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The History of Basketball Sneakers

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The sneaker is synonymous with pop culture and fashion, brands like Converse, Nike, PF Flyers and Reebok have created iconic sneaker styles and looks that resonate throughout the history of footwear.

The journey to basketball sneakers started in the mid 1800's. The tennis shoe, made of cloth and rubber, was created. There was no left or right shoe designation and they were very crude. However, the shoes were very popular as a welcome alternative to constricting boots. 

rubber tennis shoe crude victorian 1840 hayward rubber
1840's tennis shoe, Hayward Rubber Co.
By the 1880's, rubber factories in the U.S. were at their peak making various boot,leisure and athletic footwear. A few of these factories as shown below are Candees Rubber, Albany Rubber House and Boston Belting Co.
candees rubber
Another popular rubber manufacturer during this time was of course, the Colchester Rubber Co. Colchester Rubber Co. was well known for their athletic footwear, creating baseball, bicycling, and lawn tennis shoes. colchester rubber co ads
Colchester Rubber Co. 1888
1892 was a good year for Colchester. They showcased at the Chicago World's Fair and the new sport of basket-ball had just been invented a mere 50 miles away from Colchester in Springfield, Mass. It was then that Irving Watkinson designed the World's First Basket-ball sneaker as a prototype for a rubber shoe to be worn while playing basketball. We believe he based this design off of their popular "bals" athletic shoe, simply adding a toe cap, rubber outer sole and ankle emblem for game protection.
colchester rubber advertisement
The inspiration for the World's 1st Basketball Sneaker
naismith basketball colchester rubber
Dr. Naismith, Inventor of basketball and the 1892 Sneaker
However, it was not meant to be. U.S. Rubber began buying up all the rubber companies in the United States in order to form a monopoly on the industry. U.S. Rubber made George Watkinson, owner of Colchester, an offer he couldn't refuse, a position as Vice President of U.S. Rubber. The factory was promptly shut down and all its equipment moved to U.S. Rubber's factory in Massachusetts. It was there they introduced the high-top sneaker to the world. 
keds us rubber sneaker
U.S. Rubber (Keds) Sneaker.
It was here the term "sneaker" was coined. An advertiser working for U.S. Rubber  noted the shoes were silent when you walked, allowing you to "sneak" up on someone. Sneaker gangs of young hooligans started roaming the streets of NYC, causing mischief. 
sneaker gang victorian 1890s keds colchester rubber
Sneaker gangs, NYC
us rubber keds sneakers
US Rubber Sneakers, early 1900's
By then, Marquis Converse (who worked with George of Colchesters at the US Rubber Factory) had left his job at U.S. Rubber to start his own company, called the Converse Rubber Co. Converse came out with his familiar sneaker around 1917. Undoubtedly inspired by his fellow designers, the Converse sneaker is a nostalgic piece of American history.  
vintage 1917 converse sneaker
By the 30's and 40's sneakers were in full swing. BF Goodrich patented the "Posture Foundation" insole, those sneakers became known as "PF Flyers." and were worn by many from the 30s-early 70s before enjoying a resurgence in popularity when they were bought by New Balance in 2000. 
vintage pf flyers
Another forgotten, yet interesting, brand of sneakers during the 30's was Witch Elk. They created the black panther sneaker made of Kangaroo and used for basketball games. The company folded during the depression, never to be heard from again. 
witch elk black panther sneakers 30's
In 1949, U.S. Rubber (Keds) introduced their basketball sneaker, the Pro-Keds Royal. Kareem Abdul Jabbar is pictured here in his Pro-Keds.
prokeds vintage
Pro-Keds
One thing for sure is that basketball sneakers are still as cool today as they were over 100 years ago and they will still be worn for years to come. While more modern sneakers may be worn on the court these days, the old school look is perfect to be worn for most every other aspect of life. 
colchester rubber co sneakers
The Colchester Rubber Co. Sneaker

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