The Technology of Socks in a Time of War

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An army runs, literally, on its feet, and more specifically on its socks. Rachel Maines explored the role of this humble footwear in warfare in her paper "Socks at War: Trenchfoot Casualties in the American Forces in World War II," presented this weekend at the 54th Annual Meeting of the Society for the History of Technology (SHOT) in Cleveland. Maines, a scholar at Cornell and the author of The Technology of Orgasm (on the history of vibrators) and Hedonizing Technologies (on how fiber arts went from industry to hobby), told a lively story of socks and battle.

Trenchfoot, a condition where feet become necrotic due to excess moisture, took many casualties in the First World War as well as in the beginning encounters of World War II. In the Alaskan engagements in the early 1940s, 40% of the casualties were due to trenchfoot. It often caused permanent disability.

The simplest solution to trenchfoot was dry socks that fit well and were changed often. In World War I, the US textile industry, despite having the largest stock of knitting machines in the world, couldn't scale up to the 150 million pairs of socks needed to outfit soldiers. So auxiliary factories were called into production: home knitters. Women, children and elderly people―anyone not on the front―were asked to knit socks, sweaters and hospital textiles. New hand-knitting technologies were deployed, including a pattern for knitting two socks at once. But these socks suffered from quality control problems. Maines quoted a veteran's ditty:

Thank you kind lady,
Your socks are some fit.
I use one for a hammock
and one for a mitt.

By the Second World War, the US had enough industrial capacity to provide all the socks soldiers needed, and home knitters weren't needed for production. But trenchfoot remained a problem.

Combatants developed multiple strategies for fighting trenchfoot. The British military reclassified trenchfoot as a self-inflicted illness, and this psychological appeal to embarrassment was very successful in reducing trenchfoot casualties. German soldiers were instructed to stuff their boots with straw, or to wrap their socks in additional layers of fabric.

Characteristically, Americans finally reduced their trenchfoot casualties by throwing more technology at the problem. The Shoepac system, introduced in 1944, combined a rubber foot and an impermeable outer leather layer with a felt liner to keep feet dry. These boots were also stylish, which increased their use. Still sold by outdoors outfitters, this boot style is a descendant of the fight to stop trenchfoot.

Image: State Library of New South Wales.

A historian traces the history of humble footwear in the trenches

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Suzanne Fischer is a historian of science and technology. She serves as curator of technology at The Henry Ford.

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