The Athletic Shoe
SNEAKERS WERE NOT POSSIBLE UNTIL CHARLES Goodyear made rubber useful. Rubber, derived from latex, the milky sap of the South American hevea tree, had interesting properties. It was both waterproof and elastic, and rubber-soled shoes could absorb the countless shocks that feet suffer in running and jumping—something that couldn’t be said of leather boots, which remained the footwear of choice for both work and play through the late nineteenth century. But rubber also melted in warm weather and became cracked and brittle in the cold. Goodyear toiled obsessively for years trying to develop a more durable form of rubber, and he amassed huge debts and impoverished his family before solving the problem more or less by accident in 1839, when he spilled a mixture of latex, sulfur, and white lead onto a hot stove. Amid the charred residue he found a substance that retained its elastic properties across a wide range of temperatures.
In the late 1860s the Peck and Snyder Sporting Goods catalogue advertised what may have been the first sneakers, shoes with flat rubber soles and canvas uppers. The catalogue called them “croquet sandals.” Selling for about $6 a pair, the equivalent of around $65 today, they were clearly aimed at an upscale market. Similar shoes for running, tennis, and other sports soon followed. By the mid-1870s, Americans were calling them “sneakers,” for their quietness. Police officers called them “felony shoes,” and stealthy, sneaker-shod detectives became known as “gumshoes.”
The emergence of the sneaker roughly coincided with the transformation of shoemaking from a handicraft into an industry. Machines gradually took over many of the cobbler’s tedious tasks: cutting, splitting, stitching, rolling, crimping, and punching holes in leather and other materials. Mechanization drove prices down and boosted output. The growth of leisure time and organized sports opened vast new territories for marketing. At century’s end, sneakers had become shoes for the masses, selling in the Sears, Roebuck catalogue for as little as 60 cents a pair.
In 1917 the Converse Rubber Company trotted out the first edition of perhaps the most famous sneaker of all time, the All-Star. It became a favorite of a basketball pro named Chuck Taylor, who joined the Converse sales force in 1921, and his recommendations led to an improved version, with better ankle support, increased traction, and more durable soles. In 1923 Converse added Taylor’s signature to the All-Star’s distinctive ankle patch and renamed it the Chuck Taylor All-Star. Converse has sold more than a half-billion pairs of “Chucks,” and it remained the basketball shoe of choice for almost 50 years.
Sneakers underwent a gradual evolution in the following decades. Mid-sole cushions of sponge rubber improved shock absorption. A wartime shortage of natural rubber in the 1940s led to the introduction of synthetic rubber into soles. And while Germany was losing that war, it won a decisive victory on the sneaker front. Jesse Owens had won his four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics wearing shoes made by the German company Dassler, which later, after a bitter falling-out between the Dassler brothers, split into two companies, Adidas and Puma. Adi Dassler, the founder of Adidas, obtained more than 700 patents for athletic shoes in his lifetime, and by the 1950s Adidas was the king of running shoes.
Adidas shoes were expensive and hard to find in the United States, so Bill Bowerman, the track coach at the University of Oregon in the 1960s, hand-built custom shoes for his star athletes. He went on to cofound Nike, and in the 1970s Bowerman introduced such innovations as lightweight nylon-mesh uppers (the “Swoosh” fiber after which Nike’s checkmark logo was named) and his famous high-traction waffle sole.
Competition in both the athletic and business worlds provided tremendous incentive for companies to mount massive R&D efforts. Around the time Bowerman was trying to make a rubber sole with his wife’s waffle iron in 1971, sports-shoe designers began to make use of findings in the field of biomechanics. High-speed photography and other techniques enabled researchers to study the complex processes that take place during the simple acts of running and jumping, as well as the manifold injuries to bone, muscle, ligaments, and tendons that can result. Much attention in sports-shoe design has been directed toward pronation, the natural inward tilting of the foot during the mid-foot phase of the runner’s stride. Too little or too much pronation can strain joints and ligaments. Today, most high-quality sneakers come in varying forms to counter under- or overpronation, although most of the consumers who buy them remain completely unaware of it.
Shoe manufacturers employ a wide array of materials and techniques in the creation of the modern sneaker. The technology behind a given shoe is a tradeoff involving cost, weight, performance, durability, and style. Style has become so important as to sometimes trump performance—for example, when manufacturers replaced traditional flat laces several years ago with round ones made from polyester only to discover that they untied too easily. This cost John Kagwe a record time in the 1997 New York City Marathon when he had to stop to retie his shoes twice. The Chuck Taylor All-Star is still a fashionable mainstay of the Converse line, but its days as a serious basketball shoe are long past. The typical sneaker of today has a synthetic rubber sole with a foam cushion of polyurethane or ethylene vinyl acetate, which is lighter and retains its shape longer than sponge rubber. Some manufacturers place a compressed-air or gas compartment in the mid-sole of the shoe for increased absorbency. The last—the foot-shaped block around which the shoe’s uppers are made—has evolved from a crude wooden form to an anatomically detailed rendering of the human foot. Uppers of lightweight synthetic fiber have largely replaced the traditional leather or canvas upper.
The croquet sandal of the 1860s has spawned an $ll-billion industry selling a bewildering array of specialized footwear. There’s a shoe for just about every sport and leisure activity that takes place on land, and for some pursued in water as well. There are sneakers designed specifically for cheerleaders, with especially springy soles to provide that extra edge needed to inspire athletes, in their own shoes, to victory. There are even coaching shoes, for standing on the sidelines and watching other people exert themselves.