Sneakers or Tennis Shoes? The Ray Bradbury Life-Style of the Mid-Twentieth Century

Before the age of clunky running shoes, circa 1975 – and by the way, my first running shoes were Brooks Villanovas, recommended for beginners because of the cheap price – I never ran a step in my life. God, no. What was I, a jock? I walked around the track in gym. My friends and I walked to class, we walked downtown, we walked to the mall, and we walked to the park. Every summer we shed our loafers, Earth shoes, or whatever and slipped into canvas shoes, known as tennis shoes or tennies. Oh, we didn’t play tennis. But tennies were ideal for our kind of walking.

Keds tennies or sneakers?

In other parts of the country such shoes were called sneakers, as I was aware from reading literature set in New York. But in the midwest the term tennis shoes prevailed. You can confirm this by Ray Bradbury’s sentimental novel, Dandelion Wine (1957), which is set in a midwestern town. The first chapter is a paean to tennis shoes.

…Douglas saw the tennis shoes in the bright store window. He glanced quickly away, but his ankles were seized, his feet suspended, then rushed. The earth spun; the shop awnings slammed their canvas wings overhead with the thrust of his body running. His mother and father and brother walked quietly on both sides of him. Douglas walked backward, watching the tennis shoes in the midnight window left behind.

Although I prefer Bradbury’s science fiction, I certainly know the magic of tennis shoes. In our family, buying tennies was an exciting summer ritual. My mother took us to Kinney Shoes, a long-defunct chain, to buy Keds tennis shoes. These shoes, as I remember, came in white, red, navy blue, or light blue. Mother begged me not to buy white. Though they could be washed in the washing machine, she thought they looked dirty after a few days’ wear. (She was right.) But after donning our tennies, we mothers and daughters had a spring in our step as we did yard work, walked to the small neighborhood store, or dragged lawn chairs from the car when we attended ghastly Little League games. Cousins and male friends wore black canvas shoes with white rubber toes – they were usually Keds, but I do not know if they were called tennis shoes.

Are tennis shoes and sneakers the same shoe? Perhaps, perhaps not. According to a 1980’s Webster’s Dictionary, a tennis shoe is “a sports shoe with a rubber sole (usually pebbled) and a stitched canvas upper that laces over the instep (1890-95).” A sneaker is “a high or low shoe, usually of fabric, such as canvas, with a rubber or synthetic sole (1590-1600).” It’s a fine line, isn’t it?

This summer I am wearing tennis shoes for the first time in years. They are so light, and perfect for going out in the yard or a quick trip to a store. No arch support, of course. You don’t go hiking in tennies. But they are more practical than sliders, flip-flops, or sandals, through which small branches (and where do they come from?) seem to wedge themselves when you take a walk.

Any thoughts on the difference between tennies and sneakers? What do you/did you call them?

12 thoughts on “Sneakers or Tennis Shoes? The Ray Bradbury Life-Style of the Mid-Twentieth Century”

  1. Sneakers (or sneaks) in Western Massachusetts. An Irish friend calls them “runners.” They had to be white–until 1964, when I was in junior high and madras sneakers hit the stores.

    When my cousin Candy Farr came to visit the summer I was 12 (Uncle Ken, a “full bull colonel,” Aunt Marge and the six cousins had rotated out of Formosa) she and I spent the day “freelancing,” as the Mai Tai-sipping grownups called it. That morning the six cousins had all gone to Topps to be fitted with new sneakers. By the time we got home for dinner Candy’s soles were flapping. “Jesus Christ!” thundered Uncle Ken, over the noise of the blender. “What do you expect for five bucks?” Candy shot back. “More than one God-damned day, that’s what I expect,” Uncle Ken roared.

    I loved that Bradbury passage. I loved Bradbury. I wanted to write my master’s thesis on his fiction but no one in the English Department at Trinity College would admit to having read him.

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    1. I think they’re called sneakers everywhere now, but it is fascinating how they have (had) different names in different parts of the country.
      I love your story about the one-day sneakers. I can see that happening!
      I love Bradbury.

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    1. If you look up plimsoll shoe om Wikipedia you will find an entertaing list of world-wide terms for them.

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    2. I’ve come across Plimsolls in English novels and never quite knew what they were. Pumps in the U.S. are are the low high-heels I wear to formal events!

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  2. Tennis shoes in the northern Kentucky side of Cincinnati in the Sixties and always Keds.

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