As the name suggests, the origin of boat shoes – or deck shoes – leaves little to the imagination. The year was 1935 and irked sailor Paul Sperry was having trouble maintaining traction when working on the deck of his ship. The wet conditions and choppy waters made keeping his footing a difficult task and as a result, necessary jobs when working on the deck became more dangerous than they should have been.
Sperry had noted the issue, but it wasn’t until he saw his dog scaling slippery ice cliffs with little difficulty that he thought to inspect. He noticed that there were tiny cracks and grooves on his dog’s paws that allowed the mutt to keep a good grip on the smooth ice banks. With this in mind, Sperry thought to carve similar divots into the gummy rubber sole of his shoe to mimic the dog’s paws and improve traction on the deck of his ship.
To Paul’s surprise the process worked, and traction was dramatically increased when he and his fellow sailors worked on-deck. He did come across two issues with his design, however. The first was that despite the improved stability, his traditional boots left black scuff marks on the deck of the ship; the second was that the process of carving treads into the soles of shoes for added traction was already a patented invention known as ‘siping’ after the man who discovered the process, John F. Sipe.
Caption – Classic Sperry Top-Sider boat shoe. Note the white, rubber sole that prevents deck scuff marks
Attribution: By Antontushnov (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0
Once Sperry overcame these issues, changing the black soles to white and ‘siping’ a herringbone pattern into the shoe, the first official Sperry Top-Sider shoe was invented (see above) – an invention which quickly caught wind with fellow sailors and the became popular amongst sailing communities.
Four years later in 1939, the U.S. Navy noticed the benefit of Sperry’s widely used boat shoe and a contract was signed between the two, making Sperry’s very own invention standard issue for U.S. Navy Sailors in WWII.
Eventually, Paul Sperry would sell his business to the U.S. Rubber Company, and thus began the mass marketing of boat shoes throughout the United States. The company then passed hands again in 1979 to Stride Rite and it was around this time that the shoe became popular casual fashion. The shoes were concretised as fashionable footwear in the 1980s when they were featured in The Official Preppy Handbook, and from this point onwards the shoe began gaining popularity across the western world and Australia.
Written by Aaron Thompson