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06/04/2023

KONRAD BIRKENSTOCK: CELEBRATING THE 150TH ANNIVERSARY OF THE BIRTH OF THE INVENTOR OF THE FOOTBED

Konrad Birkenstock in 1924 (picture: BIRKENSTOCK)

Linz am Rhein, June 4, 2023 – Konrad Birkenstock was born 150 years ago today, on June  4, 1873, in
a small village north-east of Frankfurt, Germany. Konrad Birkenstock developed an anatomically shaped, three-dimensional last – the basis of the modern shoe – and invented the BIRKENSTOCK footbed, which remains essentially unchanged to this day, thereby laying the foundations for a global brand. But Konrad was more than merely an inventor – he revolutionized the way in which shoes were manufactured and how we think about shoes and their function to this day. His was a ground breaking invention, which he had already patented as “health footwear” at the beginning of the 20th century. But the inventor was denied business success. Konrad, who was inspired by the ideas of the shoe reformers, was streets ahead of his contemporaries in his thoughts. His idea of “bedding” the foot and thereby respecting the anatomical needs of the human foot is more relevant today than ever before. The life’s work of the inventor, who was treated with hostility by his critics during his lifetime, is therefore now experiencing belated recognition.

Konrad Birkenstock was the youngest child in a dynasty of shoemakers that lived rurally for close to 100 years. Konrad wasn’t merely a shoemaker like his forefathers. He left the village he had grown up in to begin an apprenticeship in Friedberg. Upon finishing his apprenticeship – when his parents had just recently passed – he sold his inheritance and moved to Frankfurt am Main. Back then, Frankfurt was one of Germany’s leading centers of the shoemaking trade. Konrad Birkenstock became a master shoemaker and the company he founded went on to subsequently bear the title "Orthopedic and Fashion Shoemaker’s."
 

The three-dimensional last – the FOUNDATION of the modern shoe


Konrad belonged to a group of young shoemakers who, like the fledgling footwear industry, were inspired by the theory of shoe reform. They introduced science into footwear manufacture and developed a new understanding of shoes in the German Empire. An anatomy professor from Frankfurt am Main, Hermann von Meyer, was the first to go public with such ideas. But they were little more than theories, and they needed a certain young and innovative shoemaker to breathe life into them. So, Konrad developed his three-dimensional last. Until then, the lasts used to make shoes had been symmetrical and, in some cases, even rectangular in shape. They served the purpose of allowing shoes to be made quickly and easily. Nobody was thinking about the con se quen ces these would have for people’s feet. This type of shoe resulted in widespread foot deformities and other painful foot conditions – they were anything but comfortable.

The three-dimensional last followed the anatomy of the foot in terms of its shape and volume, meaning the feet weren’t subject to any health impairments from having worn the shoes. The modern shoe was born. But Konrad Birkenstock believed the sole should be three-dimensional, too, just like the natural foot – something which was difficult for a shoemaker and impossible for the industry to produce. This Konrad Birkenstock innovation was the first in a whole host of uncompromising innovations designed to create the very best conditions for the human foot. But the three-dimensional last, which resulted in comfortable and considerably healthier walking in shoes, could not be sold as an idea to the traditional shoemakers. Not only were they backward-looking, they also shunned the greater workload. Konrad Birkenstock’s ingenuity therefore went unrewarded and commercial success initially failed to materialize.

 

Three-dimensional last according to Konrad Birkenstock (picture: BIRKENSTOCK, 2023)

 

Birkenstock’s footbed – a revolution in shoes

But this setback did not stop Konrad from continuing to work on his vision – and developing shoes that did no harm. And a few years later in 1902, he developed the first flexible (and metal-free) insole. This allowed the foot to roll through better in the shoe from heel to toe. It also better replicated walking on the human foot as intended by nature. Birkenstock’s insole was three-dimensional and elastic, flexible.

Master shoemaker Konrad Birkenstock had the combination of his three-dimensional last and his insole patented as “health footwear” and granted handcrafting manufacture licenses as per the legally protected utility model nos. 266642, 267623, and 273690. The last and the insole described as a “footbed” upon registration were already legally protected from 1909.

Konrad spent more than ten years tinkering with the material mix for the flexible insole. The flexible insoles were initially made from a combination of card and leather, with Konrad then adding cork to the material mix over the years. However, cork could not yet be promoted to the position of primary material as it wasn’t sufficiently pliable without latex, the bonding agent subsequently used. Prior to the First World War, the footbed was made from a blend of cork and rubber. Initially given a coat of white lacquer, the footbed was then covered with canvas in 1911, thereby further enhancing the comfort level.

Through all these years of testing, Konrad Birkenstock neglected to focus on sales, and his striving for perfection exhausted the company’s finances. Konrad Birkenstock had spent years visiting shoemakers and giving presentations at trade fairs, but business success failed to materialize. In 1910, he was forced to sell his flexible insole, which he later trademarked under the entirely new name “footbed,” under license through the company Patent-Zentrale GmbH in Frankfurt am Main. Konrad wasn’t driven by money, he was driven by his idea.

 

Billboard for the BIRKENSTOCK footbed, 1920s (picture: BIRKENSTOCK, 2023)

 

The family’s financial woes forced them to leave Frankfurt am Main in 1915 and move to Friedberg, where Konrad worked with the assistance of his eldest son Carl and his wife Elisabeth. Elisabeth was assigned general commercial power of representation as Konrad Birkenstock worked in the Orthopedics department at Friedrichsheim Hospital in Frankfurt am Main during the First World War, where he was able to intensively study foot defects and how to treat them. And he came to the conclusion that his flexible insole was more suitable for remedying foot ailments than the metal insoles still being used in the medical field at that time.

There was a long tradition of such metal insoles being used as the first remedies made from forged metal were developed according to doctors’ specifications. The field of orthopedics was established in the early 20th century, and the first associations began to merge in the 1920s. Konrad Birkenstock was already calling his business an “Orthopedic and Fashion Shoemaker’s” in the 1910s. The “surgical truss maker” still existed as a profession at this time, and these professionals were responsible for remedying foot ailments and foot deformities.

Konrad Birkenstock presented his observations and findings in the field of healthy walking and footwear to medical and orthopedic experts. But the theoreticians mocked the master shoemaker and empiricist’s many presentations as they did not take Birkenstock seriously with his non-medical background.

 

BIRKENSTOCK’S “blue” footbed, 1930s (picture: BIRKENSTOCK, 2023)

 

Foot health as a family mission

This could almost have been the end of the story as Konrad withdrew, frustrated. But his son Carl, born in 1900, had accompanied his father since the age of 13, had seen his presentations, and was familiar with his ideas, and therefore appreciated the more profound significance of his father’s inventions.

There was a great deal of need among the population. Millions of soldiers were suffering from foot problems as a result of the First World War, and sales of the BIRKENSTOCK footbed increased. They increased so much that Konrad Birkenstock was able to acquire his first own factory in Friedberg in 1925, to produce footbeds in greater quantities.

His son Carl Birkenstock established the Birkenstock System, urged shoemakers to combine three-dimensional lasts and flexible insoles, taught thousands of shoemakers, shoe salespeople, and orthopedists, and wrote works based on his observations concerning what he called “walking as intended by nature.” The Birkenstocks’ method differed in that the insoles were adapted to the foot rather than to the shoe.

Carl was uncompromising like his father Konrad and would only sell the family’s footbed to shoe retailers and shoemakers if they had completed his training course on the correct usage of the footbed, in other words its adaptation to a customer’s feet. He therefore adopted a position which was at odds with that of the doctors and some orthopedists, who continued to use metal insoles to treat unhealthy feet.
 

Logical continuation of Konrad Birkenstock’s ideas – the "Ideal Shoe"

In 1936, he poured all of his expertise into his patented Ideal Shoe, which fixed what was previously a flexible insole that was loose in the shoe into place and which represented a full-fledged shoe in line with the specifications of his ideal. He made several hundred pairs himself by hand, which were a huge success and met with positive feedback from the experts. It took another two decades of his energy and the genius of his son Karl (born in 1936) for a light version of the Ideal Shoe characterized by minimalist design – the original BIRKENSTOCK footbed sandal – to be mass-produced in 1963.

The Ideal Shoe itself never went into production, however. Konrad passed in 1950 and therefore did not witness the birth of the sandal.

While footwear fashion was expressing itself in a variety of styles that continued to more or less disregard foot health even in light of Konrad, Carl, and Karl Birkenstock’s findings, Konrad Birkenstock’s idea was quietly finding its own way. The sandal models conquered the globe on the one hand via professions in which walking is an integral part of daily business and which therefore intuitively appreciate the benefits of “walking as intended by nature” and, on the other, via subcultures.

They quietly and naturally introduced values to the world of shoes that now strike us as common. The first original BIRKENSTOCK footbed sandal was rolled out as a unisex model, for example – a concept which was both disruptive and innovative.

Then there was the surprising design of the first model. Based not on a footwear trend, but on a trend in architecture – the zeitgeist of brutalist architecture – it featured visible materials and clear lines. With this innovative shoe design which aspired to modernity while simultaneously pursuing the family’s ideal, Karl Birkenstock had created an icon. Virtually unchanged to this day, these sandals have altered our understanding of footwear.
 

Ahead of its time

BIRKENSTOCK has never been mainstream. Konrad was well ahead of his time when he developed his innovations, Carl’s Ideal Shoe hasn’t been realized to this day, and Karl’s ideas were so at odds with the shoe retailers’ understanding that the company came close to bankruptcy.

Remembering Konrad Birkenstock’s 150th birthday is fitting in the year preceding the 250th anniversary of BIRKENSTOCK. It was he who shaped the footbed, the centerpiece of every BIRKENSTOCK shoe, and it was he who introduced an idea to the world that gives the company a sense of purpose to this day – making walking as intended by nature possible in our concrete-paved living environment.

 

LOGICAL CONTINUATION OF KONRAD BIRKENSTOCK’S IDEAS – THE “IDEAL SHOE

In 1936, he poured all of his expertise into his patented Ideal Shoe, which fixed what was previously a flexible insole that was loose in the shoe into place and which represented a full-fledged shoe in line with the specifications of his ideal. He made several hundred pairs himself by hand, which were a huge success and met with positive feedback from the experts. It took another two decades of his energy and the genius of his son Karl (born in 1936) for a light version of the Ideal Shoe characterized by minimalist design – the original BIRKENSTOCK footbed sandal – to be mass-produced in 1963.

The Ideal Shoe itself never went into production, however. Konrad passed in 1950 and therefore did not witness the birth of the sandal.

While footwear fashion was expressing itself in a variety of styles that continued to more or less disregard foot health even in light of Konrad, Carl, and Karl Birkenstock’s findings, Konrad Birkenstock’s idea was quietly finding its own way. The sandal models conquered the globe on the one hand via professions in which walking is an integral part of daily business and which therefore intuitively appreciate the benefits of “walking as intended by nature” and, on the other, via subcultures.

They quietly and naturally introduced values to the world of shoes that now strike us as common. The first original BIRKENSTOCK footbed sandal was rolled out as a unisex model, for example – a concept which was both disruptive and innovative.

Then there was the surprising design of the first model. Based not on a footwear trend, but on a trend in architecture – the zeitgeist of brutalist architecture – it featured visible materials and clear lines. With this innovative shoe design which aspired to modernity while simultaneously pursuing the family’s ideal, Karl Birkenstock had created an icon. Virtually unchanged to this day, these sandals have altered our understanding of footwear.
 

AHEAD OF ITS TIME

BIRKENSTOCK has never been mainstream. Konrad was well ahead of his time when he developed his innovations, Carl’s Ideal Shoe hasn’t been realized to this day, and Karl’s ideas were so at odds with the shoe retailers’ understanding that the company came close to bankruptcy.

Remembering Konrad Birkenstock’s 150th birthday is fitting in the year preceding the 250th anniversary of BIRKENSTOCK. It was he who shaped the footbed, the centerpiece of every BIRKENSTOCK shoe, and it was he who introduced an idea to the world that gives the company a sense of purpose to this day – making walking as intended by nature possible in our concrete-paved living environment.

 

Advertisement, 1950s (picture: BIRKENSTOCK, 2023)

Über BIRKENSTOCK

BIRKENSTOCK ist eine globale universale Marke, die sich gleichermaßen an alle Konsumenten unabhängig von Geographie, Geschlecht, Alter und Einkommen wendet und einem klaren Purpose verpflichtet ist – dem Erhalt der Fußgesundheit. Tief verwurzelt in der Erforschung der Biomechanik des menschlichen Fußes und getragen von einer Familientradition in der Schuhmacherei, die sich bis ins Jahr 1774 zurückverfolgen lässt, ist BIRKENSTOCK eine zeitlose „Super Brand“ mit einer Kategorie übergreifenden Produkt- und Markenwelt, die von Einstiegs- bis Luxuspreislagen reicht und dem wachsenden Bedürfnis nach einer bewussten und aktiven Lebensgestaltung Rechnung trägt. Funktion, Qualität und Tradition sind die Kernwerte der Lifestyle-Marke, die Produkte in den Bereichen Schuhe, Schlafsysteme und Naturkosmetik umfasst. BIRKENSTOCK ist der Erfinder des Fußbetts und hat das Prinzip des naturgewollten Gehens geprägt.

Mit weltweit rund 6.200 Mitarbeitern glauben wir, dass die Art und Weise, wie Dinge hergestellt werden, genauso wichtig ist wie das Produkt selbst. Um diese Qualitätsstandards zu gewährleisten, betreiben wir eine vertikal integrierte Fertigung und produzieren alle unsere Fußbetten in Deutschland. Darüber hinaus montieren wir über 95 % unserer Produkte in Deutschland und beziehen über 90 % unserer Materialien und Komponenten aus Europa. Wir verarbeiten unsere Rohstoffe nach den höchsten Umwelt- und Sozialstandards der Branche und verfügen über hochmoderne wissenschaftliche Labore zur Materialprüfung.

BIRKENSTOCK ist in Deutschland mit operativen Standorten in Nordrhein-Westfalen, Rheinland-Pfalz, Hessen, Bayern, Sachsen und Mecklenburg-Vorpommern vertreten. Mit Hauptsitz in Linz am Rhein, betreibt die BIRKENSTOCK Group Vertriebsniederlassungen in den Vereinigten Staaten und Kanada sowie in Brasilien, Japan, Dänemark, Polen, Schweiz, Schweden, Spanien, Großbritannien, Frankreich, Norwegen, den Niederlanden, Dubai, Singapur und Indien.

Birkenstock Group B.V. & Co. KG
Burg Ockenfels, Linz am Rhein, Deutschland

Unseren Onlineshop finden Sie unter www.birkenstock.com

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