The first shoes crafted specifically for running look nothing like the neon-tinged, rubber soled, breathable athletic sneakers of today. In fact, they look like they might be a weaponized dress shoe straight out of James Bond.
The oldest example still around from the earliest days of athletic wear is a shoe made by Thomas Dutton and Thorowgood in the early 1860s, on display at the Brooklyn Museum right now as part of their exhibit “The Rise of Sneaker Culture.”
While track-and-field-type events have existed since ancient times (Ireland’s Tailteann Games date back to 1500 BCE [PDF]), running as a popular sport—with its own equipment—didn’t take off until much later. In the early 1800s, “pedestrianism,” or competitive walking, became popular among the leisure classes, followed by running. While the marathon is named after the 26.2 mile run Pheidippides took from Marathon to Athens in 490 BCE, it didn’t become a regular sporting event until the first modern Olympic Games in 1896.
Early running shoes looked a lot like typical men’s dress shoes, made of leather and with a small heel at the back. But they also featured spikes on the soles for grip, and an extra band of leather across the front of the shoe for support. Just take a moment to imagine the ensuing blisters.