The origin of the sneaker begins in the forests of Central and South America where for centuries the sap of the “weeping wood” tree was used by the indigenous peoples to make rubber balls, waterproof cloth, and footwear. Europeans became aware of rubber in the 16th century but despite its amazing elasticity and waterproof qualities, its instability in both hot and cold temperatures relegated it to a novelty item. In late 1820s and 1830s, however, Brazil began to export semi-cured stretchy waterproof rubber overshoes to America and Europe. Sold as luxury goods, the price of these early rubber overshoes was up to five times that of leather footwear and reflected the fact that rubber trees yielded very small amounts of sap. However, despite the high cost of rubber, its potential finally caught Westerners’ attention, and the race was on to make it more stable. In 1839 Charles Goodyear, building on the work of other experimenters, solved the problem by adding sulfur to boiling rubber. This process, later called vulcanization after Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, transformed rubber into a durable material. Rubber soon became essential to the Industrial Age, paving the way for the development of the sneaker.
It was rising middle class prosperity fueled by the Industrial Revolution that created the first market for sneakers. The pursuit of leisure became an important means of conveying ascent up the social ladder. Tennis, croquet, and seaside holidays gained in popularity and so did interest in the equipment and clothing, including sneakers, required to pursue these amusements.
The first sneakers were quite costly, their rubber soles adding to their expense, but by the 1870s, manufacturers had increased production and the price point of sneakers dropped. The wider availability of sneakers matched growing concerns that industrialization and crowded urban environments were negatively impacting the health of the working classes who lacked access to fresh air and rejuvenating physical activity. This led to the creation of public parks, the introduction of physical education into school curricula, and incorporated sneakers into the wardrobes of millions.