The Interesting History of the Plimsoll’s Athletic Shoe Name

The evolution of shoes is a dynamic and never-ending tale. From the fundamental and practical need to cover and protect our feet, it turned into a fast-growing industry in which design is just as important as functionality and comfort.

We are all familiar with running shoes and sneakers, but not a lot of us know about their early history. You’d be surprised to learn how far running shoes have come! 

So, let’s go back to one of running shoe’s earliest predecessors, the plimsoll shoe, or simply, plimsoll.

Plimsolls have quite an interesting design inspiration and background that not a lot of people know. Well, you’ll be glad to learn about it in this article.

posthumous portrait of Samuel Plimsoll
British politician Samuel Plimsoll, after whom the plimsoll was named

From the ship to the shoe

“Plimsoll” is a name given, in general terms, to all footwear with a canvas upper and rubber soles. It is named after Samuel Plimsoll (1824 – 1898), a British MP and social reformer.

You’d be quick to assume that Dr. Plimsoll invented these shoes – but it’s quite the contrary. The shoes’ unlikely inspiration was derived from something that you see across the outer hull of commercial ships – yes, ships – called the “Plimsoll line,” whose image you see below:

load line markings on a red-and-black cereal carrier

The Plimsoll line shows the maximum loading point of a vessel, letting anyone know that it is overloaded and at risk of sinking in rough seas. It is relatively simple to tell – if you see the line above the water, then your ship can navigate safely. If you don’t, your ship could sink. It’s incredible to imagine that a graphic as simple as the Plimsoll line has saved countless lives.

Dr. Plimsoll devised this system in the wake of several sinking incidents caused by deliberate overloading. Unscrupulous ship owners, spurred by the advent of insurance at the time, would purposely sink their own vessels by overloading them in order to collect insurance money. It resulted in numerous sinkings and the inevitable loss of cargo and lives.

Dr. Plimsoll, known for championing sailors, fought for the adoption of the vessel load marking system that bore his name. At first, the system was met with sweeping opposition from shipping companies as it meant that ships carrying fewer goods would make fewer profits. However, the Plimsoll line survived and is still widely used in most commercial cargo and passenger ships.

You can see a bronze statue bearing Dr. Plimsoll’s likeness on the banks of the Thames River in London, as a recognition for his services in furthering ship safety across the globe.

a pair of traditional black plimsolls

In the 1920s, footwear companies began manufacturing shoes consisting of canvas tops and rubber soles. These shoes became known as “plimsolls” because of their design. The line between the canvas upper and the rubber sole resembles the Plimsoll line. If the water gets above that line, the shoe’s canvas upper – and your foot as well – get wet.

In the United Kingdom, plimsolls are usually worn by students for their physical education classes. But they are not always called “plimsolls,” as it depends on the region. For instance, in Scotland, they are known as “gutties” or “sannies” (from the term “sand shoes,” the other name for plimsolls). In Liverpool, they are called “galoshes,” while in parts of Edinburgh and Midlothian, they are known as “gym rubbers,” or simply, “rubbers.” In London, most of West Midlands, northwest of England, and West Riding of Yorkshire, plimsolls are referred to as “pumps.”

Outside the United Kingdom, plimsolls are called variously, depending on the country. Here in the States, we usually call them “sneakers,” “tennis shoes,” “running shoes,” “Chucks,” or “Keds.” In India, it is called “canvas shoes,” while in South Africa, it is referred to as “takkies.”

No matter what you call them, plimsolls would mostly evoke memories of going to the gym for the dreaded PE classes during the winter. But now that you’ve known where the name of your regular plimsolls came from, perhaps you’ve found a new way to appreciate their origins.