Once Saturday was established as a work free day, working class families were keen to enjoy the new train systems and took every opportunity to leave the city and visit the seaside, particularly in the summertime. Working boots were discarded as day trippers wanted shoes for walking through sand and paddling in the sea. At first, cheap cotton canvas topped shoes had a sole made from leather, jute or rope but these were flimsy and wore out quickly, usually within a day. After the discovery of rubber vulcanisation (the addition of sulphur and heat makes a more durable and non-sticky rubber compound), which was attributed to Howard and Goodyear in the mid-19th century, but had similarly been discovered in the UK by Thomas Handcock. A major court case ensued and Goodyear was granted the patent in the US; and Hancock became the patent holder in the UK. Henceforth there was fierce rivalry between the two countries to produce rubber based products.
The New Liverpool Rubber Company (UK) developed a lightweight shoe which combined a cotton canvas top with a rubber sole. These were still insubstantial and better off people wore white croquet shoes made from kangaroo skin, and too expensive for the working class. By 1876, seaside promenaders sported the latest canvas topped rubber soled shoes called plimsolls (1876). A rubber band was wrapped around the seam joining the upper to the sole making the new shoes more robust. The similarity to the new load lines painted on boats meant the shoes were called plimsolls. White plimsolls wore well, kept the feet cool in the summer and dried quickly after a paddle in the sea. The canvas could be painted with chalk white which give the outward impression from a distance these were expensive white croquet shoes and really gained popularity during the Gilded Age. Examples can be found in many museums across the world but rarely do these attract the interest private collectors and therefore difficult to value.
The simple plimsoll was quickly adapted to popular sports another working class pastime encouraged by the ruling class at this time. Keeping workers and their families amused in their leisure time was important especially at a politically volatile time in history. In the UK, Lawn Tennis players (circa 1860) wore low cut plimsolls with patented sole patterns to improve grip and prevent destroying the lawns. In the US, sneakers or high-top canvas plimsolls (used to protect the ankles), were introduced to the new team games of baseball (1846) and basketball (1891). When it was realised ‘tennis shoes’ shoes softened the landing of a long jumper they became ingratiated into athletics, and when it was discovered the treads prevented slipping on wet surfaces they were modified for yachting. As each recreational sport adopted the plimsoll (now generally regarded as the tennis shoe) it was adapted to the specific needs of the game. The addition of a simple rubber strip at the end of the shoe stopped the big toe nail appearing through the canvas. Gradually the anatomy of the modern sport shoe (or trainer) began to emerge. Even the British Army, issued plimsolls to their serving men and a pair of gym shoes were found in the kit of Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated Antarctic Expedition of 1911.
The rubber industry boomed and was very competitive. The popularity of cycling meant many companies started producing bicycle tyres and by the time it waned, development of the car industry brought with it a need for car tyres made from rubber. The United States Rubber Company bought out their smaller rivals, many of which were already exporting sport shoes globally. By the beginning of the 1890s there were two types of canvas topped rubber soled sport shoes, those which sat below the ankle were called ‘tennis shoes’; and hi-top sneakers, designed for basketball were called sneakers. Irving Watkinson is credited with designing the first pair basketball sneakers for Dr. James Naismith who invented the game. An iconic feature of the first hi top sneakers was the addition of a rubber ball logo at the lateral ankle of the shoe and the Colchester Company were so proud of them they had them on display at the 1892 Chicago World’s Fair. In the same year, the company was bought over by the United States Rubber Co., and it took almost 20 years before Spalding introduced their basketball shoes in 1907, others followed. However, it was the Converse Rubber Corporation’s version called The All-Star shoe (1917) which would become the evergreen iconic basketball shoe, we all recognise today. In reality these were a reinvention of the original Colchester sneaker which you can still buy replicas for $85 (US). A pair of the originals would be of course, be worth considerably more to a collector. In 1916 the United States Rubber Co., introduced their own tennis shoes called Keds.
After the Great War, the market for sneakers grew exponentially it was realised the fitness levels of the working class was low. Sports and athletics increasingly became a way to demonstrate Christian Muscularity or moral fibre and patriotism in the new movement of Physical Culture which swept the West. Athletic shoes increasingly were used for leisure and outdoor activities and when physical education lessons were made compulsory in schools, children had to wear plimsolls. I well remember at school the class was divided between those families who could afford tennis shoes from those with gym shoes (sand shoes). Going barefoot was not an option.
Between the wars, the new Olympic Competition was a fashion catwalk, and covered relentlessly in the media as a focal point for international trade. Shoe manufactures quickly modified their footwear to the specific needs of popular sports. After his return from World War I, Adolf "Adi" Dassler started making sports shoes in his mother’s kitchen, he and his brother then went on to establish Adidas. In America, the market for sneakers grew steadily as young boys lined up to buy white hi top sneakers endorsed by sporting heroes like Chuck Taylor for $1.00 (or $20 today). The famous basketball player wore Converse All-Stars and they became so popular they were called, Chuck Taylor All-Stars, or ‘Chucks.’ Chuck Taylor's name was added to the signature circle patch and ventilation eyelets were added in 1932. The classic black All-Star retailed until the 40s. By WWII, Chuck Taylor sneakers were the "official" sneaker of the U.S. armed forces.
International tennis and badminton had become major draw cards and customised tennis shoes began to appear circa 1936. A French brand, Spring Court, marketed the first canvas tennis shoe featuring signature eight ventilation channels on a vulcanised natural rubber sole. Jack Purcell (Canadian badminton champion) adapted tennis shoes to his sport which was played on hard wooden floors. At the same time, Australia starts to have a major influence when one of its famous son’s and international double tennis champion, Adrian Quist, convinced Dunlop Australia in 1939 to make a plain white tennis shoe with patterned herringbone sole. The added grip on the lawn surface made the Volley OC (Orthopaedically Correct) an instant success. Production continued until the 1970s with almost no change except the addition of the iconic green and gold stripe to the heel in the 1970s. Dunlop Volleys were standard issue by the Australian Army and Royal Australian Air Force. Through the ensuing years other brands of tennis shoes appeared, but the essential design remained unchanged until the late 1960s, when a huge variety of tennis shoe designs emerged. To that effect, Adrian Quist is the godfather of the modern low-cut trainer and I have always advocated we should celebrate this with a Dunlop Volley Day (DVD).
By the 50s man-made fibres became incorporated and sneakers merged into trainers. Now more durable, flexible and hard wearing, cellular foams were added to increased fit and comfort. When designers began incorporating a two-colour finish (colourways), signature sole patterns and brand decals and dashes a completely new fashion was created. These were first seen at the Melbourne Olympics worn by the athletes from behind the Iron Curtain. Competitors were often filmed ambling about minutes before competition wearing their trainers then later as if by magic, won medals in their heats. Contrasting colours were used to highlight reinforced areas on the shoe which gave them distinctive characteristic and coincidentally head turning appeal. Trainers were now fashionable shoes in their own right, with Ath-Leisure footwear equally at home on the track as they were trucking asphalt. Film and television coverage of sporting events was a marketing bonanza for sport shoe manufacturers, who recognised the need to have their product instantly recognised. Adidas three stripes trademark back in 1949 set the bar for branding thereafter. Collectors pay big bucks for these original pathfinders.
Two other things ensured the allure of sport shoes would last for ever. The first was celebrity endorsements and sneakers sponsorships into college and professional sports; the other came as an aftermath of the Space Race. In the beginning those sneaker designs affiliated to particular sporting celebrities ended with their retiral from sport. The same model was then passed onto a new endorser rather than be discontinued, or a new one created. This created collector interests. Once we had walked on the moon and with a surplus of new synthetic polymers, what better use to make of them than to incorporate the out of this world material into sport shoes. It was during this time in the early 80s, sport shoes become blue chip investments with a constant barrage of designer styles and signature shoes. While previous generations of males might collect cars from their youth, Generation X preferred shoes. This is not entirely male centric and females too, collect sneakers. The ultimate in secular consumerism maybe driven in part by the overall desire to acquire modern objet d’art at affordable prices. Collectors appreciate one-off's, limited editions and exclusives.
The shelf life of a trendy trainer is short (3 months) and companies like Nike and adidas are forever introducing new lines. To add incentive, companies offer "quick hit" or hype shoes which is a clever marketing ploy involving the sale of a small number of limited edition shoes as a special offer in selected outlets for a limited period of time only. With minimum advertising these events are hurriedly communicated through networks, websites and SMSs. Sneakerheads range from casual fans of sneaker fashion to those who buy and sell shoes like blue chip investments. Fanatics endure the elements and camp overnight for their next purchase of limited edition. The shoes can cost hundreds and even thousands of dollars depending on their cachet. Some wear them, and have multiple pairs (in case one gets scuffed); whereas others keep them ‘fresh’ in their boxes, or ‘deadstock’ them in a bank vault, or on display and always unworn. Shoe collectors often determine what will sell and companies are obliged to follow. Collectors have enormous closets full of trainers designed by sneakerhead artists who, themselves become celebrities. Experts believe the drive for the sneaker phenomena relates to a mix of popular culture, nostalgia, technology and investment. Sneaker Freakers have many dedicated web sites, movies, books, songs and even radio shows dedicated to sneaker culture. Experts believe the drive for the sneaker phenomena relates to a mix of popular culture, nostalgia, technology and investment.
Currently the American market for deadstock sneakers is estimated at $1 billion, with the thriving resell community net millions of dollars a year by selling rare kicks for profit. By far Michael Jordan shoes (Js) are considered to be the most expensive at auction. Recently a pair of his shoes was sold for $190,373. The previous record for a pair of game-used sneakers was again, Jordan’s worn during the "Flu Game," and sold for $104,765 in 2013.
Recently, in Perth WA, The Art Gallery of Western Australia hosted a most successful Sneaker Exhibition entitled The Rise of Sneaker Culture. This is a traveling exhibition organised by the American Federation of Arts and the Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto. Feature was local collector, Dr Lee Ingram, a lecturer from Curtin University who has collected 830 pairs of sneakers.