1. Converse Chuck Taylor All Star
Nearly everyone’s walked around with his name on their feet at some point, but who the heck is Chuck Taylor? Converse first introduced the All Star in 1917, but the company had a tough time moving many units of its fledgling basketball shoe against stiff competition from Spalding and several tire companies that were trying to horn in on the market for rubber-soled athletic kicks. Converse needed a charismatic salesman with some serious basketball street cred, and former Indiana high school hoops star Chuck Taylor needed a job. In 1921, he joined Converse and started making sneaker history.
Taylor used his basketball experience to suggest several improvements to the original All Star design, including a patch to protect the shoe’s ankle. By 1923, the patch included a replica of Taylor’s signature. For the next 40 years, Taylor traveled around the country selling All Stars out of the back of his Cadillac and putting on basketball clinics to help educate players on the game and show why they should wear All Stars when they took the court.
Interestingly, although Taylor’s name was on nearly every pair of Chucks that ever left the factory, he didn’t get a cut of the profits or any sort of commission. Instead, he was on salary the entire time he worked for Converse. The company has sold over 600 million pairs of Chucks, so even a few cents per pair would have amounted to a handsome fortune.
The English shoemaker was originally part of J.W. Foster & Sons, a British business that dates back to 1895. In 1958, though, two of the Fosters decided to start an offshoot athletic shoe company. Their search for a name led them to thumb through a dictionary Joe Foster had won in a footrace as a boy. They decided that the rhebok, a speedy African antelope, was the perfect inspiration for their company. Wait, then why is the company’s name spelled “Reebok” instead of the correct “Rhebok?” The dictionary young Joe Foster won was a South African edition, so it had the Afrikaans spelling rather than the English one.
Many people believe that “Adidas” is an acronym for “All Day I Dream About Soccer,” but the real origins of the name are decidedly less sporty. “Adidas” is a portmanteau of the name of Adi Dassler, the German businessman who started the company in 1949. Before starting Adidas, Dassler had been in the shoe business with his brother Rudi, and together the brothers made the shoes Jesse Owens wore for his triumph at the 1936 Olympics. In 1948, though, Adi and Rudi split to go take on their own projects. Adi’s Adidas obviously flourished, but Rudi didn’t do too badly for himself by starting a little shoe company he called Puma.
U.S. Rubber introduced the first shoes known as “sneakers” in 1917; because the shoes had rubber soles they allowed the wearer to sneak around quietly. The company had a great idea for what to call their canvas-topped creations, too: Peds, the Latin word for “feet.” The only hitch was that someone already owned the rights to the name “Peds.” To get around this little inconvenience, U.S. Rubber just slightly tweaked the name to “Keds.”
5. Puma Clyde
The subtle suede Puma Clyde is another classic shoe with origins modern wearers might have missed. In 1973, Walt Frazier, the flamboyant and fashionable point guard of the New York Knicks, wanted his Puma basketball shoes to fit a little differently. Frazier thought he’d be more comfortable in a wider shoe and asked Puma if they could design him one. Puma was glad to give the dapper Frazier a hand, and he quickly signed on to endorse the revamped kicks. To tie the product even closer to Frazier’s famously cool public persona, Puma gave the shoe Frazier’s nickname, “Clyde,” a moniker a Knicks trainer bestowed upon Frazier to honor his tendency to dress like famous bank robber Clyde Barrow.
6. PF Flyers
PF Flyers played a crucial role in one of the funniest sports movie scenes ever: the climax of The Sandlot, where they’re revered for their ability to make you “run faster and jump higher.” What does the “PF” stand for, though? Nothing magical, just “Posture Foundation.” The Posture Foundation insole was invented in 1933 to help make athletic shoes more comfortable, and in 1937 BF Goodrich started making PF Flyers that could help athletes “play at full speed longer.”
PF Flyers hold another important spot in sneaker history. In the 1950s they became the first shoe company to collaborate with a professional athlete on shoe designs when they built a series of sneakers to legendary Celtics guard Bob Cousy’s specifications while Cousy appeared in PF Flyers ads.
The ASICS we know now are descendants of the Onitsuka Company’s designs that first came out in Japan in 1949. As Onitsuka grew and merged with other companies, it needed a new name. In 1977 it became the ASICS Corporation; the name is an acronym for the Latin phrase anima sana in corpore sano, or “a healthy soul in a healthy body.”
As a loyal customer who buys a new pair of Brooks running shoes several times a year, I was pretty surprised to learn there was never a Mr. Brooks involved with the company. Actually, it was Morris Goldenberg who founded the company in Philadelphia in 1914. He decided not to go with his own name, and instead picked an Anglicized version of his wife’s maiden name, Bruchs.
9. adidas Stan Smith
Sneakerheads instantly recognize the adidas Stan Smith as a footwear icon, but they may not know that Stan Smith himself was a real tennis player who had a pretty nice career. Smith, a Californian, was a three-time tennis All American at USC and picked up the NCAA men’s singles title in 1968. He then enjoyed a nice pro career in which he won Wimbledon in 1972 and the US Open in 1971. In 1971, adidas approached Smith about endorsing a tennis shoe that had originally been worn by Frenchman Robert Haillet during the 1960s. Thus, Haillet lost his chance at sneaker immortality while Smith will be on our feet for years to come.