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Tennis Shoes, Generally and Specifically
When we talk about tennis shoes, it's rare that we're actually discussing shoes to play tennis in. Most of use don't even actually say "tennis shoes&": we say something more like "tenny shoes." What we're really talking about is athletic shoes, which some of us also call "sneakers." And therein lies a story.
Before 1917, shoes weren't the most comfortable things in the world. They were heavy and clunky and stiff, because it was their job to protect your feet. Light shoes intended for vigorous activity, like child's play and running, were rare; the best that you could do were rubber-bottomed canvas shoes called plimsolls, which didn't even appear until 1830 or so. Is it any wonder that most organized sports didn't even get off the ground until after that magical year of 1917?
That magical year
The year 1917 is special in tennis shoes history because it was in that year that the first true sports shoes -- e.g. sneakers, tennis shoes, running shoes, ad infinitum -- were invented. That year, the U.S. Rubber Company began selling rubber-soled plimsoll-like shoes they called Keds sneakers, which were a hit for generations of kids and sporty adults. But it was up to two German shoemaking brothers, Rudy and Adi Dassler, to develop tennis shoes in the direction that they were going to take thereafter, and to make them more attractive to athletes. Together, they developed comfortable sports shoes that they gave to Olympic athletes in the 1928 Berlin Games, a brilliant marketing ploy that made them very wealthy men. One of those athletes, a black American named Jesse Owens, really ticked off Adolf Hitler when he won several gold metals in track while wearing Dasslers.
In 1947 the Dasslers had an argument and never spoke again, founding their own shoe factories on opposite sides of a German river. Take Adi's nickname and the first syllable of his surname and put them together, and you'll see what he named his company; Rudy called his PUMA. They've been competing vigorously ever since.
Back to America
While the Germans were developing elaborate sports shoes, Americans were mostly making do with Keds. However, after the mid-1960s this changed, with companies like Nike combining American marketing know-how with European styling and engineering to produce some of the hottest objects ever to hit store shelves. Innovation and development have continued to be watchwords in the sports shoe industry, so now we have every variety of sports footwear available, from cleats to climbing shoes, with features including gel-inserts, air supports, and, in some cases, imbedded lights. There are specialty shoes just for running, playing soccer, football, basketball, you name it -- there are even bona fide tennis shoes made for doing nothing more than playing tennis. For an industry less than a century old, sports shoe manufacturing has come a heckuva long way.