Tennis shoes were lightweight canvas shoes with rubber soles, first introduced during the last half of the nineteenth century. They made their appearance just as many social sports were becoming fashionable and immediately became popular among active young people. Though often called tennis shoes after the sport that was also rising in popularity during the late 1800s, the canvas sports shoes have been given many other names, such as plimsolls, sneakers, trainers, and even felony shoes, because the rubber soles permit a quiet get-away for criminals.
Lightweight leather boots had been used for most sports until a scientific discovery in the mid-1800s paved the way for the introduction of a new kind of sports shoe. Charles Goodyear (1800–1860), an American rubber manufacturer, came up with a process for heating rubber called vulcanization. Vulcanization made rubber more flexible and stronger, and also enabled it to attach permanently to other materials, such as fabric. Once this new rubber was available shoe manufacturers began to use it to create new types of rubber soles. In 1868 a sturdy canvas and rubber shoe was introduced. The makers of the shoe called it a croquet sandal and recommended it for the lawn game croquet, played with balls and mallets, that was popular among fashionable young people of the upper classes.
The croquet sandal sold for six dollars a pair, a price too high for most working people to afford, so the new shoe was mainly worn by the wealthy at first. However, in 1873, the Sears and Roebuck Catalog began to offer a lace-up, rubber-soled canvas sports shoe for only sixty cents a pair, and the tennis shoe was on its way to mass popularity. In 1893, the influential fashion magazine Vogue reported on the popularity of the stylish new canvas sports shoe for ladies.
The late 1800s were marked by a widespread interest in such sports as croquet, tennis, and golf, all of which were played by both men and women. In Britain, women even began to play the national bat and ball game, cricket. The new canvas and rubber shoe, lightweight and sure-footed, was perfect for all of these games. In England the new shoes were called plimsolls, or plimmies, because the lines on the sides of the rubber sole looked like plimsoll lines which were painted on the sides of ships to show how heavy the ship was allowed to be loaded. (Samuel Plimsoll was the government minister who first decided the weight limits of ships.) In the United States, the name varied according to location, with tennis shoes or "tennies" being popular in the southeast, and sneakers in the northeast.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Vanderbilt, Tom. The Sneaker Book: Anatomy of an Industry and an Icon. New York: New Press, 1998.
Young, Robert. Sneakers: The Shoes We Choose! Minneapolis, MN: Dillon Press, 1991.
[See also Volume 5, 1961–79: Tennis Shoes ]
The first tennis shoe, called the plimsoll, was a rubber-soled canvas shoe designed during the nineteenth century for playing croquet or tennis. By 1916 the United States Rubber Company introduced its own brand of rubber-soled canvas shoe called Keds and was followed in 1917 by the Converse Rubber Company with its All-Star shoe. Though other brands of tennis shoes appeared, the essential design did not change much until the 1960s, when a huge variety of tennis shoe designs appeared.
During the late 1960s many shoe designers began to experiment to improve athletic shoes. One of the most influential of these was a University of Oregon track coach named Bill Bowerman (1909–). Bowerman wanted to design a lightweight shoe with a traction sole especially for running. His improvements included providing shoes with a cushioned insole (a soft sole insert), replacing heavy canvas uppers (the portion of the shoe above the sole) with lighter nylon, and introducing the waffle outer sole, which he created by molding latex rubber with a kitchen waffle iron. Bowerman named his shoes and eventually named his company Nike, for the Greek goddess of victory.
Nike and other shoe manufacturers, such as Adidas and Spalding, made further developments to tennis shoes that not only made the shoes specialized for sports but made them more appealing as a fashion item. Thousands of amateur runners bought tennis shoes during the jogging craze of the 1970s but soon began wearing tennis shoes for all occasions. Brightly colored nylon uppers and big, but lightweight, waffle soles became accepted as part of everyday wear. Fashion designers, such as Calvin Klein (1942–), began designing stylish tennis shoes. Soon the flashy tastes of the 1970s could be seen in tennis shoe designs; tennis shoes with sequins and satin uppers with high heels or platform soles were useless for sports but trendy on the disco dance floor.
The tennis shoe has remained an item of high fashion into the twenty-first century and is sold throughout the world. People in many countries across the globe wear tennis shoes for sports, as well as for comfortable everyday shoes. Many Europeans, however, do not wear sneakers as street shoes and consider the practice a vulgar American habit. Prices have risen dramatically since the first Keds tennis shoe was introduced in 1916, and many popular athletic shoes cost well over one hundred dollars. In spite of the high price tag, the shoes remain in high demand. The popularity of high-priced sneakers has even led to crime in rare instances, as some young people have been attacked and had their shoes stolen.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Cheskin, Melvyn P. The Complete Handbook of Athletic Footwear. New York: Fairchild, 1987.
Kiefer, Michael. "Ode to the Sneaker: A Discourse on Laces, Lore and Sole With Soul." Chicago (May 1986): 164–68.
[See also Volume 3, Nineteenth Century: Tennis Shoes ]
The tennis shoe has been called the only new style of shoe to be invented in the past three hundred years. The athletic shoe was first introduced in the 1860s as the plimsoll, a lightweight canvas shoe with a rubber sole for playing lawn croquet. The athletic shoe has since evolved into not only a high-tech piece of sports equipment but also a sign of status and an expression of individual personality. Often called "tennies" or "sneakers," tennis shoes are no longer just for sports. They are a major part of the modern American wardrobe.
In 1916, a shoe company called Keds produced a lightweight canvas and rubber shoe that remained the basic pattern of the tennis shoe for the next fifty years. In the late 1960s, the customized athletic shoe first appeared, when University of Oregon track coach Bill Bowerman (1911–1999) began experimenting with new designs for a lightweight shoe with improved traction. He created a new type of sole by pouring latex rubber into a waffle iron. The odd-looking but efficient shoe he created by attaching his new sole to a nylon upper was dubbed the "moonshoe."
Bowerman became one of the founders of the Nike (see entry under 1960s—Commerce in volume 4) shoe company. Nike, along with athletic equipment company Spalding and German company Adidas, continued to improve the design of the running shoe during the 1970s. The aerobics (see entry under 1970s—Sports and Games in volume 4) craze of the 1970s and 1980s sparked more experimentation in specific shoe design for different sports. In the 1990s, shoes with technical accessories, such as built-in air pumps to customize fit, became popular.
Modern athletic shoes can cost from $25 to $175 a pair. Manufacturing athletic shoes has become a $12 billion-a-year industry. The most popular sports shoes are often endorsed by well-known athletes, who receive millions of dollars for their endorsements. The teenage boys who identify with those athletes are often drawn to the expensive brand-name shoes that their heroes endorse. Poor youth, who often see success in sports as a way out of poverty, want to own the "best" sneakers, even though the price tag may be out of reach. As a result, a new area of crime has arisen, and many young people have been hurt or killed when their new expensive sneakers have been stolen right off their feet.
For More Information
Berendt, John. "The Sneaker." Esquire (Vol. 107, May 1987): pp. 26–28.
Kiefer, Michael. "Ode to the Sneaker: A Discourse on Laces, Lore and Sole with Soul." Chicago (Vol. 35, May 1986): pp. 164–68.
"The Sneaker Story." Co-Ed (Vol. 30, March 1985): pp. 32–37.
Telander, Rick, and Mirko Ilic. "Senseless: In America's Cities, Kids Are Killing Kids over Sneakers and Other Sports Apparel Favored by Drug Dealers; Who's to Blame?" Sports Illustrated (Vol. 72, no. 20, May 14, 1990): pp. 36–43.
Wolkomir, Richard. "The Race to Make a 'Perfect' Shoe Starts in the Laboratory." Smithsonian (Vol. 20, no. 6, September 1989): pp. 94–103.