Know Your Clothes: Vulcanized Rubber
Know Your Clothes: Vulcanized Rubber
- Words Daniel Penny
- Date August 14, 2018
On the Converse x Virgil Abloh Chuck 70, a bold word printed across the side of the sole in all-caps immedaitely captures your attention: “VULCANIZED.” Part of “THE TEN,” the shoe resembles the other silhouettes in Abloh’s Nike collaboration (who own Converse), where the components of the sneaker are emphasized in thick, san-serif font: FOAM, AIR, etc. Unlike these newer sneaker materials though, vulcanized rubber has been utilized in athletic sneakers for over a century. The product of a heated chemical process, the raw material transforms into a product that’s both elastic and durable. Though it may now seem standard, vulcanized rubber was a technological marvel when it was first manufactured, allowing athletes to ditch their old leather shoes for a light, flexible and bouncy alternative. From plimsolls to trainers to skate shoes, vulcanized rubber has been the key ingredient in countless iconic designs, and remains an indispensable component of athletic and casual footwear today.
Derived from Vulcan, the Roman god of fire, the process was discovered by notorious American inventor, Charles Goodyear.. While rubber had been used by Mesoamerican people for thousands of years, when Westerners adopted it for industrial applications, they found that raw rubber had a serious flaw—it failed to work in extreme temperatures, both hot and cold.
Goodyear stumbled into this problem in 1834, when a manager of the Roxbury India Rubber Company showed Goodyear a warehouse full of discared rubber.
Goodyear became consumed with figuring out a way to make rubber more stable, moving around the US and setting up improvised rubber labs in his kitchen. On multiple occasions, he almost bankrupted his family before finally discovering that the addition of sulfur caused the rubber to harden and cure. Goodyear patented his process in 1844, shortly after British inventor Thomas Hancock filed his own claim across the Atlantic. Historians have since disputed who the true inventor is—if the two men the developed the process independently, akin to Newton and Leibniz, or one stole the other’s.
Regardless, the new vulcanized rubber was a massive success, especially in the automotive industry, most notably Goodyear tires. Goodyear and its competitors went on to introduce vulcanized rubber footwear, the earliest instance in 1876 by the New Liverpool Rubber Company: the plimsoll. Made of canvas and named after the lines on the sides of cargo ships, this shoe was a cheap mass-market item, intended for beach holidays, croquet, boating, and tennis.
Simultaneously, the Converse Rubber Shoe Company was marketing its “No-Skids” for basketball players, which became immortalized by basketball player and profesisonal salesman Chuck Taylor. With its rubber sole/toe cap, high ankle, and simple canvas cloth, the Converse All-Star is perhaps the single most recognizable vulcanized rubber shoe in history. Taylor was hired by Converse to travel the country, holding basketball clinics and hawking their sneakers to thousands of young men. In a formula that hasn’t changed since, customers eagerly bought into the notion that vulcanized rubber shoes would allow them to jump higher, run faster, and play ball as well as Taylor.
During this same period, BF Goodrich tire company released the PF Flyer . Short for “Posture Foundation”, the Flyer was marketed for its ability to better align with the wearer’s body. Known for their chunkier take on the high-top, PF Flyer eventually introduced “Jack Purcell,” a white low-top named in honor of the badminton world champion. Though a major force in athletic footwear through the first half of the 20th century—think The Sandlot—by the ‘70s, PF Flyer sales were dwindling. By 1972, Converse attempted to buy the brand, but the deal was nixed by antitrust regulators. Still, while the acquisition failed, the sale of the Purcell model went through, which is why Converse makes Purcells to this day.
In the ‘60s and ‘70s, skateboarding remade vulcanized rubber in its own, rougher image, best encapsulated by the success of Anaheim, California-based brand Vans. Since 1966, Vans has been manufacturing their own take on the vulcanized shoe, which skaters praise for its durability, lightness, and boardfeel.
In the decades since, sneaker technology has evolved considerably, and the term “vulcanized” no longer considered innovative. Usually avoided in sneaker marketing, brands now tend to favor “classic” and “iconic” to convey a sense of history and authenticity rather than highlight a dated process. But if Abloh’s latest release is any indication, maybe the venerable rubber process is making a comeback.