Converse paved the way for the athletic shoe explosion of the late twentieth century with its introduction of the canvas and rubber All-Star in 1917. It also created an enduring American footwear icon that still claims the allegiance of millions of wearers worldwide.
Marquis M. Converse founded the rubber footwear company that bears his name in 1908. The Converse brand grew briskly in the decade leading up to World War I (1914–18). But it achieved its greatest success following the introduction of the world's first basketball shoe in 1917. Dubbed the All-Star, the high top, black-and-white sneaker was distinguished by eight aluminum porthole eyelets running up each side and a bulbous toe made out of vulcanized rubber. The lightweight shoe provided excellent traction on the gymnasium floor for those playing the increasingly popular sport of basketball, invented by James Naismith (1861–1939) in 1891.
Helping to spur sales of the Converse All-Star was basketball player Charles H. "Chuck" Taylor (1901–1969), a sports legend from Indiana who joined the company's sales force in 1921. Taylor suggested a number of improvements for the shoe, including better ankle support and a sturdier sole. He also became one of the first well-known athletes to endorse a product. Taylor's input proved so effective that his signature was added to the sneaker's ankle patch in 1923. The shoes became informally known as "Chuck Taylors" or simply "Chucks" in his honor.
For many years Taylor worked tirelessly to promote the brand that bore his name. He drove around the United States with a trunk-load of the canvas shoes, selling them to coaches and athletes at high schools and colleges. His work paid off. By the 1960s Converse dominated the basketball shoe market in the United States. Taylor himself was inducted into the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame on the basis of his work on behalf of basketball footwear. Beginning in the late 1970s, however, Converse All-Stars fell out of fashion. First Adidas and Puma, then Nike and Reebok, began to attract young urban customers with new athletic shoe designs. In many instances these new brands successfully copied Converse's strategy by securing celebrity athlete endorsements for their products. Nike scored huge sales with its "Air Jordan," endorsed by basketball star Michael Jordan, for example.
In the late twentieth century the All-Star enjoyed a resurgence in popularity, thanks to its adoption by some rock stars and actors. Kurt Cobain (1967–1994) of the rock group Nirvana, for example, helped make Chuck Taylors an essential part of grunge fashion in the 1990s. The last Converse All-Star rolled off a U.S. assembly line on March 31, 2001, and the company was purchased by Nike in 2003.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Jorgenson, Janice, ed. Encyclopedia of Consumer Brands. Detroit, MI: Gale, 1994.
Leibowitz, Ed. "Old Sneakers Never Die." Smithsonian Magazine (November 2001). This article can be found at http://www.smithsonianmag.si.edu/smithsonian/issues01/nov01/object.html (accessed on August 18, 2003).