In the grand scheme of things, sneakers haven’t been around for that long at this point. The very first sneakers—which were called “plimsolls”—were developed back in the 1800s.
But even though sneaker history might not date back that far, sneakers have certainly come a long way over the last 150 years or so. There is now an entire sneaker culture, both here in the U.S. and abroad, that includes millions of so-called sneakerheads who spend their lives creating sick sneaker collections.
Today, we’re going to take a look back at sneaker history to see how we got to where we are today. We’re also going to sneak a peek at some of the different sneakerhead shoes that have helped to define sneaker culture history.
Continue reading to get a brief introductory overview of sneaker history and culture so that you understand how sneakers have become as big as they are in 2022.
The First Sneakers—or “Plimsolls”—Are Released to the World
As we alluded to a few moments ago, the first sneakers ever invented weren’t referred to as “sneakers” at all. Instead, they were given the name “plimsolls,” and they were a lot different than the sneakers that people know and love today.
Plimsolls had rubber soles on the bottoms of them just like most modern-day sneakers. But the similarities pretty much ended there. Unlike today’s sneakers, plimsolls had two shoes that you could wear on either foot, and they weren’t designed to be worn by those participating in athletic activities.
Still, you can’t put together an article about sneaker history without at least mentioning plimsolls. They played a big part in helping companies develop many of the sneakers that people love so much nowadays.
Keds Show up on the Scene
Unless you’ve been living under a rock for most of your life, you’re probably well aware of what Keds are. They’re very simple sneakers that have been around for a long time.
How long? Well, the U.S. Rubber Company first created Keds in the late 1800s after figuring out how to connect canvas uppers to rubber soles. The company also helped to produce sneakers for 30 other brands at the time. It would be hard to write about sneaker history without acknowledging the role that this company played in the production of some of the world’s earliest sneakers.
Sneakers Are Mass-Produced
Although the U.S. Rubber Company started producing Keds in the late 1800s, it would take until about 1917 before companies would start mass producing sneakers. They didn’t have the ability to do this until then.
But once companies were able to begin the mass production of sneakers, all bets were off! It led to a huge spike in the total number of sneakers produced each year, and it helped to make sneakers affordable enough for those who wanted to purchase them.
It was also around this time that people started calling the shoes that these companies were producing “sneakers.” They called them this because they allowed people to “sneak” up on others without being detected because of their rubber soles.
Converse Introduces the First Athletic Sneakers
While there were plenty of sneakers available by the time the 1910s rolled around, there was one big problem for those who wanted to purchase them. Most of the earliest sneakers were not built to provide people with the support that they needed while playing sports.
But that all changed in 1917 when Converse introduced some of the very first athletic sneakers to the world. They put out their Converse All-Stars and hired a basketball player by the name of Chuck Taylor to help promote them. This would prove to be a monumental point in sneaker history.
Converse Chuck Taylor All-Star sneakers would go on to become some of the most successful sneakers of all time. Many professional basketball players wore them, and eventually, they started to become just as popular off the court as they were on it.
Converse Chuck Taylor All-Stars are still very popular in 2022 and have helped Converse stick around for such a long time. Converse has also released a wide range of other great sneakers over the years, including the Converse Pro Leather, the Converse Weapon, and more.
Adidas Arrives—and Sneakers Start to Go Global
By the 1920s, sneaker culture was slowly starting to develop. But it was limited to the U.S. where most of the world’s first sneakers were being produced.
It started to expand in 1924, though, after a German cobbler named Adi Dassler created a sneaker brand that he called Adidas. Adidas grew very fast, and by the time the 1930s rolled around, the majority of Olympic athletes were competing in Adidas sneakers.
At that point, another now-iconic sneaker company also started to make waves on an international level. Dassler’s own brother Rudi started producing Puma sneakers that also gained a faithful following among Olympic athletes.
Sneakers Begin to Turn Into Fashion Statements
Throughout the first 50 years of the 20th century, most of the companies that put out sneakers created them specifically for athletes. And the thought was that sneakers were going to stay in this lane.
But during the 1950s, things began to change. Suddenly, there were many people—mostly younger people—who were wearing sneakers in more casual settings. James Dean even showed up on the silver screen in sneakers in the history-making movie, Rebel Without a Cause.
This is important because it would prove to be a sign of things to come. Sneaker companies wouldn’t just have to rely on athletes to buy their products anymore. They could pretty much sell sneakers to anyone who wanted to put on a pair of shoes that would look great and be very comfortable.
Reebok Throws Its Hat Into the Ring
At the beginning of the 20th century, a teenager by the name of Joseph William Foster became a part of sneaker history. He helped to produce some of the earliest track and field spikes—which he called “running pumps”—and convinced many British athletes to wear them during Olympic competitions.
Foster himself didn’t play a part in starting the Reebok brand. But he did help to launch the J.W. Foster and Sons company that would eventually turn into Reebok down the line. Two of Foster’s grandsons got Reebok going in the 1950s and rode it right to the top of sneaker culture.
Reebok would go on to release a number of successful sneakers, including the Reebok Classic, the Reebok Freestyle, and, of course, the Reebok Pump.
Nike Gets Its Operation Off the Ground
You can’t have a conversation about sneaker history or sneaker culture without talking about Nike. You could make the argument that Nike is going to go down as the most important company of all in sneaker history.
Nike, which was first known as Blue Ribbon Sports, was founded in 1964. The company released the Nike Cortez in 1972 and started building up momentum from there.
Following the success of some of its early sneakers like the Cortez, Nike would go on to put out the Nike Air Force 1, the Nike Dunk, and all of the early Nike Air Jordan sneakers. The company also started to branch out into almost every sport imaginable to create sneakers for athletes everywhere.
Air Jordans Begin to Make Their Mark
Sneaker companies have always used professional athletes to market their shoes to some degree. But none did it bigger and better than Nike did it in the 1980s with Air Jordans.
After a successful career at the University of North Carolina, Michael Jordan was drafted into the NBA by the Chicago Bulls and signed an endorsement deal with Nike. He famously did this after his mom convinced him to take a meeting with Nike instead of inking a deal with Adidas.
It’s safe to say this worked out for both sides. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Nike put out some of the most successful sneakers of all time through their Air Jordan line. Many of the Air Jordans released back then continue to be re-released today as a result of the initial impact that they had.
Sneakers Start to Become “Cool”
There were obviously some sneakers that were considered “cool” prior to the 1980s. But in the 1980s, sneaker companies took it upon themselves to try to manufacture “cool” when marketing their sneakers.
They did it in a variety of different ways. Nike, as we just talked about, did it by signing an endorsement deal with Michael Jordan and pumping a lot of money into the advertising campaigns that surrounded his shoes.
Adidas, on the other hand, turned to rap group Run-DMC to help them make their Adidas Superstar sneakers cool after the group released a song called “My Adidas.” Adidas gave the group an endorsement deal and used it to appeal to all of the early rap fans out there.
At this time, it started to become crystal clear that sneaker culture was heading in a different direction than people may have expected. There was a certain “cool” factor that would have to be attached to sneakers after that point for them to be successful.
So-Called Sneakerheads Emerge All Across the Globe
There is some debate over where the word “sneakerhead” comes from. But regardless of who started using it first, sneakerheads were beginning to pop up everywhere in the late 1980s.
Sneakerheads enjoyed purchasing sneakers for the purpose of collecting them. They didn’t necessarily do it because they thought their sneakers would be worth a lot of money one day. But as their collections grew, some of the sneakers they owned started to increase in value because of how hard it became to find them.
This helped to usher in a new era in the sneaker industry in the late 1990s and 2000s. By that point, there were sneakerheads who were interested in collecting sneakers as investments. They saw how much sneakers could potentially be worth in the future and started putting sneakers “on ice” through different sneakerhead shoe storage methods.
Sneaker Culture Blossoms Into a Big Business
It’s hard to believe that it was only about a century ago when sneakers were still relatively hard to find. There weren’t many companies manufacturing them, and because of this, most people didn’t own a pair of sneakers.
Today, almost everyone owns at least a few pairs of sneakers. And there are also millions of people who own way more pairs of sneakers than that. These sneakerheads work hard to build up robust collections of sneakers.
People are also always trying to learn more about the latest sneakers that are being released. It provides them with an opportunity to decide which ones they would like to add to their collections over time.
It’s going to be interesting to see where sneaker history goes from here. But generally speaking, it’s already been a wild ride, and it appears as though sneaker culture is only going to get bigger as time goes on.
Sneaker History Is Still in Its Infancy Stages
Sneaker companies have jam-packed a lot of sneaker history into the last 150 years or so. But something tells us that this is only the beginning.
Sneaker companies are likely going to keep on pushing the boundaries and finding new ways to make sneaker history. It should result in some pretty amazing sneakers in the years, decades, and centuries to come.
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