Humans have been running for over 3.5 million years; the running shoe, however, can claim a more modest heritage. In this second chapter of our History of Running Shoes, we look at the first example of what we would recognise as a modern running shoe, created by a forward-thinking Englishman who ran for the Bolton Primrose Harriers Running Club.
Joseph William Foster came from shoemaking pedigree. His grandfather, Sam, was a renowned cricket shoemaker and young Joseph, a keen runner, noticed the potential advantage that spiked footwear would provide on the running track.
Working in a room above his father’s sweet shop, Foster created early versions of what would later become the lightweight Running Pump from around 1898. Completely handmade, the shoe matched the softest and strongest leather upper currently available with six one-inch spikes on the sole. Foreseeing the appeal of casual road running, Foster also created a flat version of the same shoe, with a rubber sole.
Athletes, by their nature, are a competitive bunch and interest in the new Foster’s Running Pump soon grew. J.W. Foster & Sons was founded in 1905 and runners from around the world visited Foster’s small workshop to be personally fitted for shoes. By 1910 demand had grown to the extent that he was forced to expand his workshop, knocking through into the next building to establish one of the world’s first athletics shoe factories at 57 Deane Road, Bolton. The workers at Foster’s “Olympic Works”, as he called it, painstakingly sewed welts and fitted spikes by hand to produce footwear for the world’s fastest men.
Performance was one thing, but publicity was invaluable. A growing international interest in the Olympics, coupled with the formalisation of the Games by the founding of the IOC in 1894, provided fledgling athletics brands like Foster’s with a global shop window. A canny operator, like so many running shoe pioneers, Foster knew the value of promotion and would send free samples of his shoes to top athletes, publishing their letters of satisfaction in various national newspapers.
The marketing coup that money couldn’t buy, however, came at the 1924 Olympics when the British runners Harold Abrahams and Eric Liddell battled on the running track, a rivalry later immortalised in the film Chariots of Fire. Both men wore Foster’s Running Spikes and returned from Paris with a haul of medals. Abrahams powered to gold in the 100m final with a time of 10.6 seconds, while Liddell won the 400m and secured a bronze in the 200m.
After the glory of Olympic gold, the story of Foster & Sons is a mixed one. Joseph died suddenly in 1933, leaving the business to his two sons. Initial success expanding into football and rugby was tempered by an internal disagreement with the family about the future direction of the business. As increased mechanisation put pressure on the Olympic Works factory, the tension between bespoke craft production and cheaper mass-market solutions drove a wedge between Foster’s sons.
In 1958, Joe and Jeff Foster left their father’s company to found an independent venture, Reebok. The new company embraced technology and thrived, becoming one of the dominant sportwear giants until the ‘80s. Meanwhile, production at Foster & Sons spluttered to a halt and in 1966 the factory was bulldozed to make way for a new technical college.
It may be counterintuitive, but in the world of running being first counts for nothing. Joseph Foster was undoubtedly a pioneer. He produced the first modern running shoe and set the trend for much of what was to follow, but the running world is not sentimental. In an age of innovators, when the running shoe was taking huge strides forward, standing still was not an option. In the continuous march of progress many get left behind.
[In the next chapter, we look at two German brothers from the small Bavarian town of Herzogenaurach who went on to found two of the biggest sportswear brands on the planet: the remarkable, feuding Dassler brothers.]