glazed stoneware, and can date back several centuries. In later years, smaller glass bottles came into use. They were filled with items to trap or scare evil away, and hidden in special places in the home.

However, the most commonly found object embedded within a home are shoes. Yes, shoes. They’re routinely found around windows, doors, rafters, and behind chimneys. To further the mystery, no one seems to know how or when the practice started, or what these shoes were meant to do. The latest concealed shoe was found in a home constructed in 1935! Finding shoes is so common in fact that — wait for it — The Northhampton Museum and Gallery in England (which holds the largest collection of historical footwear in the world) has a Concealed Shoe Index!

If you’re lucky enough to own a historic home and your kitchen renovation will include removing plaster or changing or removing walls, keep your eyes peeled! When you do find a concealed object in your home’s walls, floors, or attic, here’s what you should do:

  • Leave it just where it is! (if it hasn’t fallen out and/or broken)
  • Take several photos from different angles to properly document your find. It will make a great story after the renovation is done. If you get a really good image, a framed print of the object makes a wonderful conversation piece in your newly remodeled space.
  • Call your local historical society. They may have more information on the history of your house and what the object could mean. If it turns out to be especially significant historically, they’ll know what to do and whom to contact.
  • Consider leaving this piece of history right where it is! Respect that this magical charm has been watching over your home for generations, so let it do its job. If you found something while removing a wall, think about other places in your home that it could be moved.

Further Reading