Sneakers go back a long way. In the late 18th century, people wore rubber soled shoes called plimsolls, but they were pretty crude—for one thing, there was no right foot or left foot. Around 1892, the U.S. Rubber Company came up with more comfortable rubber sneakers with canvas tops, called Keds. By 1917, these sneakers began to be mass produced. (They got the nickname sneakers because they were so quiet, a person wearing them could sneak up on someone.)
That same year, Marquis Converse produced the first shoe made just for basketball, called Converse All-Stars. In 1923, an Indiana hoops star named Chuck Taylor endorsed the shoes, and they became known as Chuck Taylor All-Stars. These are the best-selling basketball shoes of all time.
Sneakers went international in 1924. That’s when a German man named Adi Dassler created a sneaker that he named after himself: Adidas. This brand became the most popular athletic shoe in the world. Track star Jessie Owens wore Adidas when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics. Adi’s brother Rudi started up another famous sports shoe company: Puma.
During the first half of the 20th century, sports shoes were worn mostly to play sports. But in the 1950s, kids began wearing them as fashion statements. Even more teens followed the fad after seeing James Dean in sneakers in the popular movie Rebel Without a Cause.
Sales of sneakers really took off in 1984, when Michael Jordan signed a contract to wear a Nike shoe called Air Jordans—the most famous sneaker ever made. Even after Jordan retired from the NBA, his shoes continued to be best sellers. As companies like Nike, Reebok and Adidas competed, they changed the way sneakers looked, adding wild colors and doing away with laces. Sneakers began to be produced for every sport, including walking, skateboarding and “cross training.”
New sneaker technologies increase performance. Nike’s Air Force used little pockets of gas to create better cushioning, while Reebok introduced The Pump—air pumped into shoes to make them fit more snugly. Sneaker surprises continue: Spira Footwear, for example, has built a spring in the soles to reduce foot stress. Of course, innovations like these come with a price: Athletic shoes often cost more than $100 a pair!