Thursday, July 06, 2006

Mystery of sneakers' origins still eludes historians

By Tracy Gordon Fox, The Hartford Courant

COLCHESTER, Conn. --They are becoming the buzz in Tokyo. And they may soon be all the rage on fleet French feet, too.

Vintage basketball sneakers, marketed as the first modern basketball shoe, with the label Colchester Rubber Co., will be sold overseas as early as August, according to the clothing collectors who found an old pair in a closet of an estate sale in December 2005.

The entrepreneurial salespeople, who named the sneaker company after the rubber company, turned up in Colchester last week to do some more research on the rubber company, which burned down in 1908. But they've received a cool reception from the town, where some historians were skeptical of their claim.

However, after inspecting prototypes of the shoes, produced in Shanghai, China, and talking to Cynthia Johnson, president of the company, town historian Stanley Moroch said he is beginning to change his mind.

Maybe Colchester was the birthplace of the basketball sneaker after all, he said.

"I think she's got me convinced because she's done a lot of research," Moroch said last week, after meeting with Johnson and seeing the sneakers she is helping to market.

Moroch said he hopes the company will give the Colchester Historical Society some proceeds from their sales. The shoes may someday be marketed in the United States, but are first being sold overseas.

One reason historians weren't buying the story was that they did not know Colchester Rubber had the ability to make white rubber. But Johnson found evidence in the town's library that showed the company had been making white rubber aprons before the shoes were manufactured.

Gary L. Pifer found the pair of homemade sneakers at an estate sale in California, in the closet of a house emptied for an estate sale. The shoes carried the insignia of the Colchester Rubber Co. and when he researched the name on the Internet, Pifer learned that the company closed in 1892, one year after basketball was invented. Converse claims it made the first basketball sneaker, in 1917.

But Pifer and his company suspect the Colchester shoes may have been created as prototypes for James Naismith, who invented basketball in Springfield, Mass. Naismith at the time had been approached by companies that worked with rubber to make basketball shoes, according to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

The sneakers were found in a Victorian-era trunk in the home believed to be a relative of one of Naismith's friends.

Most of the records were lost when the building burned down in 1908. As a result, it could be impossible to learn the full story behind the sneakers.

Even so, they are marketed as "National Treasure Vintage," which has whetted the appetite of Japanese designers who love anything American retro. The high-top and low-top canvas sneakers are even on the cover of a Japanese fashion magazine this month and received high ratings for their appearance.

"I've been amazed at the response of this little lost piece of American history we stumbled across," Johnson said. "It's a real cool piece of American history."

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