Why sneakers are called sneakers?

Sneakers are everywhere, and you have most like owned a part of them. You wear them to school, to work, to your gym session, or even on an errand to the supermarket. No wonder, there is no purpose where these shoes won’t fit. But, have you ever wondered where the term sneakers originate? Did it ever have to do sneaking?

While many world-renowned footwear brands now offer sneakers, these on-the-go shoes actually had a very humble beginning. It traces back to a book published in 1862 entitled, ‘Female in Prison,’ written by Frederick Robinson. The book tackled the daily life of female prisoners in England during the 19th century. Robinson called the shoes worn by the guards or matrons in prison as ‘sneaks’ and described them as a type of India-rubber shoes generally sported by the night officers.

It’s good to note that the ‘sneak’ didn’t originate from the book. The term has been existing as early as the 16th century, which means moving or going stealthily or furtively. However, the1862 book was the first to use the word in reference to a specific shoe type. Twelve years later, another book used the word ‘sneak’ to refer to a shoe. James Greenwood’s ‘In Strange Company’ regarded sneaks as shoes with India-rubber soles and a canvas top.

Truth to be told, the sneakers actually began as what early people regarded as the sand shoe. The Liverpool Rubber Company produced it during the 1830s. Same with Greenwood’s book, the shoes also had a rubber sole and a canvas top.

Not long enough, the shoes got another nickname, ‘plimsoll shoes,’ in the late 1800s. They were called as such due to the plimsoll line — an indicator bar on a ship that determines the safe, legal load allowed for the ship. The sneakers’ horizontal band that connects the canvas top to the sole bears a resemblance to the plimsoll line.

The nickname ‘plimsoll shoes’ was used in the UK for quite a while. It was the North Americans, who popularized the term ‘sneakers.’ Before the arrival of the sneakers, Americans’ shoes in the 1880s were made of hard-soled leather. Thus, the shoes created a peculiar noise whenever they walk and making it easy to know when anyone is coming nearby because of the distinct sound.

But, as athletic shoes started to infiltrate the American culture, both inside and outside the tennis courts. Rubber soles were significantly quieter than hard-soled leather shoes used in the said era. These tennis shoes were soon regarded as ‘sneakers’ as the person sporting them could seemingly ‘sneak’ up on anyone sans the loud, distinct noise.

Even more, different publications referenced tennis shoes as ‘sneakers.’ Soon enough, many people called their sports footwear as such. As the demand for the shoes started to grow in the 20th century, sneakers were used even outside sporting events. Sneakers evolved as casual footwear for the consumer’s daily lives.

The sneakers first became associated with the Keds brand, produced by US Rubber in 1917. Converse soon followed suit with their renowned Chuck Taylor sneakers, and both brands dominated the sneaker during the said time. Other major shoe brands also started producing their own, making the sneaker culture still alive today.

More Readings:

Sneakers (Wikipedia)

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