The Evolution of the Sneaker

1. Plimsolls: Kicking it Old School

Plimsolls put the town shoemaker out of business. As the first mass-produced shoes, plimsolls were crafted on an assembly line using canvas and vulcanized rubber. But don't let the "inspected by No. 35" tag fool you. These mid-19th century kicks were so crude that they didn't even differentiate between the right and left foot.

2. Keds: When the Rubber Met the Road

Tires and sneakers are both made of rubber and fabric, so it was only a matter of time before tire companies got into the shoe business. In 1892, Goodyear took on Plimsolls by manufacturing a more sophisticated rubber-and-canvas sneaker. The company decided on the name Peds, but someone else already held the trademark. So, Goodyear went with Keds. The rest of the world, however, started calling them "sneakers," after an ad man remarked the shoes' soles were quiet on most surfaces.

3. Converse All Stars: A Love Affair with Chuck Taylor

(Image credit: Flickr user jekert gwapo)

The original Converse All Star was the first shoe designed for a specific sport-basketball. After pro athlete Chuck Taylor began endorsing the shoe, he became such an effective spokesman that his name was permanently added to the ankle patch in 1923. The classic black-and-white model debuted in 1949, setting the sneaker standard for the next 25 years. In fact, All Stars haven't changed since then, and they remain the best-selling athletic shoes of all time.

4. Adidas and Puma: A True Sibling Rivalry

German brother Adi and Rudolf Dassler founded their shoemaking firm in 1924. Twelve years later, Adi drove cross-country to Berlin, where he convinced Jesse Owens to wear his handmade running shoes in the Olympics. Owens won four gold medals, and the Dasslers' white shoes became coveted by runners everywhere. But in 1948, after many years of feuding, the brothers split. Rudolph opened up a shop across the river and named his new enterprise Puma, while Adi renamed his company Adidas (the first three letters of his first and last names). A natural -and lasting- rivalry was born.

5. Nike: Forged in a Waffle-maker

In 1972, University of Oregon track-and-field coach Bill Bowerman began experimenting with ways to make a better running shoe. One night on a whim, he poured a urethane mixture into his wife's waffle iron. The result was a shoe sole with protruding square segments that offered greater impact absorption. Conveniently, Bowerman's revelation came precisely when one of his former track stars was trying to launch a fledgling shoe company. His name was Phil Knight. With a simple handshake, the two men formed the most successful sneaker company in history.

6. Run-DMC and Adidas: Hip-Hop's Comeback

Although Adidas Superstars were all the rage with NBA players in the 1970s, they were passe by the time Run-DMC hit the scene in the mid-1980s. But the rappers brought them back-big time. They sported them without laces (as the prison population did) and even wrote a hit song about them called "My Adidas". Adidas gave Run-DMC an endorsement contract for $1 million-the first one granted to non-athletes.

7. Reebok Pump: A Slam Dunk

(YouTube link)

Hitting the market in 1989 at $170 a pair, the Pump was the most expensive gym shoe to date. But many consumers were happy to pay the price, finally giving Reebok a foothold in Nike's basketball monopoly. The high point came in 1991 when NBA star Dee Brown won the Slam Dunk Contest. Just before his final attempt, he bent over and dramatically pumped up his shoes. he then slammed home a no-look dunk, forever linking himself with Reebok's hi-tech shoes.

8. You: the Consumer

The watchword in today's sneaker market is individualization. Online, customers can design their own shoes, selecting colors, patterns, and materials. Retro is in. Limited release is in. Affordability is out. If you really want to, you can design a shoe that doesn't differentiate between the right foot and the left. Or, you can just find an old pair of plimsolls on eBay. It's all up to you, the consumer.


The above article by Eric Furman is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the September-October 2008 issue of mental_floss magazine.

Be sure to visit mental_floss' entertaining website and blog for more fun stuff!

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BF Goodrich's Jack Purcell shoes predate the Converse All Star. They were made for specifically for badminton. Converse now owns the Jack Purcell brand.
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