Although I don’t identify as a historian of technology per se, I have presented at the Society for the History of Technology before. And the technologies I deal with in my work are seemingly mundane–clean sheets, showers, fly-proof screens for meat. Not surprisingly then, I tend to believe that smaller day-to-day technologies are more meaningful for understanding the past than the big technological systems historians of the field have traditionally focused on.
Suzanne Fischer covered the recent SHOT meeting in Cleveland and is reporting for the Atlantic on some of the papers she saw there. Among them, Rachel Maines’ paper arguing for the importance of clean socks in fighting trenchfoot during World War II.
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.
Interesting stuff. This also gives me a chance to plug one of my all time favorite history books, Maines’ The Technology of Orgasm, a study of how the vibrator developed in the late 19th century. I once taught this book in a class entitled “Food, Drugs, and Sex: Bodies and Environments in History.” The students loved the book but instead of talking about the Gilded Age, really just wanted to talk about how the story related to their own experiences today. Eventually I gave up moving back to the 19th century because in the end, if a history book touches people in a special way, it’s best to encourage that. No pun intended.