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Look to The Past to Find The Future

Published: 11th Oct 2013

Industrial footwear has always been in the shadows of hunting and military footwear – both in style and function. From hunting footwear, farming footwear evolved, which is a key category of the industrial market. Phillip Nutt charts its historical development.

From early hunters and soldiers

Since the times of prehistoric cavemen searching for food, the skins of animals have been tanned in some crude form and used as a foot covering, be it for hot ground – the sandal – or for cold climates – the moccasin.

From the Mongols to the Chinese, since a millennium before Christ, we know that well trained warriors were always issued with some form of foot protection to suit the climatic conditions they were fighting in.

The Romans, for their foreign campaigns, marched with their own shoemakers in tow.

From the Romans come many of the names we associate with today’s footgear, the ‘sandalia’ being the most popular form of footwear and obviously where the word sandal came from.

For the military, it has been the same story for centuries. The officers who rode on horses had something resembling a boot called the ‘cothurus’, while the regular foot soldier got his standard issue calceus sandal bootie for cold weather and the caligula, which was a strappy type sandal that laced up and over the ankle, for normal campaign wear.

Even in the middle ages, peasants who had to turn out for their masters’ armies most probably for day to day activities of a non military type went barefoot, or wore some form of crude clog or patten made from whatever local material was available.

As an example, the very term ‘sabotage’ comes from the wooden clog, or ‘sabot’, that disgruntled peasants used to trample the wheat fields of their miserly owners.

For military campaigns it was essential that some form of ‘army issue’ foot coverings of a simple construction and that would invariably involve a simple turnshoe construction were offered.

An ethos of repair

As a side note, I can relate my experience as student at Northampton College of Technology in the early Sixties, when we were asked to be part of an excavation team for what were said to be old bike saddles found just outside the walls of the Tower of London.

Those bike saddles turned out to be Tudor broad shoe parts. There were hundreds of them, and always one foot with a damage to the part, be it an upper or a sole. Our leader John Thornton, one of the great shoe historians of all time, was able to trace and deduce that this area where the pieces were found was an old moat that had filled up with silt. Above the site was a window, or hole, in the walls of the castle where the military shoemakers and cobblers worked.

Our findings of single pieces – always with a damage – was proven to show that only the bad part of a shoe was thrown away, and that only small elements simply went out the window into the moat. It was clear from the evidence that a soldier would only get a new piece sewn in, never a new pair of shoes.

This repair situation was never considered from a humanitarian standpoint, but more one of realising that a crack long bow archer or later a musket firing infantryman wasn’t much use if they were incapable of marching.

Under constant review and development

In this regard, this premise has not changed much. I have observed myself that footgear for special forces and highly trained pilots, for example, is always under development for newer and better features.

In fact, as an example I submit that the five finger, neoprene bootie of today’s generation really took off when the United States’ Navy Seals adopted the shoe for their amphibious activities.

When it comes to the traditional officer ranks, the shoes or boots have always been of a more customised nature, even though they were laboriously hand made, crafted products.

It is to the officers of the military world that we owe not only the creation of specific patterns, but also their generic footwear names.

Specific examples

From the heroes of the Battle of Waterloo came the ‘Wellington’, a pull on boot, and the Blucher, a central lace up boot.

It is interesting in this regard that you never hear of a ‘Napoleon’ boot, yet without a doubt the Napoleonic regiments were some of the very best uniforms and foot coverings worn by any army, ever. Obviously the message is simple: ‘To the winner go the spoils’.

The Wellington and the Blucher boots were quickly adopted in Europe as a fashion, but also in the United States. This was partly due to the Hessian German regiments who fought with the British emigrating to these Western shores either as mercenary soldiers, or to become either farmers or itinerant shoemakers to those farmers.

The industry grows with technology

The United States received shoemakers aboard British ships as early as 1610, and the local governments of the time put great stress on the need for developing both healthy tanning and shoemaking industries.

It was common for a shoemaker to be somewhat of an itinerant individual, moving from one farm to another with a pretty limited assortment of sewn uppers to custom make shoes for the farm owners.

In these days there was no such thing as a pair of lasts and so one ‘uni-last’ was used for both feet – not exactly the most comfortable shoe imaginable, and probably explains why many settlers adopted the softer, first nation’s Indian moccasin, from which later very original hybrids evolved that comprised European upper patterns with moccasin bases.

The US Civil War was the time when the United States truly evolved as a major shoe making nation of its time. Shoes were always in short supply as trading with the British and the French had become difficult. The Battle of Gettysberg has a story that some experts claim to be a myth, while some would argue that this battle was fought over a rush to capture a supply of freshly made footwear that was in the area.

Regardless of whether this is true or false, it does, as you will see later in this article, confirm that footgear is an important element to military planners, and yet even today there are examples of what shortages can do to create havoc in plans for war.

America as a nation was defined by its industrialisation during this Civil War period. Incredible ingenuity by ‘tinkerers’ rather than highly educated men led to the birth of the sewing machine, the Blake/McKay sole sewing machine, and the most famous of all, the Charles Goodyear Jnr Goodyear Welt Sewing machine, which was patented in 1871 as a machinery adaptation to improve the accuracy of the feeding in of a leather welted strip, the tension and the width of stitch.

From this incredible invention, a whole industry of New England mass footwear manufacturing evolved, with many names of shoe companies and brands that are still in existence today, albeit they have gone through many levels of ownership since their inception.

The legacy of war

From the dark hell of the US Civil War came new forms of Wellington boots that achieved their own design terminology.

This was a time of Western expansion. It was the time of the opening of the railroads to new places, of stage coaches and Indian wars.

Again, the military footgear of the Civil War begat what was to become the classic American work boot story.

Here are some examples that are now iconic designs:

• The Frye boot, or harness boot, so called because it resembled or was inspired by a horse’s bridle harness

• The cowboy boot, which evolved from the Prussian cavalry boot worn by mercenaries fighting on both sides during the Civil War

• The bean boot, which was a vulcanised rubber base with a leather top, and was ideal for farm work, particularly mucking out

• The logging boot, which evolved from the Blucher and along with the heavy duty Blake sewing machine, afforded the possibilities of heavy duty leather patches being overlayed and affixed to the uppers, particularly the medial instep and ankle area

• The engineer boot was a popular style of the military land surveyors, who opened up the US West. It was a totally functional riding boot that could also accommodate the rough, rocky terrain of the midwest and the abundance of snakes and other creepy crawlies that infested the various types of vegetation present

In Europe, World War One saw the introduction of overlayed toe caps, external heel counters and pull on back tabs for fast foot entry. Sole constructions like wooden pegging were devised to avoid sparks setting off ammunitions accidentally, an idea that shortly after would be a great boon in preventing serious mine accidents.

After World War One, the phenomenal growth of industrialisation, and heavy industry in particular, led to the invention of the protective steel toe for dangerous work.

Along with this steel toe came other armadillo like inserts – first in rubber vulcanised wear and then as inner inlayed metal plates for anti spike protection, ideal for job fitted occupations such as carpentry and building site employment.

The period between the two great wars saw huge strides in rubber and plastics technologies that would have an impact on Industrial footwear.

World War Two necessitated a great deal of attention being given to survival footwear. Aviation, extreme cold weather footwear and jungle survival needs begat the beginnings of consideration for special soles for special surface conditions.

Linings were being developed with sheepskin being extremely popular as a thermal lining. Special resistant leathers were tanned, eyelet treatments became double clenched and easier to thread.

The developments that came out of World War Two were the basis of what was to become a very healthy civilian industrial and safety footwear industry.

The Korean War became probably the last of the old style campaigns, and footgear for the privates where one style fits all.

The Vietnam War probably saw the greatest military/industrial collaboration as old fashioned great war approaches to military product design were a disaster in the rice paddies and jungles of Asia.

Advances came in new upper and soling materials other than leather. The monsoons of Asia necessitated the invention of drip dry textiles, breathable yet ballistic proof nylon side boot panels. Fast release zippers were added to lacing systems, as were quick release toggles. Special one way ventilation air and water release mesh inlets were built in to the sides of boots. New non slip, quick release tread patterns were created by the ‘boffins in the back rooms’ of the military establishments, working with their key military equipment suppliers.

The Penn State Biomechanics Labs became known for their studies of the human gait, weight bearing optimums and soling features.

Much of what was invented for the Vietnam War made its way in to functional applications for the industrial footwear market and even more so the then infant high performance sports shoe market.

I will leave the subject matter as to why the industrial footwear industry failed to benefit commercially from war as much as the sporting goods industry did to a later article.

It seems that war, in some form, is a never ending, ongoing activity in some part of the world. Now the wars are more regional than they were before.

What these other wars did not have was the impact that globalisation has made on our national footwear resources.

Globalisation influence

The rise of globalisation after the Vietnam War and the offshore sourcing of craft industries that quickly followed its cessation, quickly exposed the weaknesses of such policies with the advent of the two Gulf wars.

The product needs of the rice paddies of Asia were the opposite of what was wanted in the hot deserts of Arabia.

The shortage of suitable ‘feet on the ground’ products was a serious issue for these conditions. Remaining resources were stretched to the limit to refit for a new war needing new products that included such basic elements as replacing metal shanks with less heat inducting, man made materials.

So far we have not seen the same huge benefit that other wars have produced in the way of new technology for domestic applications.

Developments in non metallic, ceramic toes have certainly been necessitated by the rise in terrorist activities. Carbon fibre, lighter and stronger components are happening.

A glimpse towards the future

Fast wicking lining materials are probably more popular in athletic shoes than work wear but they will come – most of the new industrial footwear applications seem to be coming from the ever growing performance athletic market, and not vice versa.

What I do find interesting is that given how the global media is so instant today, gory pictures of dying soldiers don’t go down well with the average war weary member of the public. Now we are seeing robotic applications taking over, be they drones or some form of automaton soldier, guided from a safe venue.

Perhaps in decades to come, the footwear of our military will take on even more of an athletic influence than what is happening now? Given the historical connection, that would certainly bode for interesting developments in industrial footwear design.

Published: 11th Oct 2013 in Health and Safety Middle East

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Phillip Nutt’s family background in work boots, along with Northampton’s reputation for Goodyear Welts and Doc Martens, exposed him to many of the in depth basics of industrial footwear.