Children's Shoes: Sneakers


Figure 1.--This American boys wears sneakers in 1939. We are not sure what brand they are. This portrait is signed and dated by the photographer (Moffett 4-39). While we do not know the identity of the boy, he apparently was a member of the Sears family. We do know that Moffett was a prominent photographer in Chicago in the early part of the 20th century, and that he did portraits of only the most wealthy and prominent families.

Given the importance of sneakers or tennis shoes (trainers to our British friends), it is hard to imagine how recently they were developed. Sneakers were developed in America and were not widely accepted in Europe until very recently (the 1970s). The first rubber soled shoe with canvas uppers appeared in 1908. They were developed fpr playing tennis, thus the common American name--tennis shoes. At about the same time, Converse introduced its famed high-top basket ball shoes. America children of all social classes by the late 1940s dressed almost alike, in jeans and (usually) white "T"-shirts. There were no "T"-shirts with logos on them that I can recall. One observer reports that when he moved from a working class neighborhood to a lower middle class neighborhood in 1948, he was struck by the one obvious difference: poor boys wore sneakers while lower middle class boys wore shoes. The shoes were impractical but they wore them, even when playing baseball!. At least in Worcester, Massachusetts. Then, in 1949, I moved to an upper middle class neighborhood. Dress was similar to the working class and lower middle class neighborhoods except that the boys wore mocasins instead of either sneakers or shoes. I know that the movies show 1949 boys all wearing sneakers, but in my experience that wasn't the case. Another American observer reports that middle class boys in the early 1950s wore leather shoes to school and then changes into canvas shoes (Keds) for play after school. The social difference gradually narrowed and the shoes became increasingly popular. Despite the growing popularity, the sneaker had changed little in 40 years. It was a basic sole of vulcanized rubber and a canvas upper. American sports began to change in the 1960s. Atheletes began commanding enormous salaries. Sports began to be big business. Specialized shoes were developed for many different sports and passtimes. The use of these shoes in sports and endorsements by prominent atheletes resulted in rapidly expanding sales as well as sharply higher prices. Sneakers once inexpensive shoes for working-class boys became the height of fashion. Some prices passed the $100 mark.

Chronogy

Given the importance of sneakers or tennis shoes (trainers to our British friends), it is hard to imagine how recently they were developed. Sneakers were developed in America. The first rubber soled shoe with canvas uppers appeared in 1908. They were developed for playing tennis, thus the common American name--tennis shoes. At about the same time, Converse introduced its famed high-top basket ball shoes. Another soyurce reports that U.S. Rubber developed the first sneaker, called Keds, in 1917. Keds were still the dominate sneaker in America during the 1950s. Sneakers were not widely accepted in Europe until later. We begin to see them before World War II began in the late 1930s. They were worn in France during the 1950s, mostly high-top styles. It was not until relatively recently, the 1970s, that they became very popular.

Terminology

Sneakers have been referred to by mant different names. Those names have changed over time and varied by country. Sneakers were called "canvas shoes" when they first appeared. Very early on, the canvas shoes with rubber soles were called "sneakers" in America because the rubber sole made the shoe so stealthy. Most other shoes, with the exception of moccasins, made noises or squeaked when worn. Sneakers until the 1950s were also commonly called "Keds" in America because of the importance of that brand. Other terms such as gym shoes and running shoes and now sports shoes have been used. Specifically designed shoes are associated with basketball, tennis, and other sports. The popularity of sneakers for tennis meant that sneakers were oten called "tennis shoes". The term tennis shoes was also used for a time to describe smeakers in general. English boys had other names for sneakers. They were commonly called "plimsols" through the 1950s and usually worn for school phyical education. Today Brits more commonly say "trainers".

Brands

The different brands and lines of smeakers is a hugh topic. Seneakers were made by many different companies which over time offered a wide range of different lines of sneakers. The first companies were American and for many years sneakers were primarily worn by American children. Some brands of sneakers are particularly noteworthy:

Adidas

In the early part of the 20th Century the Dassler brothers, in Germany, left their father's manufacturing business to found two separate companies. Adi created "Adidas" whereas Rudolf established "Puma".

Comverse


Kangaroos

A HBC reader tells us, "A brief fad that I think has been largely forgotten, and one that I don't feel so badly about was the Kangaroo Shoes. This was a name brand for a shoe that had a pocket on it, a pocket that performed no practical purpose (except that maybe you could put some change in them. I don't know why you'd do this, but you could). The pocket was fastened with a zipper at first, and then by velcro when velcro took off. It seems to me that the Kangaroos were the first shoes I ever saw that were fastened with velcro straps. Those shoes didn't really look too bad from what I remember of them, and I really liked those shoes even after they went out of fashion."

Keds

I recall wearing high-top Keds in the early 1950s. They were black with white soles. My memory is not very clear, but I do not recall other boys wearing aby different styles or colors at the time. I wore these Keds for play afyer school and in the summer with jeans. As far as I can recall, I did not wear them to school.

Nike


P.F. Flyers

P.F. Flyers were a popular brand of sneakers that are now mainly of historic interest. They were made by B. F. Goodrich. The "P.F." stands for ‘Posture Foundation.’Advertised as making their wearer "Run Faster... Jump Higher." The Goodrich sneaker division was purchased by Converse in 1971, but later spun off P.F. Flyers to settle a Department of Justice complaint that they were monopolizing the sneaker market. After other ownership P.F. Flyer brand was bought by New Balance in 2001 and they are being manufactured today. Of interest to those watching the movie The Sandlot. Should not be confused with Radio Flyers--a brand of children's wagons, sleds, trikes, etc, especially remembered for the sleds. It is your standard snow sled which was designed in around 1900 and is still being made today.

Sports

Some sneakers were generic playwear for children--initially mostly bots. There were also sneakers made for specific sports. Some of these terms were used generically, especially "basketball shoes" and "tennis shoes". These terms became almost synonamous with sneakers. There were, however, sneakers especially made for these and oyther sports. A reader tells us that he handled soccer shoes in the early 1990s as the sport was exploding in popularity in the United States. Interestingly the term soccer shoe never became popular. Perhaps this was because soccer was usually played with cleated shoes like football.

Changing Life Styles

It is no accident that sneakers became popular in the years after World War I. Fashion took a dramatic turn when the war ended which was reflected in both clothes and footwear. As people's interests changed, so did clothing. People were increasingly interested in keisure an sports. As a result, sportswear was increasing in popularity and such fashions were soon incorporated into everyday dress. One of those fashions was of course smeakers.

Social Class

America children of all social classes by the late 1940s dressed almost alike, in jeans and (usually) white "T"-shirts. There were no "T"-shirts with logos on them that I can recall. One observer reports that when he moved from a working class neighborhood to a lower middle class neighborhood in 1948, he was struck by the one obvious difference: poor boys wore sneakers while lower middle class boys wore shoes. The shoes were impractical but they wore them, even when playing baseball!. At least in Worcester, Massachusetts. Then, in 1949, I moved to an upper middle class neighborhood. Dress was similar to the working class and lower middle class neighborhoods except that the boys wore mocasins instead of either sneakers or shoes. I know that the movies show 1949 boys all wearing sneakers, but in my experience that wasn't the case. Another American observer reports that middle class boys in the early 1950s wore leather shoes to school and then changes into canvas shoes (Keds) for play after school. The social difference gradually narrowed and the shoes became increasingly popular. Despite the growing popularity, the sneaker had changed little in 40 years. It was a basic sole of vulcanized rubber and a canvas upper.

Changing Status

American sports began to change in the 1960s. Atheletes began commanding enormous salaries. Sports began to be big business. Specialized shoes were developed for many different sports and passtimes. The use of these shoes in sports and endorsements by prominent atheletes resulted in rapidly expanding sales as well as sharply higher prices. Sneakers once inexpensive shoes for working-class boys became the height of fashion. Some prices passed the $100 mark.

Charlie's Sneaker Pages

This is an informative site about smeakers. It provides extensive information on different terms for sneakers as well as different sneaker lines over time marketed by various manufacturers.









HBC





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Created: January 30, 2001
Last updated: 5:48 PM 6/8/2005