Footwear has existed since the Paleolithic era, approximately 40,000 years ago, and needless to say many advances have been made since then. Today the footwear industry has exploded, with comfort and style as the name of the game, however it has not always been about looking good and being comfortable. Some of the earliest footwear developed was the Sandal, usually just a piece of leather for the sole, loosely strapped to the foot with another strand of leather. Other styles of footwear emerged over the next few centuries, with several minor improvements in craftsmanship and design, such as the clogs, more modern shoes whose leather soles were replaced by wood. Before 1830, almost all shoes were “straight last”, meaning that they were not fitted for the right or the left foot, one could wear them on either side. However, following the invention of the lathe for the manufacturing of gunstocks by Blanchard at the Springfield Armory in Massachusetts, the technology spread to the shoe making industry. Craftsmen realized they could use the same technology to create oppositely shaped soles. By the beginning of the Civil war, the Union army was issuing right/left shoes to its soldiers. However, the construction still remained the same, leather sole, with some sort of fabric covering the foot. The idea for a rubber-soled shoe first developed in England during the early 1800’s. Known as plimsolls, this early footwear was vastly different from the other kinds of footwear floating around England at the time. Traditional shoes were soled with either leather or wood, which was then fastened to either a piece of leather or a canvas. These plimsolls were a bit ahead of their time however, as there was little need for a rubber soled “athletic” shoe at the time in England. This was not the case in America, as the invention of Basketball changed the shoe world forever.
As Basketball gained popularity in the years following its invention in 1893, the need for a new kind of shoe emerged with it. Thanks to a new process for vulcanizing rubber, Rubber companies seized an opportunity to expand their industry. One such company, U.S. Rubber, introduced Keds as the first Sneaker for the game of Basketball in 1916, followed the year after by the famed Converse All-Stars. These Sneakers had rubber soles attached with canvas, creating a snug, comfortable shoe that didn’t make noise when one walked in them, hence the name sneakers. These shoes became favored by athletes around the world, and with the revival of the Olympic Games in 1896, and fitness craze that struck America during the roaring 20’s, the market expanded to general population. It’s hard to tell if the new advances in shoe technology allowed for the explosion of recreational sports in America, or if recreational sports incited the need for a better shoe. Whatever the case may be, the athletic shoe market grew quickly and new players emerged, including Adidas, Puma, and even rubber companies like B.F. Goodrich and Spalding.
Over the course of the 20th century, interest in athletics and recreation soared, and with it came the need for better shoes. Today, almost everyone owns a pair of Sneakers, and industry leaders like Nike, Adidas, and Reebok are multi-billion dollar industries.
Aamidor, Abraham. Chuck Taylor, All Star. The True Story of the Man Behind the Most Famous Athletic Shoe in History. IN: Indiana University Press, 2006.
This book discribes the history of the Chuck Taylors, which, along with Keds, were the first real athletic shoes of the time, invented for the game of Basketball in 1917.
Cawthorn, Nigel, Pattison, Angela. Shoes: A Century of Style. MD: Apple Press, 1998.
This book documents the evolution of shoes since about 1900. It doesn’t focus specifically on sneakers very often, but describes a few of the antecedents and some more modern alternatives to the sneaker.
Gross, Michael. “Soft-Soled Revolution Strides into Fashion.” New York Times, June 25, 1986, p1.
This is an article from the NY times that talks about the explosion of the athletic shoe in American culture. While not the first basketball shoes, this article talks about the Air Jordans, released shortly before this article was published, and their impact on the sporting world.
Gurian, Brian. “The Impact of the Sneaker and Sneaker Industry on Modern Society.” Dissertation Abstracts International, Vol. 63, No. 6, 2002.
This is a dissertation from a PHD candidate at Johns Hopkins that looks at the way the Sneaker industry effected modern culture and the economy. Today, shoes are one of the biggest imported commodity, and this article describes how that came to pass, and how the industry became so large.
McDermott, Charles H. The History of the Shoe and Leather Industries of the United States. MA: John W. Denehy & Company, 1920.
This is an early study of some of the first modern shoe making techniques and examines the closest antecedents to the athletic shoe, which would be the modern left/right shoe.
Peterson, Hal. Chucks, The Phenomenon of Converse Chuck Taylor All Stars. NY: Skyhorse Publishing, 2007.
This book deals mainly with the invention of the Chuck Taylor, and it’s importance in popularizing basketball shoes, as Chuck Taylor was the most famous basketball player of his era.
Pribut, Stephen M, Richie, Douglas H. “2002: A Sneaker Odyssey.” APMA News, 2002.
This is an article from APMA News that discusses some of the older antecedents to sneakers, detailing the Roman and Greek shoe making methods, up through the renaissance and into early Britain, with the development of the pilmsoll.
Wetzel, Dan. Sole Influence: Basketball, Corporate Greed, and the Corruption of America’s Youth. NY: Grand Central Publishing, 2000.
This is a more modern article that talks less about shoes, and more about the influence of the rising shoe and basketball market. It argues that the expanding market is corrupting America’s youth, but I’ll be using it just for some economic statistics.
“The Sneaker War.” Sports Illustrated, Vol. 60, No. 4, p. 56, 1984.
This is an article published shortly after Michael Jordan’s Air Jordan’s came out, and describes the battles between shoe companies to find sponsors, such as Nike and Hakeem Olajuwon, and how powerful the shoe companies had become.