Stephen Stofka’s “Behind Victorians,” on Parkside, made me nostalgic. Not because of any particular connection I have with that area. It’s his photo of the sneakers hanging from telephone wires. Oh, how in my youth, that was the thing to do. In Northeast Philly where I grew up in the 1970s, just about every overhead electrical and telephone line had at least one pair of old–and sometimes new–dangling sneakers. Clusters of them were especially appealing and prevalent.
It happened in every part of the city. In fact, it is said that Philadelphia is where this interesting behavior first occurred in America. The simplest explanation for dangling sneakers–a custom which, indeed, hit a peak in the 1970s–is that this is simply what you do in Philly with a pair of outgrown or worn-out sneaks.
There are plenty of theories on the meaning of dangling sneakers, most of them urban myths. Do they identify gang territories or drug corners? Are they memorials? Do they somehow–as perhaps a grim remnant of an Old World ritual–mark a girls’ loss of virginity? Whatever the case, in Philadelphia, the consensus is that tossing sneakers over wires is done because it’s always been done.
Interestingly, the word “sneaker” was coined in Philadelphia by an agent of N.W. Ayer & Son. (The firm was the first full-service global advertising agency, as well as the largest advertising agency in the United States before decamping to New York City in 1973 and ultimately falling on hard times.) Ayer agent Henry McKinney came up with the name for an advertising campaign on behalf of the U.S. Rubber Company, which mass-marketed the first sneakers in 1917. Called Keds, their rubber soles made them stealthy or quiet at a time when all other shoes made noise.
There you have it: Philadelphia’s bloodline connection to sneakers, from beginning to end…
Photos above by Katrina Ohstrom and Peter Woodall