As the in-house archivist for Converse, Sam Smallidge is responsible for preserving the history of a footwear company that stretches back to 1908. In our interview, Sam reveals what his job entails and provides his unique perspective on this iconic sneaker brand.
Growing up, did you have a connection to sneakers, or is there a reason you were drawn toward the sneaker industry?
I don’t really have a background in footwear, but I do have a strange connection to Converse. I was born and raised in Lyme, New Hampshire, the same town as the founder of the company, Marquis Converse. I learned how to read at the Converse Free Library in Lyme, which was built with donations from his family.
Can you describe your job as an archivist for Converse?
I have two main functions as the archivist for Converse. The first is running the day-to-day work of the archive. This includes cataloguing footwear, acquiring new footwear, planning new history exhibits for Converse headquarters, and answering general inquiries. My second major function involves working with our design team. We work together very closely, and I help them get historic details correct and dig up stories from our past to bring forward in new products.
All Star, 1928 / Converse Archives
What period of Converse’s history is most interesting to you? Are there any objects with especially compelling stories?
I enjoy the period of the late 1910s and 1920s of Converse’s history. The All Star and advertisements for the All Star illustrate just how much of a technological marvel the sneaker was at this time. It is also interesting to note the many little changes the company made to the All Star during this period that resulted in the shoe we take for granted today. For example, in 1932 Converse added ventilation eyelets to the sides of the sneaker so the wearer’s foot wouldn’t get as sweaty when playing basketball. It is also during this period that the All Star as we know it today first appeared.
Why do you think the All Star is such an enduring icon?
To me the All Star is an enduring icon because multiple generations can look at an example from any era and recognize it as being the same shoe. Despite small updates to the branding on the sneaker and small material changes, the All Star has not changed in any noticeable or significant way in 100 years.
Chuck Taylor Leather All Star, ca. 1934 / Converse Archives
What aspect of your job is most rewarding?
I think the most rewarding part of my job is participating in product launches. I enjoy connecting the past to present in the eyes of our consumers and product launches are a great place to do this. For example, at a launch event for the new Converse sneaker boot in September 2016, I talked about our boot and outdoor heritage and spoke to the connection the new product has to our heritage.
Sam speaking at the launch of the Chuck II Boot, September 2016
Would you say that you have a direct role in interpreting the past, present, and future of the Converse brand?
Yes, definitely. I preserve objects from the past and help Converse to leverage its past in current and future products. I am also the collections manager for the archive, so I am constantly adding objects to the collection that are a vital part of helping the brand to tell its story.
Chuck Taylor All Star, 1971 / Converse Archives
What is your favorite Converse collaboration?
From a premium standpoint, my favorite collaboration is the line of shoes we did with SAK in 2010. Each sneaker in the collection was hand-cobbled from leather using old world cobbling techniques. The leather on each shoe is very nice and very premium. Whenever you get within 5 feet of one of these shoes, you can smell the leather.
If you could wear any shoe from the archives, which would you choose and why?
Honestly, given how cold it can get in Boston, I often think about wearing some of the boots and outdoor footwear we have in the collection.
A6 Pilots Boot, ca. 1943 / Converse Archives
What is your advice to a young person who wants to turn their love of sneakers into a career?
I guess my main advice, as someone who came from outside the footwear industry, is to be flexible and learn on the job. I see a lot of movement around Converse, whether it is someone moving from marketing to design or the other way around. The trick is getting your foot in the door, but, I suppose, that advice is likely applicable to any field you want to work in.