The History of Tennis Shoes–from “sand shoes” to “plimsolls” to Nike “Air Jordans”

Tennis Shoes

To see 21st-century tennis shoes (also called “athletic shoes,” “sneakers,” and “rubbers”)—with their air pumps, spring-soles, motion-activated lights, design-it-yourself options, and silicone  implants—is to see state-of-the-art, cutting-edge footwear design at its best, merging form, function, and fashion. Since the 1970s, with the rise of sports medicine, the podiatric elements of sporting shoes have risen to new heights. But just the same, top fashion houses, drawing upon the general popularity of sneakers, have helped to bring the sporting shoe into mainstream fashion with little or no concern for sportsworthiness.

The origins of sneakers are humble ones.  The concept of the rubber-soled shoe is not a new one; it emerged almost 200 years ago as the result of the convergence of the Industrial Revolution, with its ideas of mass production; the invention of vulcanized rubber; and the use of canvas in shoe construction. By the 1830s, the Liverpool Rubber Company was manufacturing beach shoes, called “sand shoes,” with rubber soles and canvas uppers.  By the 1870s, the shoes were being called “plimsolls” (or “plimsoles”). They were relatively crude and had no left-foot, right-foot distinction.  And by the end of the 1800s, various rubber companies were producing sneakers, so called because a person wearing the comfortable shoes could go about unheard.  In 1908 Converse was established to manufacture rubber-soled shoes for men, women, and children.  Then, in 1915, the company started making shoes specifically for the sport of tennis. It was sometime thereafter that the generic term “tennis shoes” emerged. Twenty years later, in 1935, champion badminton player John Edward “Jack” Purcell designed for the B.F. Goodrich company special badminton shoes that provided protection and support on the court, thereby beginning the long tradition of athlete-endorsed sporting apparel and equipment). In 1916, Keds was established and became the first manufacturer of mass-produced, affordable sneakers. In 1920 German shoemaker Adi Dassler began making athletic shoes from his home. He would go on to establish Adidas eleven years later, and the rest is history…. It is said that Olympic star Jesse Owens wore Adidas shoes when he won his four gold medals in the 1936 Olympics.  Dassler’s brother Rudi would go on to found Puma, another major sporting-shoe company.

By the 1950s, led by film and style icons such as James Dean, sneakers had become mainstream for American teenagers, who viewed the shoe as a counter-culture expression. Dean donned sneakers, and teenagers followed in lockstep.

The 1970s saw sports-shoe specialization, with jogging, tennis, basketball, soccer, for example, each having sneakers specifically designed for the needs of the sport. Today, even sports such as skateboarding have their own sneakers.

Perhaps the defining moment in the history of athletic shoes occurred in 1985 when Michael Jordan’s  Nike “Air Jordans” became available to the public. The shoes would go on to become one of the most popular athletic shoes of all time. All the big companies, including Reebok, followed suit, offering lucrative endorsement contracts to well-known athletes of various sporting disciplines.

Today, 200 years after the modest beginnings of rubber-soled shoes, no gentleman’s wardrobe is complete without a pair of tennis shoes, whether designed and constructed for fashion, actual athletic use, or as a casual, comfortable, walking-shoe.

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