Tennis shoes were lightweight canvas shoes with rubber soles, first introduced during the last half of the nineteenth century. They made their appearance just as many social sports were becoming fashionable and immediately became popular among active young people. Though often called tennis shoes after the sport that was also rising in popularity during the late 1800s, the canvas sports shoes have been given many other names, such as plimsolls, sneakers, trainers, and even felony shoes, because the rubber soles permit a quiet get-away for criminals.
Lightweight leather boots had been used for most sports until a scientific discovery in the mid-1800s paved the way for the introduction of a new kind of sports shoe. Charles Goodyear (1800–1860), an American rubber manufacturer, came up with a process for heating rubber called vulcanization. Vulcanization made rubber more flexible and stronger, and also enabled it to attach permanently to other materials, such as fabric. Once this new rubber was available shoe manufacturers began to use it to create new types of rubber soles. In 1868 a sturdy canvas and rubber shoe was introduced. The makers of the shoe called it a croquet sandal and recommended it for the lawn game croquet, played with balls and mallets, that was popular among fashionable young people of the upper classes.
The croquet sandal sold for six dollars a pair, a price too high for most working people to afford, so the new shoe was mainly worn by the wealthy at first. However, in 1873, the Sears and Roebuck Catalog began to offer a lace-up, rubber-soled canvas sports shoe for only sixty cents a pair, and the tennis shoe was on its way to mass popularity. In 1893, the influential fashion magazine Vogue reported on the popularity of the stylish new canvas sports shoe for ladies.
The late 1800s were marked by a widespread interest in such sports as croquet, tennis, and golf, all of which were played by both men and women. In Britain, women even began to play the national bat and ball game, cricket. The new canvas and rubber shoe, lightweight and sure-footed, was perfect for all of these games. In England the new shoes were called plimsolls, or plimmies, because the lines on the sides of the rubber sole looked like plimsoll lines which were painted on the sides of ships to show how heavy the ship was allowed to be loaded. (Samuel Plimsoll was the government minister who first decided the weight limits of ships.) In the United States, the name varied according to location, with tennis shoes or "tennies" being popular in the southeast, and sneakers in the northeast.
Batterberry, Michael, and Ariane Batterberry. Fashion: The Mirror of History. New York: Greenwich House, 1977.
Vanderbilt, Tom. The Sneaker Book: Anatomy of an Industry and an Icon. New York: New Press, 1998.
Young, Robert. Sneakers: The Shoes We Choose! Minneapolis, MN: Dillon Press, 1991.
[ See also Volume 5, 1961–79: Tennis Shoes ]