American Icon: The Basketball History of the Converse All Star
When the Converse Rubber Shoe Company began manufacturing athletic goods in 1910, Dr. James Naismith’s ideas for a recreational pastime tentatively called ‘Basket Ball’ were still at a primitive stage. In 1917, Converse responded to growing demand for a basketball-specific shoe with the ‘Non-Skid’, a high-top sneaker named after its grippy diamond-patterned outsole. Three years later, the shoe was retitled the ‘All Star’ and the name quickly became synonymous with the sport itself. For the next half-century, the All Star’s on-court supremacy was indomitable. It was worn – and loved – by amateurs and Olympians alike.
We’ve been bugging Converse for the keys to their archive forever, and this year they finally relented, inviting Sneaker Freaker to their Boston headquarters to explore over 3500 items stored inside the temperature-controlled vault. As we approach 100 years of the All Star, and Converse continues to innovate the beloved silhouette with the brand new All Star Modern, it’s important to acknowledge where this journey began. Time to kick back and lace up, as we examine a century of Converse history, and pay tribute to the greatest basketball sneaker of them all.
In the 1800s, New England became the epicentre of America’s Industrial Revolution, largely thanks to the region’s abundance of swift streams that could power large factories. By the turn of the 20th century, the area had established itself as a hotbed for textiles manufacturing – giving birth to a number of footwear companies that still exist today. It was during that time that Marquis Mill Converse, a New Hampshire native, decided to leave his job managing a footwear company and start his own business. In 1908, he opened the Converse Rubber Shoe Company in Malden, and began production.
By the mid-1910s – after a detour into the tyre manufacturing business – the Converse Rubber Shoe Company was looking to expand their blossoming sportswear category. While basketball was on the cusp of becoming as big as football or tennis, there was still a lack of specific footwear choices for its players. After some internal deliberation, Converse decided to begin manufacturing footwear for basketball. While they might not have realised it at the time, this decision would prove to be one of the most defining moments in the company’s history.
Unfortunately, the exact date Converse debuted their first collection of basketball footwear is lost to history. However, the earliest catalogue in the archive that features ‘Basket Ball’ shoes is from 1916. The first range included a series of canvas high-tops in different styles, including the ‘Surefoot’ and the ‘Big Nine’, but the early favourite was a style simply called the ‘Non-Skid’.
The Non-Skid’s diamond-patterned ‘Traction Sole’ stayed true to its namesake, giving players unparalleled traction on-court. The upper blucher design also allowed for minimal leather across the forefoot. When combined with a small rubber toecap, it was one of the lightest basketball shoes on offer. Like the rest of the Converse basketball range, the Non-Skid sported the signature ‘Big C’ branded round leather ankle guard that protected from bruising. Yes – the ankle patch on the All Stars of today used to be a performance feature! At some point in 1919, Converse refined the Non-Skid outsole pattern and added corrugated patterns to the toe and heel for increased traction.
By 1920, the popular Non-Skid was given a second colourway with its own model name. Confusingly, the new model kept the ‘Non-Skid’ title while the original iteration in 14 oz. duck and brown leather took on a new mantle – the ‘All Star’. The new models were also updated with a ‘Bat Wing’ toe bumper and instep reinforcement for added durability.
That same year, a basketball player named Charles Hollis Taylor was playing his first season for the Firestone Non-Skids – a team in Cleveland’s Akron Industrial League. During a championship game against the Akron Goodyear Wingfoots, Chuck scored the winning points with a clutch half-court shot. Chuck Taylor moved to Illinois the following year to look for work after his basketball career ended. Chuck had been wearing Converse Non-Skids since his time on the Columbus High School varsity team, so he decided to walk into the Converse Chicago sales branch where he was offered a job on the spot!
Almost immediately, Chuck started driving around the country to hold basketball workshops with any team that would give him the time. At these clinics, he would teach players and coaches the newly established requisites of basketball – and of course suggest that Converse shoes would give your squad the edge over the competition. Given his own experience with the All Star and Non-Skid, the shoes became the main models that Chuck would promote.
The next year, the company began publishing the annual Converse Basketball Yearbook. Each edition would feature team photos from across the country, with all the players and coaches wearing Converse basketball shoes. The yearbooks would also document new basketball concepts, and was instrumental in spreading knowledge of the basic basketball fundamentals. Realising its influence, in 1925, Converse decided to begin promoting its own footwear within the pages of the title. By this stage the All Star had become the company’s best-selling shoe (thanks in part to Chuck’s highly successful clinics). The shoe was frequently used as an example in the yearbook advertorials, further cementing the shoe in the developing industry’s collective consciousness.
Regular player feedback led Converse to constantly tweak the design. By the time the company dropped the Non-Skid in favour of the All Star in 1925, a number of significant improvements had already been made. They included Armstrong cork insoles and double reinforced foxing in 1922. A heel cushion was added as an option in 1925, and a new last gave the shoe a narrower shank for arch support. Converse introduced a patented ‘Peg Top’ design, a refinement to the collar of the shoe so it could be tied tightly ‘without danger of cutting or chafing across the achilles tendon’. Converse always touted their innovations as ‘new features – not experiments – tested by a full season’s play’.
By the mid-1920s, the All Star was firmly established as the standard in basketball footwear as the newly formed American Basketball League was established – the first attempt to create a major professional basketball league in the country.
In 1928, the All Star dropped the ‘Big C’ logo for its own signature ankle patch and outsole branding. The same year, after basketball players complained about the outsole wearing out too quickly under the ball of their feet, the design received an update that featured a pivot button. This design was the first of its kind in the sport, and variations of it can be found on almost every basketball shoe since – even today! 1929 was also the year the eight-ply toe bumper evolved into what we can still find on current models of the All Star.
1934 was a watershed year for the All Star. After spending over a decade being the Converse spokesperson on the road, Chuck Taylor had become the basketball player most often associated with the brand and its flagship All Star model. By that point, basketball had reached almost every part of the United States. Chuck was already synonymous with the shoe, so Converse decided to sign the very first sneaker endorsement deal – renaming the shoe the ‘Chuck Taylor All Star’.
As the United States entered the Second World War in 1941, the vast majority of Converse’s production became focused on supporting the war effort. Only a small quantity of All Stars were available to the public during WWII. Made with ‘wartime construction techniques’ that used minimally rationed materials, they did not last long under the stress of basketball. Because of this, Converse has yet to find a single example from this period for their official archive.
By 1945, sports became a huge attraction as the public sought means to forget the War. The Basketball Association of America was founded in 1946 as the most recent attempt at creating a unified national league. In 1949, it would be renamed as the National Basketball Association we know today. In these early years, Converse would become the unofficial shoe of the NBA thanks to their existing lineage in the sport.
It wasn’t until the late-50s that the next big update to the All Star came about. As more people than ever started to play basketball, some players requested a low-cut sneaker for less restriction of the ankle. Converse enlisted the Harlem Globetrotters to develop this new silhouette. The brand sent down designers and boxes of All Stars to the team, and they would chop off the tops to crudely create low-cut versions. The team would run around in the prototypes to test them out on court, and give feedback to the designers on how to refine the shape of the low-top collar. It was through this trial and error development that Converse designed the Chuck Taylor All Star ‘Ox’ – short for ‘Oxford Cut’ – in 1957.
The final appearance of the Chuck Taylor All Star in the NBA would be on the feet of Wayne ‘Tree’ Rollins in the 1979-1980 season. The 80s would mark the end of the All Star’s long history in professional basketball but, as we all know, a new chapter for the shoe was already being written by a generation of free-thinkers and creatives. But that’s a story for another issue…
The Converse All Star was created during a defining point in the early days of basketball, and the shoe would go on to become the most influential basketball shoe to ever release. Chuck Taylor and his All Star team brought core basketball principles to every part of the United States. The innovations that Converse implemented with the All Star – such as the non-skid outsole, ankle patch, cushioning, pivot button and ‘Ox’ cut design – were instrumental in advancing basketball, and allowed players to play harder and faster. Without the All Star, basketball might never have become the sport it is today.
So, next time you pick up your pair of All Stars, take a minute to appreciate the century of development that has gone into that pair of shoes. Forged in the earliest days of basketball, and refined over decades of play, there’s more to the humble canvas All Star than you might think!
Big thanks to Converse Archivist Sam Smallridge for all the help! If you want to know more, check out our full All Star basketball history mega feature in Issue 36.