Victorian tennis shoes were practical, but homely. Women were winning the right to exercise, play outdoors and compete at sports. That also meant that ladylike clothing was undergoing a sporting transformation from head to toe. By the late 1800s, a few trailblazing women wore emerging Victorian tennis shoes for all types of outdoor pursuits.
Dress Reformers were cheerleaders for rational clothing design. While they were making strides, the concept remained a hotbed of debate. Women were still expected to wear a version of their street clothes both for casual athletics and competing on the court.
For many, range of motion and comfort were unimportant when propriety was at stake. Proper outfits included floor-sweeping skirts and petticoats. Some women still used skirt lifters secured to the hemline to carefully lift their skirts while playing. Players also coped with high-necked blouses, bustles, tight corsets, stockings and high-heeled shoes.
In 1881, the Society for Rational Dress was formed in London
From The Original Manifesto:
“The Rational Dress Society protests against the introduction of any fashion in dress that either deforms the figure, impedes the movements of the body, or in any way tends to injure the health. It protests against the wearing of tightly fitting corsets; of high-heeled shoes; of heavily weighted skirts, as rendering healthy exercise almost impossible; and of all tie down cloaks or other garments impeding on the movements of the arms. It protests against crinolines or crinolettes of any kind as ugly and deforming….[It] requires all to be dressed healthily, comfortably, and beautifully, to seek what conduces to birth, comfort and beauty in our dress as a duty to ourselves and each other.”
Despite cumbersome garments, female players were becoming a force on the tennis court. Maud Watson became the first female Wimbledon winner in 1884 and Lottie Dod won in 1887. As Dorothea Douglass and many other women were setting records on the court, tennis fashion began to accommodate their athletic needs.
Among the most important developments was the athletics-friendly shoe. The ankle high boot with raised heel began to morph into early versions of Victorian tennis shoes. Heels were out and rubber soles were emerging.
In addition to competitive sports figures, average women were exploring a range of exercise outdoors. Delicate footwear was still the norm and practical shoes were shunned as unfeminine.
Despite that, some forward-moving women pushed the envelope. One such trailblazer who was said to wear Victorian tennis shoes was stylish Boston socialite Harriet Lawrence Hemenway. She and her cousin, Minna B. Hall were early bird conservationists who rallied more than 900 women to turn their backs on feathered fashion.
Hemenway was a passionate amateur naturalist. According to Smithsonian Magazine she was also known for, “…setting out on birding expeditions wearing unthinkably unfashionable white sneakers.”
Fortunately, developments in the technology of shoes eventually emancipated the human foot. While many women today refuse to end their love affair with stilettos and ruby red slippers, at least now we can switch into comfortable sneakers if the pain becomes unbearable.
Following are a few key moments in the journey of the Victorian Tennis shoe.
#1 One Giant Step Forward: Rubber Soles
1832: Wait Webster of New York patented a process to cement upper shoes and boots to rubber soles. The result was an unreliable shoe often used for one wear. Still, they were a boon for the outdoor crowd. In Britain, the shoe was often called a sand shoe.
#2 The Path From Melted Blobs To Vulcanized Rubber Soles
Mayans Aztec, and Olmec of Mesoamerica harvested the milky sap-like fluid from trees in the rainforest. They mixed it with juice from specific vines to make rubber. They created rubber balls among other things. According to Wikipedia, this was sometime before 1600 BCE. This preceded vulcanization patents by several millennia.
By the 1800s, Europeans and Americans were experimenting with possible uses of rubber in manufacturing. Known as Indian Rubber, it was embraced as a miracle product because it was waterproof and it stretched. People staked fortunes on its endless potential.
But it also had its minuses. Manufacturers of new rubber products soon discovered that they melted in hot temperatures and cracked in the cold. The result was products sitting on shelves in smelly heaps of misshapen blobs.
1843-(November 21) Thomas Hancock, an English coach builder, won the British patent for the process of vulcanization of rubber. It was named after Vulcan, the god of fire from Roman mythology. Heat causes chemical reactions in the mixture of sulfur and natural rubber that create cross links between polymers. The result is a stronger and more durable form of rubber.
1844 – (June 15) Charles Goodyear won the U.S. patent for the vulcanization of rubber. A self-taught chemist and manufacturing engineer, he began experimenting with rubber in 1839. Like George Ferris (Ferris wheel) and so many others during the 1800s, his dreams were more robust than his entrepreneurial abilities.
According to connecticuthistory.org, Goodyear went anywhere he could find investors and places to conduct his experiments.
Goodyear mixed chemicals into raw rubber in pots and pans in makeshift laboratories that he set up in his wife’s kitchen and also in debtors’ prison, where he spent many nights for failing to pay his creditors.
In Noble Obsession: Charles Goodyear, Thomas Hancock, and the Race to Unlock the Greatest Industrial Secret of the Nineteenth Century, Charles Slack writes that when Goodyear ran out of funds for his experiments, he sold his family’s belongings.
“He spared a set of china teacups, not out of sentiment but because they could double in the evenings as mixing bowls for rubber and turpentine.”
#3 Sand Shoes Got An Upgrade
1870s: Sand shoes got an upgrade when shoemakers enforced the line between the canvas and rubber with an additional strip of white rubber. The result was a comfortable alternative to boots.
These shoes were dubbed “plimsolls” after Victorian engineer, Dr.Samuel Plimsoll. He had nothing to do with the shoe, but in 1876 he engineered ‘The Plimsoll Line’. It was a white band on a ship’s hull to measure its load. It looked much like the rubber strip on the increasingly popular shoes. In Britain, “plimsolls” or “plimsoll shoes” referred to low-tech athletic shoes with canvas uppers and flat rubber soles.
Initially, plimsolls were awkward shoes that did not have a left and right foot designation. The style was the same for both men and women. But they were comfortable on the feet. Made of lightweight canvas, they were cool in the summer and dried quickly when wet.
To mimic the style of the day, less fortunate painted the canvas uppers white. Thus, Plimsolls became the Victorian tennis shoe and the first crossover sport shoe.
#4 Rubber Shoes Ran Forward And Shot Some Hoops
1850s forward: American rubber factories were making a wide range of work boots, shoes for weather and athletic shoes.
1852: One of the best known was Candees Rubber. According to Joseph Nathan Kane in Famous First Facts—A Record of First Happenings, Discoveries and Inventions in the United States, “The first rubber shoe manufacturer was Laverett Candee who established the L. Candee Shoe Factory at Hampden, Connecticut in 1842. He used the Goodyear vulcanizing patent.”
Candee was busy developing rubber footwear by the late 1840s. By 1852 the company was well established.
Equally interesting to their shoes was their marketing. This advertising card read:
Candee rubbers – blustering blizzards! Swirling snow! There’s no cause to be dismayed, if in gaiters you’re arrayed, made by L. Candee & Co.
1891: Canadian physical education instructor, Dr. James Naismith, invented basketball in Springfield, Massachusetts.
1892-1893: Colchester showcased their footwear at the Chicago World’s Fair. It was originally the Hayward Rubber Co. (1847-85). Nathaniel Hayward co-invented the vulcanization process with Charles Goodyear.
Colchester produced high-end rubber footwear including boots and galoshes. But they also produced shoes for the summer months that were classified as Victorian “tennis shoes.” They were not only appropriate for all sports activities, they also the high-end “promenade shoes” in upper social circles.
George Watkinson and his son, Irving Watkinson ran Colchester Company. Irving Watkinson designed the World’s First Basket-ball sneaker as a prototype for a rubber shoe to be worn while playing basketball.
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.
U.S. Rubber bought Colchester Rubber and made George Watkinson Vice President. 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.
1917: Marquis Converse left his job at U.S. Rubber to start his own company. He named it the Converse Rubber Co. Converse came out with his famous design.
1923: Converse made its All-Star shoe the “signature shoe” of basketball player Chuck Taylor, the Michael Jordan of his day. As part of the deal, Taylor had to tour the country selling shoes.
#5 To Sneak or Not To Sneak
1900s: U.S. Rubber and Hood Rubber started to sell basketball shoes. Among their brands were Keds and PF Flyers.
Some sources say the term “sneaker” was coined around this time by an advertising person working for U.S. Rubber. Because rubber soled shoes make little noise, a person could “sneak” up on someone.
Although “sneakers” is more commonly used in America, an early version of the term, “sneaks,” originated in the UK in the mid-19th century. It referred to noiseless rubber-soled shoes.
The earliest example for “sneaks” in the Oxford English Dictionary is from Female Life in Prison, an 1862 account by “A Prison Matron,” pseudonym of the British novelist Frederick William Robinson:
“The night-officer is generally accustomed to wear a species of India-rubber shoes or galoshes on her feet. These are termed ‘sneaks’ by the women.”
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