Keds have been alive longer than Betty White, Dick van Dyke, and Marshmallow Fluff. The brand turns 100 years old this year, and it’s already celebrating with Ciara-endorsed blowouts. But if the brand was being historically accurate, they probably should have invited some tennis stars and clowns to the party. On the occasion of Keds’s centennial, here’s how the brand got involved with a Beatles wedding and taught teenage girls to be popular back in the 1930s.
1. THEY WERE CREATED BY THE UNITED STATES RUBBER COMPANY.
Keds didn’t originate in the brain of a 1910s sneakerhead; they were created by a rubber corporation. United States Rubber Company created the shoes during its reign as the largest rubber manufacturer in America. The group was formed in 1892 after nine companies based in Naugatuck, Connecticut, decided to merge. It dominated the industry for several decades, until it lost power and was eventually bought by Michelin in 1989. By that point it was going by its new name, Uniroyal.
2. THEY WERE SUPPOSED TO BE CALLED PEDS.
The name Keds was actually a compromise. The company initially planned to call the shoes Peds, after the Latin word for foot, but another firm held the trademark. So Keds and Veds were proposed as alternatives; Keds won out because it had a stronger sound.
3. WOMEN WERE INSTRUMENTAL IN THEIR MARKETING.
When Keds arrived in 1916, the women’s athletic shoe market was nonexistent. So ladies quickly flocked to these new “outing shoes” with flat rubber soles. But even after Keds were no longer considered revolutionary, women continued to fuel their popularity. In the 1940s through the 1960s, actresses like Katharine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Audrey Hepburn gave the shoes free publicity by wearing them. Years later, Jennifer Grey would revive them again with Dirty Dancing. No wonder Keds chose “Ladies first since 1916” as its centennial ad campaign.
4. CECIL B. DEMILLE’S BROTHER APPEARED IN EARLY ADS.
Director Cecil B. DeMille is still remembered today for his old Hollywood epics and help with the famous line, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.” But he wasn’t the only DeMille in town. His older brother William was also a director, and apparently a big fan of athletic shoes. He endorsed Keds in a 1924 newspaper advertisement where he extolled their virtues on the tennis court. “I’ve worn these for 101 sets on my own cement court—and they’re easily good for 50 more,” he said in the ad. “That’s three times the amount of wear I generally get. I thought you would like to know about it.”
5. FEMALE TENNIS STARS GAVE THE SIGNATURE SHOE ITS NAME.
The “classic” Keds shoe is now called the Champion, and you can thank 1920s tennis players for that. (Meaning the pros, not William C. DeMille.) After the company noticed lady tennis stars like Helen Wills wearing the sneakers on the court, Keds advertised the footwear as the shoe of champions. Apparently, that word had a nice ring to it and the signature sneaks were rebranded.
The fact that Keds did not have heels was a big part of their early draw. But eager to expand its offerings, the company unveiled a new line of “Kedettes” around 1930 that incorporated heels and wedges. As this vintage ad illustrates, Kedettes featured many spins on the oxford style—think moccasin oxfords, open-toed oxfords, and blucher oxfords. But they also had flats by 1959. While it’s unclear when exactly the line folded, the ads seem to have vanished around the 1960s.
7. KEDS STARTED AN ADVICE COLUMN FOR “GIRLS WHO WANT TO BE POPULAR.”
Also in the 1930s, Keds decided to get in on the advice column game. The company sponsored Nancy Dell’s Corner "for girls who want to be popular,” in which the titular Miss Dell answered letters from inquiring teenagers. Although the Keds ad copy didn’t appear until the bottom, Dell clearly promoted the shoes with her emphasis on “naturalness” and interest in sports. But this was mostly spun as a way to meet boys, and sometimes Dell got embarrassingly antiquated. In one of her queasier bits of advice, she cautioned, “Books are interesting but they don’t afford half the chance for laughing, noisy argument that a ‘net ball’ or a tricky basket shot does.”
8. THERE WAS A CLOWN MASCOT NAMED KEDSO.
In order to reach the 1950s kids glued to their new television sets, Keds created Kedso the animated clown. He appeared in commercials with a tiny top hat and sneakers, encouraging children to join him in singing the “Keds song.” He also hung out with a pair of live-action kids, as you’ll see in the clip above.
Keds tried to position itself as the basketball shoe of choice just as the NBA was taking off in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Its line of Pro Keds (which had been around since 1949) landed serious attention after crucial endorsements from basketball icons like Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. He appeared in ads for the shoes alongside Jo Jo White, Nate Archibald, Bob Love, and Lou Hudson. The campaign turned the shoes into a hit, but the success didn’t last. Heavyweights like Nike and Adidas soon muscled Keds out of the basketball scene. Yet the shoes still maintained retro cred with people like Damon Dash, who rebooted the brand in 2005.
10. THE RAMONES WORE KEDS BEFORE THEY BECAME THE POSTER BOYS FOR CHUCK TAYLORS.
Google “Ramones + Chuck Taylors” and you’ll find picture after picture of the punk band sporting those sneakers. The link is so strong that Converse execs keep framed photos of The Ramones in their offices. But the musicians actually wore Keds first. As Tommy Ramone told Spin, “Mostly, we wore Keds. It’s basically an urban legend that the Ramones always wore Chuck Taylors. On the cover of the first Ramones album from 1976 we’re all wearing a kind of Keds that’s almost like a woman’s shoe. On the cover of Punk magazine No. 3, there’s a John Holmstrom illustration of Joey wearing what look like Chuck Taylors. We got caricatured early on as wearing them. Later on, Dee Dee and Marky, who replaced me, they wore Chuck Taylors.”
11. YOKO ONO GOT MARRIED IN KEDS.
Yoko Ono has always been an unconventional lady, and that’s reflected in the outfit she chose for her 1969 wedding to John Lennon. Instead of a puffy ball gown, she selected a wide-brimmed hat, mini skirt, shirt, knee socks, and classic Keds. But she made at least one nod to tradition: It was all white.