Sunday, September 23, 2012

Olympics: Brief History of the Modern Games: From sandshoes to trainers (1832 - 1973)

In 1832 Wait Webster patented a process to cement rubber soles to the uppers of shoes and boots. At first the shoes were flimsy and came apart easily. After 1862 when Charles Goodyear developed vulcanization more robust rubber products became available. Vulcanization involved an industrial process where a mixture of sulphur and tree sap gum were heated producing a stable and pliable material. In the UK, the New Liverpool Rubber Company developed a light shoe which combined a cotton canvas top to a rubber sole. These were called sandshoes and became popular with urban working class people keen to enjoy a day at the seaside and conveyed there by the new railway systems. Sand shoes frequently burst but because they were cheap were often worn for one trip only. To reinforce the join of upper to sole companies started to use a thinner rubber band wrapped around the shoe trapping supporting the join between canvas and rubber. The new style shoes were called a plimsoll after the white plimsoll lines on ships which was introduced in 1876. Plimsolls wore well, kept the feet cool in the summer and dried quickly after a paddle in the sea. The canvas could be painted chalk white which give the outward impression the shoes were croquet shoes and made from kangaroo skin. Quality croquet shoes were worn by the wealthier classes and were the first sport shoes to cross over to fashion. Victorian promenaders, keen to look their best in the Madras jackets and flannels, started to wear white plimsolls.

The plimsoll marked the beginning of the modern sport shoe and when the middle classes became more interested in leisure activities and sports, the plimsoll evolved into many other forms. When cinder and grass tennis courts were in vogue rubber soled plimsolls were used extensively. Sole patterns were added and patented to add grip and court adhesion and plimsolls did not destroy lawn surfaces. Rubber soled shoes helped soften the landing of a long jumper as well as being eminently suited for yachting and first appeared at the Paris Olympics in 1924. Gradually plimsolls were further developed to meet requirements of both major and minor popular sports. A simple rubber strip was added to the toe box to stop the big toe nail appearing through the canvas. This also stopped the weakest part of the upper from abrasion in those sports where the foot was dragged for balance. The hockey boot incorporated molded studs into the rubber sole and the cycle shoe was easily adapted to speed running by the application of metal spikes to the area of the sole under the ball of the foot. Spikes gradually grew longer and longer until they were approximately two inches long. These could be adjusted to suit the ground conditions. When foam rubber was invented in-socks were applied to the shoes adding to the comfort. As soon as the Armed Services began using them the shoes were ordered in the tens of thousands and all coloured to suit the army, navy and airforce. Service plimsolls became a popular demob souvenir as well as becoming compulsory wear for children at school as physical exercise (gym) became an accepted part of the formal public school curriculum.

At the end of the thirties Australian professional tennis player Adrian Quist after a visit to the US and spending time sailing realized the benefits of better traction on the sole of shoes and convinced Dunlop Australia to make Dunlop Volleys. For the next three decades (i.e.50s to the 70s), they became synonymous with Australian sport. A household name during the nation's sporting 'Golden Era', post war they became associated with many of the sporting legends of the time Adrian Quist, Lew Hoad, Ken Rosewall, Tony Roche, John Newcombe, Evonne Goolagong, Margaret Court, Peter Thomson, Greg Norman and more lately Mark Philippoussis. In the days before hard courts the Dunlop Volley was perfect for grass court competition. Sole patterns were changing and. the vogue for circles and squares in the 60s were replaced by trendy herringbone patterns, in the seventies.

In the US at the end of the 19th century the US Rubber Company produced rubber soled shoes similar to those in the UK. In 1907 the Spalding Company produced shoes specifically for the game of basketball. Later in 1916 when the US Rubber Company and Goodyear merged they produced rubber soled shoes with canvas uppers they were called sneakers. Many believe the word "sneaker" came from an advertising agent called Henry Nelson McKinney, who worked for N. W. Ayer & Son in 1917 and was struck by soundless movement when walking in rubber soled shoes. However sneaker had been used as early as 1887, when it appeared in the Boston Journal of Education "the name (sic sneaker) boys give to tennis shoes". Indeed cheap rubber shoes were worn by thieves referred to sneak(er) thieves.

High basketball boots became available in 1917 made by Converse and known as the Converse All Stars. These proved a popular choice both on court and off. In 1923 Chuck Taylor signature Converse were introduced with an ankle patch and these were called Chucks. Despite niche interest at first the market for trainers was small but after World War I, the Western pre-occupation with physical culture the U.S. market for sneakers grew steadily as young boys lined up to buy sneakers endorsed by football player Jim Thorpe and Converse All Stars endorsed by basketball player Chuck Taylor. The first major endorsement of a sport's shoe by a sporting personality was Chuck Taylor and Converse All Stars. Taylor was a basketball player with Buffalo Germans and Akron Firestones. The campaign proved so successful the shoes became known as "chucks", and Converse All Stars still remain a popular brand, today.

According to Steele, the first popular sneaker was introduced in the United States in 1917 under the name of Keds and made by the National India Rubber Company.Some suggest the K stood for kids and the term was rhyming slang for ped(s), the Latin for foot. However the name was already registered for another product, so the "P" was traded for a "K". At first Keds were tennis shoes available with brown canvas tops with black rubber soles. During the wars servicemen were issued with canvas topped rubbers for exercise and most took them home as souvenirs. Soon their older kids were wearing them to dance to quick tempo dance music of Swing and Jive. In the 50s manmade fibres became available and the plimsoll and sneaker merged to become a hybrid called the trainer shoe. The development of synthetics materials had a profound effect on the sports shoe. Hard, durable nylon soles provided lightweight, flexible and capable of supporting studs for football and spikes for athletics. Cellular foams increased the fit and comfort. The trainer had a two colour finish, low heel, rippled sole without an instep. It was used by the athletes as warm up and training footwear and first made its appearance at the Melbourne Olympics, 1956. The use of contrasting colours for reinforcement areas gave the training shoe its distinctive characteristics. Since then the trainer has became a fashion item worn by all in society and certainly not restricted to sports’ persons.

Throughout the Western world during the 1950s sneakers became associated with the merging teenage leisure market. They were cheap, hardwearing and suitable for sport and leisure activities such as dancing. Worn by high school students around the world they soon became the icons of youthful rebellion. Whilst their older sisters wore stilettos, the young fry were doing it in canvas topped shoes. The appeal of American sneakers was confirmed when James Dean and Elvis Presley were photographed wearing low cut canvas topped rubber soled shoes. Keds for girls and chucks for boys.

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