Gearhart Knitting Machine

 Gearhart Knitting Machine
Gearhart Knitting Machine RL 82.024

This 1914 Gearhart Knitting Machine was used during World War I in the offices of the American Red Cross Galveston Chapter, which was established in February 1916 as a result of efforts made by Dr. Henry Cohen. These offices were located on the first floor of the old City Hall building on 25th Street. The knitting machine was used to produce socks for service men. It is made of cast iron with metal needles on a rotating wheel. By turning the crank, people could produce socks faster than knitting by hand. A pair of socks knitted by hand could take about a week, but with the knitting machine it only took about an hour! This was important because the American military was in need of socks – a lot of socks. Why did they need so many socks?

 Gearhart Knitting Machine
Gearhart Knitting Machine (close up) RL 85.024

During World War I, soldiers spent long periods of time in cold, wet conditions like trenches. These conditions could lead to a condition known as trench foot. Soldiers suffering from trench foot often had to leave their unit for medical care, which was not ideal in combat zones because it weakened the unit and the position they were defending.

Trench foot was caused by prolonged exposure to damp, cold, and unsanitary conditions. Initially, a soldier with trench foot may feel tingling or numbness in his foot. As the condition progresses, the foot may change colors, swell, and even smell due to damage in the skin, blood vessels, and nerves of the feet. If left untreated, soldiers could develop gangrene and need amputation. If infection spread throughout the body or the amputation failed, it could even lead to death.

In order to combat trench foot, soldiers were encouraged to keep their feet dry and clean. To do so, they were given multiple pairs of socks and boots as often as possible. This meant the military needed many pairs of socks. As such, the government asked people to knit socks for the soldiers. Those helping to knit socks were often referred to as “civilian knitters.”

 Gearhart Knitting Machine
John Ballinger knitting for the Red Cross war relief while at Sealy Hospital, 1918 Rosenberg Library Archives G_6859_FF1_6

Under the auspices of the International Red Cross, the United States, Canada, France, and other countries began to make socks for their soldiers. The Red Cross purchased and distributed wool and patterns to civilian knitters. They also gave away knitting machines, like the one on display, to homes that would commit to producing a minimum of 30 pairs of socks for the war effort. The families were allowed to keep the knitting machine afterward, and use it to make extra money.

The American Red Cross took charge of the mission to produce socks in the United States. They had seven divisions which were expected to provide 55,000 pairs of socks within three months. Each division had several chapters, including a chapter in Galveston. They also helped produce other knitted clothing such as mufflers, vests, gloves, and hats. American men, women, and children all helped to produce these items.

By keeping their feet warm and dry, soldiers were better equipped to stay on the front lines. Some say the community effort to produce socks helped the Allies win World War I.

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