LIEMPDE, Netherlands — The Dutch wore wooden shoes before they even had roads, let alone windmills or tulips.
But modern times have not been kind to the archetypal Dutch footwear. Wooden shoes never fully recovered from the advent of the rubber boot in the last century, and now are threatened by cheap Asian imitations.
Traditional clogs still have a lot going for them. They are dry, environmentally sound and don't collapse when a cow steps on them.
Unfortunately, they also are loose, drafty and can cause calluses on unaccustomed feet.
"There's nothing as essentially Dutch as a wooden shoe," said Harry van der Vleuten, secretary of the Netherlands Assn. of Wooden Shoe Manufacturers. "But the Chinese and Koreans are dumping them here.
"We're a small industry, and we can't afford to take out advertisements that say cheap foreign clogs warp and splinter."
Van der Vleuten, who has made wooden shoes for half a century, says Asian clogs are produced from inferior wood but are hard to distinguish from the genuine article because they frequently bear "Made in Holland" labels.
"Proper wooden shoes are good for your feet," he said, citing a study by the Orthopedics Department of Muenster University in Germany.
"They encourage blood circulation and let the skin breathe," van der Vleuten said. "Also, they exercise your foot muscles in a healthy way."
Dutch clogs are made of native poplar, about 75 pairs to a tree.
They are carved on specially designed gouging and sanding machines, cost about $17 a pair and last from six months to a year. Asian imports sell for one-third as much.
Nearly 4,000 domestic factories turned out 10 million pairs of clogs a year early in this century, three for every Dutch man, woman and child.
Today, van der Vleuten's family-owned plant is one of only 50 and total production is 4 million pairs a year, half of them for the souvenir market.
Wooden shoes came north from Belgium and France six centuries ago. They soon became the footwear of choice because they were better than medieval leather at protecting against water.
More than 1 million Dutch farmers, factory workers and gardeners still wear them.
With government assistance, the wooden shoe industry runs training courses to attract new people and make sure the old techniques are passed on.
Some of the shoes are exported to Australia, New Zealand and American states such as Michigan, where Dutch immigrant communities settled. "But to be honest, the export market isn't huge," said van der Vleuten's son, Cor.
"You can't expect to sell many wooden shoes in a Detroit shopping mall," he said.