By Mike Wagoner, special to the News-Times
CARTERET COUNTY — Sneakers arrived on the American sports scene in 1916 with the rollout of Keds by the United States Rubber Company of Naugatuck, Conn.
Keds was the “first flexible rubber-sole shoe with a canvas top.”
Henry Nelson McKinney of the N.W. Ayer & Son advertising agency in Philadelphia coined the term “sneaker” while working on the Keds’ account. He said that “the shoe’s quiet and soft rubber sole made it unique and easy to sneak up on people.”
Keds became a favorite shoe on the women’s tennis circuit, championed by Helen Wills and others into the 1930s. Wills was one of the greatest female tennis stars of all time, playing from 1922-38.
She won 19 major singles championships at Wimbledon, the U.S. Open and the French Open. (The Australian Open was not part of the Tennis Grand Slam until 1969).
Keds began to market its women’s tennis shoes in a tribute to Wills and advertised the footwear as the “shoe of champions.”
B.F. Goodrich introduced Jack Purcell athletic shoes in 1933 for men participating in the racquet sports of tennis, squash and badminton. This classic shoe with its bulbous rubber toe and “blue smile” had a long run on the courts as the men’s tennis shoe of choice.
Perhaps the last of the top-tier professional tennis players to wear and endorse Jack Purcells was Cliff Richey. He appeared in print advertisements for the company in the early 1970s.
Keds and Jack Purcells: Where are they now?
Keds made a thrust in the 1970s to capture a slice of the professional basketball shoe market that had been dominated for years by Converse. Stride Rite Corporation purchased Keds from Uniroyal (formerly U.S. Rubber) in 1979.
The popularity of Keds sneakers rebounded exponentially after the 1987 movie “Dirty Dancing” was released. Co-star Jennifer Grey wore Keds while perfecting her dance moves at Kellerman’s resort (actually filmed at the old Chimney Rock boys camp at Lake Lure in Rutherford County, N.C.).
Keds was acquired in 2012 by Wolverine World Wide of Rockford, Mich. The Wolverine shoe family includes Hush Puppies, Grasshoppers, Saucony and Sperry Top-Siders.
In 1972, Converse purchased the Jack Purcell trademark rights when B.F. Goodrich opted to “retire from the shoe industry.” There was a lot of anxiety.
Could Jack Purcells survive under the same roof with Converse’s iconic, flagship brand – Chuck Taylor All Stars – that debuted in 1917?
Both brands managed to stay afloat for another three decades.
When Nike acquired Converse in 2003, the company named after the “mythological Greek winged goddess of speed, strength and victory,” injected new life into the Jack Purcell and Chuck Taylor lines.
Each brand has experienced dramatic sales growth under Nike’s ownership.
Michael Williams, a fashion commentator in New York City, prefers Jack Purcells: “There’s a comforting feeling when you wear a pair of Jack Purcell sneakers. ‘Classic’ is the word that springs to mind. ‘Timeless’ is another. ‘Stylish’ the third.”
“You don’t have to worry about them ever going out of favor, about them ever failing to make you look cool. Shoes with no obsolescence. More than just a footwear choice, ‘Jack Purcell’ is a state of mind.”
On the other foot, Kamala Harris is a biased campaigner for Chuck Taylors. The vice president of the United States owns Chucks for all occasions. She told Vogue magazine: “I have a whole collection: a black leather, white, the kind that don’t lace, and the kind that do lace....”