Many years ago I started noticing strange-looking metal objects near certain doors in Lviv. I didn’t give them much thought until I saw one in Przemyśl, Poland, and my friend told me what it was: a boot scraper. Little did I know that this was the start of a new obsession.
Boot scrapers in cities hark back to a time when urban roads were dirt (think of all the mud) and horse-drawn carriages were the main means of transport (think of all the excrement). Consequently, the bottoms of people’s boots became very muddy and filthy. Solution: place iron boot scrapers near front doors of buildings for people to use to clean their boots before entering.
As today city roads are paved, boot scrapers have become obsolete. Yet they still remain scattered across historical districts of cities around the world—though most people no longer notice them, let alone realize what function they once served. (Boot scrapers are also found in the countryside, where they still haven’t become entirely obsolete.)
This unassuming contraption was once an important element of the sanitation infrastructure as well as of a unique piece of craftmanship. Boot scrapers were crafted in all shapes and sizes, with designs ranging from simple to intricate. They were placed in various locations either inside or outside a building’s entrance, and were either free-standing, set in a niche, or incorporated into a railing or fence.
In Lviv most boot scrapers are free-standing and located just to the side of a building’s front door. But I have also come across a few that are inside.
This was the first “strange-looking metal thing” I ever noticed:
Since that first encounter, I’ve found them all over the city:
Sometimes they are located indoors, either in the front entrance hall, in the carriage driveway, or near a building’s main stairwell:
It was quite a challenge trying to snap a picture of the next one. First of all, I needed to figure out the code to the door. And second, I encountered an angry barking dog, who did not want to let me take the picture. The boot scraper is located next to a staircase behind two swing doors at the end of the main hallway, and every time I tried to open the doors and walk inside, the dog would start barking and running down the stairs toward me. (Though I must admit it was a pretty small dog—but it was still scary!) So basically I had to take the picture through the window in the door, specifically through a part were some glass was missing.
Boot scrapers have become one of my favorite elements of architecture. I’m always on the look out for them, and have documented them in many cities, as can be seen via my “boot scrapers” tag.
No longer serving to remove mud and excrement from shoes, today boot scrapers are a key to urban history, a reminder of how different it once used to be to get around a city.