Thousands of tourists stroll down Charleston's streets every day, taking in the historic houses with wrought-iron fencing and decorative additions in the South of Broad area.

But right under foot is a piece of history most probably don't give a second thought.

It's the humble boot scraper. Once quite common, they now serve mainly as adornments for historic homes in Charleston's South of Broad area.

They are not found outside many homes, and some of them could be reproductions. But whether original or not, they once held a very important role in the development of cities and urban life.

86 Church St.

A boot scraper at 86 Church St. Warren L. Wise/Staff

People have probably been scraping mud and animal excrement off their shoes in some form or another for centuries, but boot scrapers took on more prominence in the late 18th century, when Europe's upper crust of society hopped off their carriages and began to promenade on the streets.

"There is some evidence of that in Charleston to keep the sidewalks clear and clean," said Christina Butler, a professor at American College of the Building Arts. 

96 Tradd St. dog

The boot scraper at 96 Tradd St. is shaped like a Dachshund. Warren L. Wise/Staff

Before the fashionable pastime took hold, mainly the poor only walked the streets, according to a 2011 report on the rise and fall of the boot scraper in the British periodical Independent.

As the pastime became more common and regulations changed taking them off the streets for safety reasons, they began to appear in decorative form built into outside walls of homes near doorways in Belgium. They also could be found in many different forms embedded into sidewalks outside of homes as building methods changed.

Many of the early models were imperfectly forged, according to Butler. Later models were precast, more precise and set in stone.

49 South Battery

49 South Battery. Warren L. Wise/Staff

"If it's an early hand-forged piece, there is a little more variation," Butler said. "One side might be bigger than the other. Where there is scroll work, the earlier stuff coils a little more tightly. There are a little more imperfections, and they are a little more visually interesting."

The earliest models had the scroll sidebars and two simple sides and nothing underneath to catch what fell from the sole of the shoe, she said.

"When they began mounting iron to stone, you would see puddled legs where they put molten lead to keep them in place," Butler said.

55 East Bay St.

55 East Bay St. Warren L. Wise/Staff

Some were mortared for sturdiness and later, when fasteners became cheaper, they were bolted in to keep them steady, she said.

"A lot of people have added props," said tour guide Paul Garbarini of Uniquely Charleston Tours. "I don't know if you can determine how old the boot scrapers are."

Pictured here are a few of the boot scrapers found in downtown Charleston. It's not meant to be inclusive of all that are in the area but to reflect some of the many styles for the once ubiquitous shoe-cleaning apparatus.

Some of the more modern versions include bristles to whisk away mud from the bottom and sides of shoes.

61 Meeting St.

A boot scraper in the shape of a dog at 61 Meeting St. Warren L. Wise/Staff

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.