Another school standard was the plimsol. The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word 'plimsoll' (sometimes spelled 'plimsole') as 'a light rubber-soled canvas sports shoe' and notes that the word is specifically British. It was in America that this type of footwear was first developed. Rubber-soled footwear like plimsols were made possible by technical advances in the use of India rubber as it was called at the time. 'Plimsolls' was the term most widely used throughout the 20th century and is still current. The origin of the term is not entirely certain. It was especially common in gym class. Working class boys in the mid-20th century might also wear them to school. School plimsolls most commonly had, and have, canvas uppers in black or white. In the past, brown versions were also available; and today they are occasionally sold, at least in sizes for younger children, in navy.
The Concise Oxford Dictionary defines the word 'plimsoll' (sometimes spelled 'plimsole') as 'a light rubber-soled canvas sports shoe' and notes that the word is specifically British. The latter point is also made in American dictionaries, including various editions of Webster's, where the word is included but noted as British usage. It is most commonly used (as with most footwear terms) in the plural: 'plimsolls'. The American equivalent is 'sneakers', although that word, I believe, is also used for the more elaborate footwear that the British would refer to as 'training shoes' or, more succinctly, as 'trainers'. In Britain, especially in northern Britain, plimsolls may be referred to as 'pumps', although the latter word is also used for other types of footwear, such as lightweight dancing shoes. In some parts of south-west England plimsolls are also known as 'daps'. Their usefulness for certain sporting activities, particularly gymnastics, was quickly realised: they became common for this purpose in schools and elsewhere, and thus the term 'gym shoes' came to be applied to them. This usage persisted for a long time and is still sometimes encountered. Sometimes they have been referred to by the generic term 'slippers', even when fastened by laces rather than being of the slip-on variety (see below).
It was in America that this type of footwear was first developed. There were experiments in Britain using various materials for the sole, but the first successful types were manufactured about 1868, using rubber soles, by the Liverpool Rubber Company. They were intended for use on the beach and thus were known initially as 'sand shoes', a term still being used in a store catalogue of 1907, although the term 'plimsoll' is used as an equivalent.
Rubber-soled footwear like plimsols were made possible by technical advances in the use of India rubber as it was called at the time. American, English, and French inventors played important roles. The important scinentific discoveries had occurred by 1840, making
it possible to effectively use rubber in clothing and footwear--the primary initial use of the material.
'Plimsolls' was the term most widely used throughout the 20th century and is still current. The origin of the term is not entirely certain, but many commentators and dictionaries agree that it most probably derives from the fact that some time after their initial manufacture a narrow strip of rubber was added, sealing the joint between the rubber sole and the canvas upper: this was thought to resemble the Plimsoll Line on ships, first introduced following Sir Samuel Plimsoll's Merchant Shipping Act of 1876. The explanation, though lacking confirmatory evidence, seems plausible enough. A few commentators have been misled by the name into supposing that the shoes were actually invented by Sir Samuel, which is not the case. The alternative spelling 'plimsoles' presumably derives from association with the word 'sole (of a shoe)'.
Sand shoes came in a variety of colours and the rubber components did not always match the upper. Somewhat similar shoes, with brightly coloured uppers, are sometimes marketed in Britain these days under the name 'plimsolls'. The present contribution, however, is concerned with the more 'traditional' versions, whether for gym lessons and other sporting activities at school, for leisure wear, or as general footwear. Such plimsolls most commonly had, and have, canvas uppers in black or white. In the past, brown versions were also available; and today they are occasionally sold, at least in sizes for younger children, in navy. White plimsolls have the disadvantage that they quickly become dirty and need to be washed and then treated with whitening. The black, brown, and navy versions can more easily be sponged clean. (They even stand up to being put in the washing machine!) Whatever the colour of the upper, the soles were usually light brown, although increasingly these days they are grey. The rubber strip and, where present, the rubber toe-cap match the colour of the upper.
Plimsolls are amongst the simplest of footwear. As already mentioned, a distinguishing feature is the strip covering the joint between sole and upper. This may be of smooth or of ribbed or pimpled rubber. At one time, it was normal for there to be a toe-cap of smooth rubber. On the black versions this is less common these days - or, rather, the toe-cap is present but is internal, beneath the canvas upper rather than above it. White plimsolls are sometimes similar, although the rubber toe-cap is more commonly present; indeed, it is sometimes much larger than it ever was on the black version and is often of ribbed or pimpled rubber. Sometimes, whatever the colour, there may be an extra strip of ribbed or pimpled rubber at the front of the shoe, forming a sort of mudguard. The sole itself has a crinkled finish, moulded into the rubber, although with use it gradually wears smooth. There is an inner sole of canvas and the heel is reinforced by an extra thickness of canvas stitched in. These inner components may be in white, off-white, or, sometimes, pale blue.
At one time it was normal for plimsolls to be fastened with laces of matching colour, threaded through eyelets in the normal way. White plimsolls are still most commonly laced, but black plimsolls are now much more frequently slip-on types, with an elastic gusset on the top; lace-up versions are, however, still available. Some of those for younger children, in black or navy, have a flap over the top, fixed on one side and fastened with Velcro on the other. This appears to be a recent innovation.
Plimsolls are sold in the standard British shoe sizes, which, like their American counterparts though using a different numbering system, come in two ranges, a smaller and a larger. They run from 0 to 13½ (corresponding to the American 1½ to 15) and from 1 to 11 (American 2½ to 12½). These two ranges are often referred to in Britain as children's and adults' sizes, although in fact the smaller sizes of the larger range are not at all big, and, for example, many boys of fifteen or so may well take, say, the 'adult' size 7. The size is usually stamped on the inner sole.
In the past, plimsolls were the usual footwear required for gym lessons at school. Many schools today still specify them for such activities and some even state that trainers are not permitted. At my own grammar school in the mid-twentieth century all boys had to be provided with a pair of plimsolls for gym lessons. Most boys also wore them for cross-country running, athletics (track and field), cricket, and tennis, although proper spiked running shoes, cricket boots, or tennis shoes were permitted and the keener boys sometimes wore them. Most of us wore black plimsolls, even for cricket or tennis, although some boys wore white - or even had a pair of each for different activities. In schools without a uniform, boys (and girls) might wear plimsolls as general footwear, especially if they were from poorer homes, since plimsolls are amongst the cheapest of shoes. In schools with a compulsory uniform, however, their casual appearance was disapproved of and they were not allowed.
For leisure wear, youngsters these days prefer trainers, and plimsolls are worn much less than they used to be. In the middle decades of the 20th century, however, they were very common. Children would often change into them after school for play and they would often be worn as holiday shoes, particularly for holidays at the seaside. Some might wear them indoors as carpet slippers - indeed, one of their advantages was, and is, that they are comfortable to sit about in at home and also suitable for outdoor wear except in the very worst weather.
For the reason mentioned at the end of the previous paragraph, plimsolls are not really suitable for everyday wear all the year round - especially in countries with a climate like that of Britain! Nevertheless, because they were so cheap - just a fraction of the price of a pair of leather shoes - they were frequently worn by boys (and girls) from poorer families. This was still the case in the 1980s, as noted in a survey of poverty in Britain in that period (Joanna Mack and Stewart Lansley, Poor Britain, London, 1985, 95). Even at the beginning of the twenty-first century there are poorer families who can afford nothing better for their children.
Boys in particular found other uses for their plimsolls. In boarding schools, where the plimsolls were intended for gym and other sporting activities and were therefore often referred to as 'gym shoes', they might be put on when sneaking out of the dormitory late at night for some prank or other. At a time when shoes or, in earlier days, boots normally had leather soles, the rubber-soled plimsolls made less noise on the bare boards of floors and stairs.
In the absence of a ball for play, a plimsoll could form a substitute - hardly equal to the real thing, of course, but better than nothing. It could, for example, be used for games of piggy-in-the-middle, in which two boys threw the plimsoll to one another over the head of a third boy who stood between them; if that third boy caught the plimsoll, then he would take the place of the one who had thrown it and the latter would become the piggy-in-the-middle. It could also be used in games of ball (or in this case plimsoll) tag, in which the plimsoll was thrown by one boy at his playmates, who tried to dodge it; if he scored a hit, then the one hit would take his place as the plimsoll-thrower. ('Tag' is known by many different names in different parts of Britain: 'tig', 'he', etc.) More simply, boys could use their plimsolls, held by the heel, to hit one another in mock fights. Less pleasantly, this last activity could also become a form of bullying if participation was not voluntary.
Also unpleasant to recall, was the quite frequent use of a plimsoll by schoolmasters as a punishment implement ('getting the slipper', 'being slippered'), again held by the heel and with the rubber sole used across the bottom. In some schools even prefects (senior pupils) were allowed to punish their juniors in this way. None of this is any longer the case, for corporal punishment is now illegal in British schools.
The earliest plimsolls worn in Britain were manufactured there from imported raw materials. Those materials, however - cotton (for the canvas) and rubber - occur in the Asian sub-continent. Most, perhaps all, of the plimsolls now sold in Britain are made in either India or Pakistan and exported from there to Britain.
Although they may be worn as general wear or for leisure wear by poorer boys (and girls), they have largely been replaced by trainers for those purposes. For school sports too trainers or more specialised footwear (cricket boots, for example) may be worn. It is largely for smaller children that they are sold on a regular basis these days: usually they will be generally available only up to the 'adult' size 6 - which, as noted above, would be too small for most men and for many women. They are usually sold by the cheaper shoe shops and some stores, almost always in black only or occasionally, nowadays, in navy. They are of the elastic-gusset type or, occasionally, of the type with a flap fastened with Velcro.
Alternatives to these commonly seen versions - for example, black lace-up plimsolls or white plimsolls - are available, but usually only from mail order over the internet. It is very rare to find them in shops - a pity, really, since they combine cheapness with both comfort and versatility.
Terence Paul Smith contributed the initial draft of this page.