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The lawn tennis craze in the second half of the nineteenth century meant a lot of gear. Lawn tennis “appliances” included rackets, balls, court markers, nets, support poles, lawn mowers (machine and human), and comfortable clothing. Most of all, lawn tennis demanded a new kind of shoe: something comfortable with grip and flexibility, but easy on the grass and pleasing to the eye.

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So was born the tennis shoe. They were enormously popular, readily taken up for other sports, and, by the turn of the twentieth century, in use everywhere. They became the new casual wear. For men in particular, they represented “new sartorial possibilities,” writes scholar Thomas Turner, conveying “a relaxed, modern masculinity in everyday life.”

“Every kind of rubber sole is united with canvas, buckskin, calf, and Russian [leather], in combinations innumerable, ranging in price from under three shillings to nearly ten times that amount,” reported Pastime, a sports weekly, regarding a manufacturer’s offerings in 1890.

Lawn tennis in various forms developed in Britain in the late 1860s. Major Walter Clopton Wingfield is credited with the first commercially successful version of the game in 1874. He called it Sphairistike, Greek for “playing ball.” His equipment and rules were priced for the aristocracy, but the game soon spread to the upper-middle class via competing brands.

Four Victorian ladies in full-length skirts prepare for a game of lawn tennis.
Four Victorian ladies in full-length skirts prepare for a game of lawn tennis. Getty

Tennis became an “entertaining outdoor game redolent of lazy afternoons and comfortable, bourgeois leisure.” The tennis party focused “social interaction and displays of wealth and status” that became “integral to the game as a practice.” Turner argues that the game was more than just a game: “it was a complex blend of physical movement, commodities and environments, and systems of social display and interaction.”

The “social implications, conventions of behavior, and ways of thinking that surrounded” the game had gender as well as class connotations. Women were not supposed to be as active as men, even in mixed doubles play. So women’s tennis shoes were still primarily ornamental. The debate over heels was mostly pro, but a growing minority of female collegiate athletes begged to differ. Men’s shoes, meanwhile, were often classed as part of the equipment, but men nevertheless still had a keen interest in how the shoes looked.

“Rubber-soled shoes were deemed essentially almost immediately,” writes Turner. Leather soles were be too slippery and the spiked shoes used for stability in other field sports ruined the lawn. Vulcanization, which melded sulfur and rubber, made for waterproof maneuverability and lawn friendliness.

The British shoe industry, with introduced American machinery, was in this period transitioning from handicraft to factory-based mass production. The combination of consumer demand, industrial production, and advertising to create even more consumer demand resulted in a lot of tennis shoes. For instance, almost a quarter million pairs of the Renshaw, named after celebrity twin brother players, were sold between 1885–1888. Another bestseller, the Tenacious model, innovated uppers that were both sewn and glued to the soles for extra integrity. The Tenacious, made by H. E. Randall, came out of the largest shoe factory in Europe; the company had fifty shops by World War I, setting the template for the branded sneaker emporiums of our own day.

Tennis was readily exportable, especially though British military personal across the empire. The American socialite who introduced the game to the US saw it played on Barbados. The first US tournament was in 1880. By 1887 there were, as an example of the rage, some 450 tennis clubs using Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. American shoe makers responded as the British ones had. You could even order them by mail from Sears, Roebuck & Co.

At least by 1913, “tennis shoes” had become a generic term for anything with rubber soles and cloth tops. For runners and mountain climbers, as well as for loungers and cocktail-sippers, the long reign of the boot was done.

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Journal of British Studies, Vol. 55, No. 3 (July 2016), pp. 474–500
Cambridge University Press on behalf of The North American Conference on British Studies