Where do sneakers come from?

This humble shoe owes its success to Amazon natives, an inventor's mistake, and Americans' passion for sports.

"Canvas" is a corruption of the Dutch word for "cannabis," Greek for hemp. The plant, native to central Asia, was cultivated for its fiber in China as early as 2800 BC. Hemp made its way to Europe 2,000 years ago. The tough plant was used for rope, fish nets, sails, tents, and work garments. (The first blue jeans were made of hemp canvas.) The narcotic use of Cannabis sativa, or marijuana (as it was called in American Spanish), was known from ancient times in Asia. Its use as a drug grew dramatically in 19th-century England, which caused it to fall out of favor as fiber. Today's canvas is cotton or sisal.

ENGLISHMAN Thomas Saint patented the first sewing machine in 1790. It was a crude device, and the stitches tended to come apart. Barthlemy Thimonnier of France patented an improved device that used a hooked needle in 1830. The Parisian made uniforms for the Army for 10 years, until an angry mob ransacked his establishment for putting so many tailors out of work. (His method of stitching is still used by industrial machines today, though) The first hand-operated home sewing machine was patented in 1846 by Elias Howe. Howe's invention wasn't received well in the United States, so he moved to London. There he sold the invention to William Thomas, who became a millionaire. Back in the US, Isaac Singer patented the foot-treadle home machine in 1851. It became a runaway success.

ON his second trip to America in 1494, Columbus saw children playing with small balls of something that bounced strangely. The natives called it "caoutchouc," and said it came from the sap of a tree. He took a few of the curiosities back with him. Soon the king of Portugal was sending his boots to Brazil to be coated with the wondrous waterproof substance. English scientist Joseph Priestley dubbed it "rubber" in 1770 when he found it erased pencil marks. But rubber was sticky in summer and cracked in winter until 19th-century inventor Charles Goodyear spilled sulphur and latex on a hot stove and made "vulcanized" rubber.

AMERICAN biochemist Wallace Carothers began searching for a synthetic fiber in the 1920s. He experimented by creating polymers, long strings of molecules that are the building blocks of silk, wool, and other natural fibers. His employer, Dupont, invited him to head up a team of researchers. Nearly 11 years and $27 million later, he perfected "polymer 66," later called nylon. Two years later, in 1939, the first nylon products were introduced. Nylon threads are produced by combining two chemicals (hexamethylenediamine and adipic acid) and blowing the liquid through small holes called spinnerets. Nylon forms when the liquid is exposed to air. The fibers - one-quarter the diameter of a human hair - are stretched and spun into threads to make a cloth that is strong, resists abrasion, can be dyed, and resists moisture. Nylon sneakers - now "athletic shoes" - arrived in the 1970s.

THOMAS JEFFERSON, third president of the United States and author of the Declaration of Independence, was the first prominent American to wear shoes with shoelaces. Laces were not new: Artifacts from the palace of Nineveh (about 650 BC) show an Assyrian king wearing sandals tied on with elaborate laces. Scholars at Oxford University in England had popularized lace-up half-boots called "oxfords" in 1640. But laces were still considered foppish and a Parisian fad when Jefferson wore shoes with leather laces rather than a gentleman's silver buckles in the early 1800s. He had acquired the custom in France while serving as ambassador there from 1785 to 89. France's revolutionaries scorned "elitist" buckles for "democratic" laces.

THE secret of glue was lost for nearly 1,000 years. Ancient Egyptians made glue derived from the gelatin present in animal bones and hides. They used the glue in furniture and caskets. The Chinese developed a glue made of cheese and lime. But archaeologists can find no evidence of animal glues being used in Europe from the fall of the Roman Empire (about AD 500) until the 1500s. Today, most glues are synthetic (manmade). Some glues are now made from soybeans.


THEY have their roots in pre-Columbian Brazil, where Brazilian natives used to dip their feet in sap from the rubber tree and let the latex coating harden by the fire.

1868: Canvas uppers with vulcanized rubber soles appear. The "croquet sandals" sell for $6, six times the price of a leather shoe.

1870: "Sneaks" are shoes with canvas tops and "india-rubber" soles. "Sneaks" may have been coined by female prisoners in England to describe shoes worn by guards.

1897: Sears, Roebuck and Co. is selling tennis shoes for 60 cents a pair by mail.

1917: Converse, a rubber-footwear company in Massachusetts, introduces the first All Star basketball shoe. (The game is 26 years old.) The sneaker market starts to boom as Americans turn to sports.

1950s: Friday-night dance parties require students to wear sneakers so they don't scuff gym floors. Sneakers gain acceptance.

1962: The New Yorker magazine points to a "revolution that seems to be taking place in footgear." Sneaker sales, $35 million a decade before, hit $150 million that year.

1970s: Jogging craze popularizes high-tech running shoes.

1972: Nike brand founded. First Air Jordans appear in 1985.

1991: Reebok's The Pump costs $170.


Source: 'The Sneaker Book,' by Tom Vanderbilt

(The New Press, 1998).

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