In 1868 sneakers were called Felonies.

Editor’s Note:  Old School sent me a collection of essays from old Land’s End catalogs… and they are fantastic.  We’ll feature some of them – there’s an essay on ironing your own shirt (the male author says, “You may call me a pantywaist but…”) (I have to tell you, I had no idea pantywaist was one word), and a foreshadowing piece from 1986 entitled Why A Tie?  which falls under the asked and answered category.  Today we think about the sneaker.  I wear sneakers (no socks) from Easter til Halloween alongside the boat shoes and loafers.  In the summer, there are several acceptable brands.  New Balance.  Sketchers (yes, and please, I know you haven’t tried them if you knock them), Converse canvas, etc.  Starting about now, there is only one brand that works, and they should probably be suede – Tretorn.  At any rate, the history of the sneaker from a company which when I looked today sold sneakers on their website and calls them anything but. – JB

My Tretorns this morning. That’s my butler holding my headphones. There’s a copy of WASPS and a few of my notebooks, my mic for my other life, a 30 year old Murray’s fishing cap that has flown off my boat into the Atlantic thrice, and some art my then 4 year old daughter made.

From Creepers to High-tops: A Brief History of the Sneaker

Sometime in the middle of the sixteenth century, King Henry VIII of England, noticing that his waistline had gravitated down to about his knees, decided some exercise might be a good idea. Summoning his valet he placed an order for, “Syxe Paire of shooys with feltys, to pleye in at tennys.” His valet bowed and left, shaking his head, wondering where in the world he was going to find someone to fill that little royal order?

King Henry wasn’t talking about sneakers as we know them, that’s true. But he had the right idea. Shooys with feltys, to pleye in at tennys, was simply the best his world offered in the way of lightweight athletic footwear. Down the narrow, dirty streets of London trudged that unknown valet, searching for a shooymaker to do the job, never surmising that the first faint notes of a billion dollar industry had been sounded.

A happy accident.

The modern sneaker had its start the way all the best legendary things do, by accident. A small Connecticut manufacturer, Charles Goodyear, was trying to come up with a waterproof mail bag for the U.S. Government, which had grown weary of its mail getting wet when it rained. A rubber-covered canvas fabric would do the job if Charles could just get the rubber to cooperate. It refused to adhere to the canvas and insisted on turning gummy in summer and brittle in winter.

Goodyear persevered. One day while holding aloft a ladle of his latest failure, he gave the mixture an angry shake. A glob flew from the ladle and landed on a hot stove. He peeled the rubber concoction off the stove and was amazed at what he had. The heat had changed it. Kneading the small piece in his fingers he found that it was now strong and elastic. Further tests proved it to be stable at both high and low temperatures. The rubber had gotten itself vulcanized. Spurred on by this turn of events, he perfected the procedure, made the waterproof mailbags, and opened the way for two things that changed civilization — automobile tires and sneakers.

Felonies, Creepers and Plimsolls.

In 1868, using Goodyear’s vulcanizing process, a shoe with a reliable rubber sole, canvas uppers and laces was produced. At six dollars a pair the shoes were out of the reach of average folk, but quickly became the darlings of the idle rich. They called them croquet sandals.

Then they called them felonies (because of what people who wore them were quietly able to do), then brothel creepers for the same reason, then gumshoes and in England, Plimsolls. (Plimsolls refers to Samuel Plimsoll, an Englishman, who proposed the Shipping Act of 1876, that required ships to be marked with safe waterlines — lines which resembled those around the new canvas shoes.)

Meanwhile back in the states…

U.S. Rubber bought Charles Goodyear’s business. U.S. Rubber felt that those funny canvas shoes being produced might be winners, but something had to be done about a name. The term sneakers had made its appearance by then but it was too generic. They wanted something more distinctive, more their own.

They wanted to call the shoe they were about to produce a Ped, but another company was already using that term. After three years of vigorous thought, they narrowed the choice of a name down to two — Ved or Ked. It boggles the mind, doesn’t it? They ultimately decided on Ked because (again as the legend goes) they felt K was the strongest letter in the alphabet. So Keds were born. The rest, as the books love to say, is history.

By 1897 catalogs were offering the shoe for a mere sixty cents, and in no time at all it was the preferred gym shoe, selling 25 million pairs in one year. In 1908, Marquis M. Converse who was working hard in Malden, Massachusetts producing rubber overshoes, came to the hard realization that overshoes would never set the world on fire and turned his attention to sneakers. In 1917 he introduced the Converse All-Star — the first shoe designed primarily for basketball. It was and still is a success.

The first All Stars.

Then came two world wars, and the industry’s attention was elsewhere, but in the late 1940’s, things picked up again. Several new companies began producing highly individualized sneakers, and resorted to aggressive marketing to push their products. By the 1960’s some manufacturers were paying professional athletes to wear their designs.

Our “best friends.”

By the seventies the canvas shoe market had exploded and hundreds of companies world-wide were producing them. Before you knew it, if you wore shoes at all you probably wore sneakers at least part of the day.

No article of personal wear, with the possible exception of jeans, has ever engendered the kind of love and devotion sneakers have. People feel about them the way they feel about a close friend. They wear them until they are threadbare. They wear them until their soles have departed their bodies and then they tie strings around them and wear them some more.

They’ve come a long way from King Henry’s day, those little rubber-soled, canvas devils. They’ve sneakered their way into every phase of our lives. Babies wear them, octogenarians wear them, as does every age in between. They’ve been immortalized in pen, and paint, clay and cloth. What would we do without them?

So thank you Charles Goodyear for persevering. I like the dry mail and safe tires, but I’m crazy mad about those sneakers.

Remember Keds? These are the first Keds.

6 Comments on "In 1868 sneakers were called Felonies."

  1. Travers Bancroft | September 30, 2021 at 9:39 am |

    I do not typically write comments on web sites Mr. Burton but I have to say this. Juxtaposed against other writers in your field of focus, your style, humor, and grace stand out. I truly hope that as the site continues to grow in popularity that we can depend upon a regular delivery of your writing.

  2. Red Converse Chuck Tailor hightops right here, baby! I might just have to put ’em on when I get home later this aftenoon.

  3. I own no Tretorns, but I do wear my Chucks when I’m not wearing my chukkas. I’m not much of an athlete, but it is nice to have some knockabout shoes for when I don’t want to worry about scratching my nicer ones on a long walk.
    The sneaker market has become an ugly affair — almost as ugly as the shoes, which promise no special benefits other than a few months of fake social cachet on Instagram until the next overly-busy, globular footwear monstrosity “drops.” People spend hundreds on these things. Whatever floats their boat, I guess. (It clearly isn’t plimsolls.)

  4. Trevor Jones | October 1, 2021 at 8:33 am |

    A note on “tennys”, as King Henry VIII called it. This refers to real tennis (known as “court tennis” here in the US, “royal tennis” in Australia, and “Jeu de Paume” in France where it was invented), which is the forerunner of modern tennis (whose proper name is actually “lawn tennis”, but is colloquially referred to as just “tennis”). Ol’ Henry was an avid player and had a court installed at Hampton Court Palace which is still active today (known as The Royal Tennis Court) and is actually the busiest real tennis club in the world. For those interested in learning more about real tennis or the Royal Tennis Court (my former home-court), please see this article I did for Ivy Style a few years ago about it:
    https://www.ivy-style.com/in-the-court-of-king-henry.html

  5. Jack Purcell shoes, Fred Perry tennis shirt, white linen RL long pants (to warm up) and Jack Kramer Autograph racket in high school. It was the early ’80’s. First seed girlfriend wore all classic tennis togs with Tretorn shoes and those cute socks with the fuzz ball on the back. Memories.

    Will

  6. Fascinating article Trevor Jones — thanks for linking it. I missed it the first time around.
    I have two tennis rackets that are at least as old as me, made of wood, still in great condition. Might have to give them a try on a park court with my significant other one of these days. I’ll be sure to pick up some more suitable sneakers/shooys with feltys for the task.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.


*