The term "sneakers" is most commonly used in the Northeastern United States and Southern Florida. It is also used in North Carolina, Australia and Canada. The British English equivalent of "sneaker" in its modern form is "trainer". In some urban areas in the United States, the slang for sneakers is kicks. Other terms include training shoes or trainers (British English), sandshoes, gym boots or joggers (Geordie English in the UK), running shoes, runners or gutties (Canadian English, Australian English and Scottish English), runners in Hiberno-English, sneakers (North American English) and (Australian English), tennis shoes (North American English and Australian English), gym shoes, tennies, sports shoes, sneaks, takkies (South African English and Hiberno-English), rubber shoes (Philippine English) or canvas shoes (Nigerian English).
Plimsolls (British English) are "low tech" athletic shoes, and are also called 'sneakers' in American English and 'daps' in Welsh English. The word "sneaker" is often attributed to American Henry Nelson McKinney who was an advertising agent for N. W. Ayer & Son. In 1917, he used the term because the rubber sole made the shoe stealthy. The word was already in use at least as early as 1887, as the Boston Journal made reference to "sneakers" as "the name boys give to tennis shoes." The name "sneakers" originally referred to how quiet the rubber soles were on the ground, in contrast to noisy standard hard leather sole dress shoes. Someone wearing sneakers could "sneak up" on someone while someone wearing standards could not.
Earlier the name "sneaks" had been used by prison inmates to refer to warders because of the rubber-soled shoes they wore.
These shoes acquired the nickname 'plimsoll' in the 1870s, derived according to Nicholette Jones' book The Plimsoll Sensation, from the coloured horizontal band joining the upper to the sole, which resembled the Plimsoll line on a ship's hull. Alternatively, just like the Plimsoll line on a ship, if water got above the line of the rubber sole, the wearer would get wet.
Plimsolls were widely worn by vacationers and also began to be worn by sportsmen on the tennis and croquet courts for their comfort. Special soles with engraved patterns to increase the surface grip of the shoe were developed, and these were ordered in bulk for the use of the British Army. Athletic shoes were increasingly used for leisure and outdoor activities at the turn of the 20th century - plimsolls were even found with the ill-fated Scott Antarctic expedition of 1911. Plimsolls were made compulsory in schools' physical education lessons in the UK.
British company J.W. Foster and Sons designed and produced the first shoes designed for running in 1895; the shoes were spiked to allow for greater traction and speed. The company sold its high-quality handmade running shoes to athletes around the world, eventually receiving a contract for the manufacture of running shoes for the British team in the 1924 Summer Olympics - Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell won the 100-m and 400-m events, kitted out with Foster's running gear.
This style of footwear also became prominent in America at the turn of the 20th century, where they were called 'sneakers'. In 1892, the U.S. Rubber Company introduced the first rubber-soled shoes in the country, sparking a surge in demand and production. The first basketball shoes were designed by Spalding as early as 1907. The market for sneakers grew after World War I, when sports and athletics increasingly became a way to demonstrate moral fiber and patriotism. The U.S. market for sneakers grew steadily as young boys lined up to buy sneakers endorsed by football player Jim Thorpe and Converse All Stars endorsed by basketball player Chuck Taylor.
During the interwar period, athletic shoes began to be marketed for different sports, and differentiated designs were made available for men and women. Athletic shoes were used by competing athletes at the Olympics, helping to popularise athletic shoes among the general public. In 1936, a French brand, Spring Court, marketed the first canvas tennis shoe featuring signature eight ventilation channels on a vulcanised natural rubber sole.
Adolf "Adi" Dassler began producing his own sports shoes in his mother's wash kitchen in Herzogenaurach, Bavaria, after his return from World War I, and went on to establish one of the leading athletic shoe manufacturers, Adidas. He also successfully marketed his shoes to athletes at the 1936 Summer Olympics, which helped cement his good reputation. Business boomed and the Dasslers were selling 200,000 pairs of shoes each year before World War II.