While unheralded as a collectible in comparison to early head harnesses and jerseys, the football shoe was described as "the most important feature of the entire uniform," by Walter Camp in "An Introductory Chapter for Beginners" in Spalding's Official Foot Ball Guide for 1893. In fact, no other piece of football equipment could be a greater asset or liability for players on the nineteenth century gridiron.

In the first decade of football's existence, there were no national sporting goods companies to mass-produce equipment and young boys were considered fortunate if they owned more than one pair of shoes. Most simply wore whatever footwear they owned to play sports. One of the earliest essays on football, an 1872 article entitled "Football, It's Laws and Technical Terms - General Rules of Play," in 'The World: New York," provided a brief description of the common football shoe.
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Leather and steel cleats had been used by baseball players and other athletes by the 1850's, so it's likely that cleats were also used by some the very first football players in the 1860's. While steel attachments were popular with baseball players, they were a significant hazard to an opponent on the football field. Metal spikes were quickly banned in the earliest codifications of football rules in the mid-1870's.
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Ordinary boots may be used, but in the case of a goal-player laced boots with thick soles are advisable; while a general player, used to gentle rather than long kicking, often affects light shoes, or boots so light as not to impede the pace of the player.
The World: New York, November 24, 1872
As with early footballs, the first mass-produced football shoes in America were imported from England in the mid-1870's. With centuries of experience in working leather, European shoemakers and tanners were considered superior to their American counterparts in the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, the revival of interest in sports in England began in the 1850's, ten years earlier than in America, giving British factories a head start in producing athletic goods.

The most common materials used in these early athletic shoes were calf leather and heavy canvas for the body of the shoe and "sole leather," (multiple layers of semi-rigid cowhide laminated together) for the sole. Waterproof and durable, calf leather had been used in footwear for centuries. Leather boots, however, were relatively heavy, limiting athletic performance. Canvas shoes were a lighter and more economical alternative. However, canvas had a tendency to rupture when subject to repeated flexure, therefore shoemakers would reinforce key portions of canvas athletic shoes with more flexible leather strips.
Unidentified football team, circa 1875
Introduction of Cleats
Wright & Ditson Football Shoe Ad, 1883
Wright & Ditson Football Shoe Ad, 1883
Football Shoe Illustration, Intercollegiate Foot-Ball in America,
Walter Camp, St. Nicholas, January, 1890
Enlargement showing canvas and leather athletic shoes
Harvard Football Team, 1886
Enlargement showing football shoes with leather cross bars
Australians began exporting kangaroo hide to Europe and the United States in the 1870's, and by the early 1890's the leather became a favorite material for top-of-the-line football shoes. Kangaroo leather was as tough and durable as calfskin and as light as canvas. Walter Camp designed Spalding's Intercollegiate Shoe of 1893, which was constructed of kangaroo leather and featured an internal lace-up ankle supporter and rubber cleats.
Kangaroo Leather
Rule #58, "The Revised and Latest Rules of Football," Peck & Snyder, 1879.
Football Shoe Ad, Spalding Official Football Guide for 1893
By 1895, Spalding football shoes were exclusively fitted with square cleats fabricated out of multiple layers of leather and tacked to the sole. By 1896, these cleats were referred to as "Princeton cleats," perhaps because the new design was a special request from the Princeton team. Spalding's Foot Ball Shoe and Victor's Varsity Football Shoe each featured three Princeton cleats on the heal and five at the forefoot. Princeton cleats remained popular with players until 1902, when a newly invented cleat style that provided greater traction gained favor.
The Princeton Cleat
Football Shoe Ad, Spalding Official Football Guide for 1899
Enlargement of football shoe with Princeton cleats, team photo circa 1896
Varsity Football Shoes Ad, Victor Sporting Goods, 1900
Instead, straight, cross-leather strips, or "crowbars" tacked to the soles of boots and shoes by players, shoemakers, and cobblers, became the cleat of choice for footballers. By the early 1880's, sporting goods manufacturers caught on to the growing demand for athletic footwear and began supplying foot ball shoes with pre-attached leather cross bars, as illustrated in an 1883 Wright & Ditson football shoe advertisement. Reflecting on the early development of the game in his 1890 paper "Intercollegiate Foot-Ball in America," Walter Camp illustrated different crowbar configurations employed by players "in order to present an edge, no matter in what direction the foot was turned."
Chris Hornung
January 10, 2016

Football Shoe Evolution

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