“To meet the needs of the military service,” Edward Munson declared in his book The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe, “a special military shoe is required.”
Thus, the Munson last was born. This anatomical last, with an asymmetrical toe shape that closely follows the natural contours of the human foot, was officially unveiled in 1912 for use in the United States Army. The Munson was utilized for the Army’s footwear up until around the 1960s.
Today, the last is fondly regarded by many shoe geeks as a pre-World War I artifact that is still getting plenty of usage in the bootmaking world. Brands such as Rolling Dub Trio and John Lofgren use Munson lasts that closely resemble the original shape; other makers, such as Nicks Boots, Viberg, and Iron Boots have lasts that draw direct inspiration from that shape.
But who was Edward Munson? How did the Munson last come to be? Why does it have such a distinctive shape? Scant information exists online that would answer all of these questions.
So I did what any reasonable person would do: I read the entirety of The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe. Here is my book report.
A Brief Biography of Edward Munson
Edward Lyman Munson was born in New Haven, Connecticut in 1868. In 1892, he graduated as a doctor of medicine from the Yale School of Medicine, and the following year was commissioned in the United States Army as a lieutenant.
Munson’s career as a medical officer took him abroad to locales such as Cuba, where he was charged with preparing ships to evacuate sick and wounded soldiers during the Spanish-American War; and the Philippines, where Munson served as a health officer for the American colonial government in Manila. Much of Munson’s time in the military was spent observing and treating severe illnesses such as typhoid fever and cholera. Munson himself was stricken by tuberculosis in 1904, which took him almost three years to recover from. He published multiple books on the importance of sanitation and hygiene in promoting soldiers’ health and combating infectious diseases.
Munson rose through the ranks of the Army Medical Corps, eventually earning the rank of Brigadier General in 1918 during the First World War. He was awarded a Distinguished Service Medal for his efforts during the war, which included training and organizing officers and enlisted men of the Army’s medical wing, as well as organizing and administering the Morale Branch of the General Staff. Munson was also honored with the Order of the Bath by the United Kingdom.
Following his retirement from the Army in 1932, Munson taught preventive medicine at the University of California until 1939. He passed away in New Haven, CT in 1947.
The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe
From 1908 through 1913, then-Major Munson was a Professor of Military Hygiene at the Army Service Schools (known today as the US Army Command and General Staff College) in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Around this time, the Army became focused on standardizing the footwear of its soldiers. In 1908, the Surgeon General of the Army commissioned the formation of the Army Shoe Board. Munson, who had taken an interest in orthopedics and ill-fitting footwear, was selected to lead.
For four years, Munson and the Shoe Board set about studying the feet of roughly two thousand Army soldiers and fitting them with thousands of boots. The Shoe Board evaluated how particular kinds of boots and lasts affected the soldiers’ feet and their abilities to do their duties. In addition to inspecting the soldiers’ unshod feet, the Shoe Board also took radiographs of their feet in various boots to gain a better understanding of how different last shapes would accommodate the feet (or, as was often the case, how the feet would be constricted by their ill-fitting footwear).
In 1912, Munson published the findings of the Shoe Board in a book entitled The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe. While the book covers some fairly tedious topics mainly suited for its contemporary military audience—advisories on how many boots of each size to order for a contingent of soldiers, treatments of various foot ailments like blisters and corns in the field—The Soldier’s Foot and the Military Shoe offers many facts and observations about proper fit and foot injury prevention that readers today may still find insightful.
Combat Effectiveness Through Good Footwear
“It will not be disputed that the marching powers of foot troops are a most important factor in the conduction and success of battles and campaigns,” Munson declared in the opening of his book. “And that the army which marches best, other things being equal, is the successful army.”
In the early 20th century, such a statement was quite logical. It wouldn’t be until the First World War a few years later that armies would begin to utilize a motorized infantry. Up to this point, most strategic troop movements were accomplished by soldiers marching across the landscape.
With this in mind, Munson went on to highlight that ill-fitting footwear could cause serious problems for individual soldiers, and by extension, their army as a whole. He posited that foot pain, left unchecked, “soon reduces buoyancy of spirit, causes mental irritability and materially diminishes fighting capacity.”
To illustrate how an army could be debilitated by inadequate footwear—and also show how many soldiers did not really understand the proper fit of a shoe—Munson and the Shoe Board conducted an experiment. A battalion of soldiers was allowed to wear shoes in sizes they had selected themselves, and were then sent on a practice march. They marched eight miles out, camped out overnight, then marched eight miles back. The Shoe Board inspected the feet of each member of the battalion at the end of each day.
“On the first day, 30 percent, and on the last day 38 percent, of the command were found to have severe foot injuries, some requiring hospital treatment,” Munson reported. “The feet of many others were reddened and sore from this short march, and a few more miles of marching would have converted these painful areas into blisters, and small blisters into large ones.”
The Shoe Board conducted another experiment where every soldier was fitted with what was deemed as the most accurate and comfortable size for them, “irrespective of their preferences or desires,” and they were sent on another practice march. In contrast to the first experiment, “not a single man failed to complete each day’s march as a result of foot injury.”
Munson concluded that “since it appears that disability from foot injury can be prevented, it becomes a military duty to apply at all times the measures which it can be demonstrated will accomplish prevention.”
The Army needed a new kind of shoe. One that could not only stand up to the rigors of combat, but was shaped in a way that helped to prevent these kinds of fit-related foot injuries from occurring in the first place, while also allowing for the most accommodating shape for the most soldiers possible.
The Old Way Of Thinking About Footwear and Fit
Munson spent entire chapters in his book explaining the anatomy of the human foot and how soldiers should be properly measured for sizing. It was quite necessary to give these topics an in-depth look for the book’s military audience, as Munson and the Shoe Board had to contend with a significant entrenchment in the Army—a prevailing mindset regarding proper footwear and fit.
The common soldier simply did not understand how to correctly fit his shoes. Most would typically try out one or two pairs of shoes, take a few steps in them, and as long as there was no immediate or sharp discomfort, the shoes were determined to be a good-enough fit. After the Shoe Board took multiple radiographs of soldiers’ feet in their shoes and inspected many of their naked feet, they determined that foot deformities caused by mis-sized shoes were sadly quite common among the enlisted men.
Munson noted that a number of factors may have contributed to this unfortunate occurrence, including the misunderstanding of sizing brought on by the sleek-but-impractical lasts used by many civilian shoemakers, the tendency of officers to rush their troops through the process of acquiring properly-sized footwear, and the fact that the Army had six different types of footwear, each made on a different last, which created confusion about a soldier’s “true” size.
“When the average man is left to his own devices in respect to fitting himself,” Munson observed, “his dominating idea seems to be to crowd his foot into the smallest size shoe which can be put on without too much suffering. It is astonishing to see the very large number of men, who, however careless they may otherwise be in respect to their personal appearance, apparently take pride in making their feet appear as small as possible, and who to secure this result will cheerfully accept pain and discomfort.”
Meanwhile, the officers leading the troops not only didn’t understand fit themselves, but also had a dizzying number of ideas about what kinds of footwear should be worn in the field.
“There would seem to have been almost as many different ideas as to the proper type of footwear for military use as there are officers of the army,” Munson wrote, almost fuming. “The great tendency among all is to generalize for the mass from the individual particular, and without mature reflection upon the very many weighty considerations necessarily involved. A very large number have some particular shoe which, found to be satisfactory for their own purposes as individuals under all or some conditions, they believe to be adapted for habitual use in the army as a whole.”
The New Military Shoe
“In view of the general ignorance and misapprehension respecting the anatomy of the human foot, the mechanics of marching, the results upon the feet of carrying a burden, the proper shape to be possessed by footwear, the requirements necessary to consider in fitting the shoe with suitable footwear, and other matters,” Munson declared, “it seemed desirable to take all these matters, hitherto largely in dispute, definitely and once for all out of the domain of idle speculation and mistaken hypothesis.”
In other words: “Enough of this shit. We’ve done our research and run a bunch of tests, and we know what kind of boots this Army needs!”
Munson’s list of desired attributes for a new kind of military shoe was remarkably comprehensive. Many of the features he prescribed were mainly related to construction: the boots should be comfortable, durable, and as simple in construction as possible; the uppers should be firm, but flexible enough so that they don’t cause foot pain or other ailments; the boots should have only eyelets, no speed hooks, and be easy to take off and put on quickly; and so on.
In addition to detailing the physical characteristics of this new military shoe, Munson was quite explicit in describing how it fit and supported the wearer. Some of the specifications he called for:
- “The heel should be broad, flat, long and solid. When the soldier stands erect, the heel is the chief point of support of the weight of the body and burden, with the bases of the great and little toes forming accessory points of support. The latter check any tendency to rotation of the heel, resulting from shifting of the body weight. A large, broad heel affords a better bearing surface and grip on the ground, and by so much reduces the muscular tension required to maintain equilibrium of the body in standing and walking.”
- “The inside of the shoe over the heel should not be too wide. This is necessary in order that there may not be slippage of the heel of the foot from side to side within the shoe, with resulting heel blisters.”
- “The posterior wall of the shoe should be curved so as to embrace the natural curvature of the heel. This is necessary to hold the rear part of the foot in position and reduce friction on the heel by preventing it from slipping up and down and chafing against the shoe in marching.”
- “The shoe should not support the arch of the foot in the sense of lifting it up or buttressing it from below. […] In the new shoe, the purpose is to have the leather accurately follow the outlines of the average soldier’s foot arch, but without compressing the sole muscles to such an extent that their function will be interfered with and their development and strengthening be impaired.”
- “The sole should be flat across, to furnish a level surface for the foot and a more secure hold upon the ground in steadying the body in standing and marching. It should have a slight upward curve at its forward end to prevent the toe catching in unevenly raised places on the walking surface, and to permit of accomplishing the heel-and-toe-walking of the marching step.”
- “There must be plenty of room across the ball of the foot, so that there shall be no constriction of the weight bearing foot at that point.”
- “The toe cap must be high, so as to avoid any hurtful pressure on the toes below.”
- “The shoe must also have such a shape as to permit of the great toe returning toward its proper alignment to the degree which the average age and ordinary foot deformity of the soldier class would warrant reasonable expectation.”
In order to facilitate these requirements, a new shape—a new last—was needed.
The Realization of the Munson Last
Munson and the Shoe Board decided to design a new last, literally, from the ground up. They were particularly mindful that not only did the last need to fit as many soldiers’ feet as possible, but that many of those soldiers were experiencing foot deformities that needed to be corrected (note the last bullet point above). To that end, they looked at the insole of the US Army’s current marching boot (originally issued in 1905) and made some subtle adjustments.
Munson and the Shoe Board decided to add more space on the medial side of the foot around the big toe area, “beginning at its metatarso-phalangeal joint and gradually increasing to a maximum width of something over a quarter of an inch opposite the nail of the great toe.”
You can see what this shift looked like in Munson’s illustration below. The lines in the middle designate where the longest point of the foot rests on the insole of the old boot and the new one:
“The purpose is to have the foot rest on the shoe sole in its natural position, and there is no pressure on the little toe calculated to turn the fore-foot inward away from its proper alignment,” Munson explained. “And it has been found that the average military foot, placed within the outline tracing of the sole of a new style military shoe which fits it, bears a very close relation in its horizontal plane to such an outline. The sole of the new shoe is thus physiological in shape.”
In designing the rest of the last, the Shoe Board aimed to fulfill Munson’s specifications for the ideal military shoe, including a slightly upturned toe area to reduce pressure on the top of the foot, a more natural arch shape, and a well-curved heel area to snug up against the back of the foot.
“In its outlines, prevailing styles embodying the temporary whims of fashion were not taken into account,” Munson explained. “It is believed, however, that it closely coordinates with the shape, volume and physiological functions of the foot.”
Along with creating this new last—which came to be known as the Munson last—the Shoe Board also made a prototype boot on the last to test out its capabilities. Though Munson did not share any details in his book about what kind of testing was done with this prototype, he claimed it was a great success, describing the boot as “ the best ever developed for military purposes.”
Indeed, it was so well-received that the War Department immediately commissioned the new design into production as the Army’s new standard-issue boot. This boot was known as the 1912 Russet Shoe. While that particular boot would be revised and later set aside for newer iterations, the Munson last would continue to be used in the Army’s footwear for decades to come.