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Put On Your Deck Shoes
By Lynn Whitney
Summer is here, your boat is in the water and it’s time to take off your socks and slip into your well-worn deck shoes. Maybe you’ve never given your favorite shoes much thought, but they have an interesting history. They were developed in the early 1930’s by Paul Sperry, thus the name, Sperry Top-Siders.
Paul Sperry was born into a sailing family in New Haven, Connecticut, the second of three sons. Their grandfather , William Wallace Sperry, was a shipbuilder, their great grandfather was a sea captain. Paul’s younger brother was Armstrong Wells Sperry, a writer and illustrator of children’s literature, best known for his 1941 Newberry Award winning book, “Call It Courage,” the story of a young boy on the island of Hikueru in Polynesia.
Back to Paul. Born on December 4, 1895, he spent his early childhood in Stamford, Connecticut and New York City. He studied one year at Dartmouth College, then took a job as a salesman for the United States Finishing Company of New York. In 1917, he joined the naval reserve and was released from duty as Seaman First Class at the end of the year. In 1922, he married Pauline Letitia Jacques. They spent their honeymoon on Chincoteague Island, hunting ducks, in separate duck blinds. His love of the outdoors and bird hunting led him to design and produce the first balsa wood duck decoys. In the early 1920’s,he started Sperry Natural Decoys, whose buyers included Abercrombie & Fitch and Kirkland Brothers.
Paul purchased his first sailboat, Gilnockie in 1930. While on his third boat, Sirocco II, he learned the dangers of slippery painted decks. He tried repainting and lightly dusting them with emery dust, but found it had, “poor results on skin.” One day while sailing on the Long Island Sound, Paul slipped and fell overboard. Luckily, he was able to pull himself back on board, but the experience of nearly drowning led him to start thinking of other ways to deal with slippery decks. He came up with the idea of making the shoes non-slip, rather than the decks. Paul began experimenting with different materials to create a non-slip sole. Upon observing his cocker spaniel Prince romping in the snow on a particularly icy day, he realized that the cracks and grooves on the dog’s paws formed a herringbone pattern that gave him a firm grip. This inspired him to try cutting a “siping” pattern on a natural rubber sole. He experimented with various patterns and eventually settled on the now familiar herringbone pattern. To test his new invention, he glued the prototype soles to a pair of canvas sneakers and gave them to Leon Burkowski, the young man who looked after his boat. When Sperry returned to his boat, Leon threw a bucket of water on the deck, took a running start and stopped dead in his tracks. The Sperry boat shoe was born.
In 1937, Sperry applied for a U.S. patent for his non-skid sole. He first offered his patent to the U.S. Rubber Company of Connecticut, who turned him down because the sole would have cost $4.50 as opposed to the standard $3.75 of the time. He then offered the patent to Converse Rubber Company, who agreed to make blank rubber soles, ship them to Sperry for siping, then assemble the shoes and return them to Sperry for sale. Sperry designed a machine to cut the non-skid soles and launched his product.
Sperry initially sent letters offering his shoes for sale to all 500 members of the Cruising Club of America. All 500 members purchased the shoes. With the success of his product, he started a mail order business, and also sold through the Commonwealth Shoe & Leather Company in Boston. In the late 1930’s, Sperry worked with the United States Rubber Company to develop a compound that could be more easily siped. He also worked with the Commonwealth Shoe & Leather Company to develop a specially tanned leather “saddle” through which rawhide laces could be pulled. The Sperry Authentic Original boat shoe was created!
In 1939, the shoe became the official footwear of the casual uniform of the United States Naval Academy, but it truly became a piece of classic footwear when it was included in the 1980 publication of The Official Preppy Handbook. So just how do you wear your boat shoes? Well, some people like to roll up their denim jeans to draw attention their shoes. They go well with a polo shirt or an Oxford cloth button down shirt. You can even wear a sport coat if you so choose. However, according to the “Gentleman’s Gazette,” your boat shoes should never be lighter in color than your pants or shorts.
I hope by now, you realize I’m being facetious. You are a sailor. It’s your boat. You are the Master of your own Universe. Wear your shoes however you please. Get as dirty and sweaty as you want. After all, The Official Preppy Handbook tells us that anyone can be a preppy, because “in a true democracy everyone can be upper class and live in Connecticut. It’s only fair.” Just don’t wear socks with your boat shoes.