History of Boat Shoes


Sailboat in the water


Boat shoes are intrinsically connected to seasons and places - to the summer and to New England beaches. No matter where you wear boat shoes in the world, they bring that feeling with them. Their mix of comfort, water resistance, and style make them a natural fit for any shoreline - or a way to bring the ocean with you.

However, design is only one answer to the question of “what are boat shoes”. Men’s boat shoes have a style with a pedigree behind it. 

What Are Boat Shoes?

Like any legend, the origins of the various parts of boat shoes can be somewhat mythical, and the shoe took time to evolve into what we recognize today. But what are boat shoes, exactly? What separates them from other kinds of shoes?

Good quality men’s boat shoes are more than the sum of their parts, but these parts are what defines them. The parts that go into making a boat shoe often include:

  • Being made of Canvas or Leather
  • Rubber soles that don’t leave marks
  • A “siping” pattern cut into the soles
  • Water repellent canvas or leather
  • Durable and iconic stitching
  • A rounded “moc toe” front
  • Thick and tough leather laces
  • Two or three pairs of eyelets

In the Beginning…

Sometimes a discovery won’t have an impact until someone else rediscovers it. In the 1920s, a mysterious man named John Sipe had problems with slipping. He may have worked with boats, or he may have worked in a slaughterhouse as the legends say. Regardless, Sipe had a problem - he was prone to slipping and sliding all over his slick workplace. In order to give himself better traction, Sipe sliced slits (try saying that three times fast) into the rubber soles of his work shoes and found the traction he was missing. 

We could have had a shoe revolution right there, but Sipe’s mind was in other places, it seems. He promptly went out and patented his rubber cutting idea not for shoes, but for tires. Sadly, Sipe was living in the time of solid tires, rather than the pneumatic tires we have today, and his invention didn’t make much of an impact. The secret of siping would have to wait for a man with a vision…

Enter Sperry

Sperry Boat shoes are one of the best-known kinds of boat shoes, and their story is the beginning of the concept. This story begins with Paul Sperry, a man born into the sea-going traditions of Connecticut. In fact, his younger brother, Armstrong Wells Sperry, would write and illustrate children’s literature dealing with the sea, including his Newbery Medal-winning book, Call it Courage. 

Despite Paul Sperry having a love of the sea, the sea didn’t always love him back, and slips and falls were common on his sailing boat. The last straw would come in 1934 when a slip sent Paul right overboard. It was time to take action.

Paul immediately began working on a shoe that wouldn’t send him sliding right off his boat, but he wasn’t able to find any solutions at first. The breakthrough came when he was introduced to siping - not through a patent, but by man’s best friend. Paul noticed that his cocker spaniel was able to run over ice without breaking a sweat. How did the pooch manage such balance? Taking a look at his dog’s feet, Paul noticed natural siping patterns.

Paul got creative. He got a rubber sole, cut siping into it, then glued that sole to an old pair of canvas sneakers. And with that, the first non-slip boat shoe was created in 1935. There still was some tweaking to be done. These first boat shoes were “black boat shoes”, with black rubber soles that left marks on pristine sailboat decks. These needed to be swapped for “white boat shoes” with soles that wouldn’t leave any marks. 

In The Navy

Sperry sent out some messages asking fellow sailors for input on his idea. He received an overwhelming response in the form of requests for the shoes themselves. In 1937 Sperry adjusted his shoe to feature the white sole mixed with a tanned leather shoe - creating the Sperry Top-Siders, the iconic Sperry boat shoes we recognize today.

Originally, the major buyer of Sperry Boat shoes was actually the US Navy, which negotiated a deal to manufacture non-slip boat shoes for their sailors in 1939. This was right in time for important non-slip work in WWII. Sperry sold the rights to make his shoes to the U.S. Rubber Company, and Sperry boat shoes started to be marketed across the U.S. 

Off the Docks with Sebago

In the 40s, another bunch of New Englanders were  getting into the shoe business. Daniel J. Wellehan Sr, William Beaudoin, and Joseph Cordea formed the Sebago company. Originally, they produced penny loafers, inspired by the moccasins worn by the natives of the New England region. Sebago was a big hit, and throughout the 50s and 60s, they started to expand their range of comfy shoes.

In the 1970s Sebago had their biggest hit yet, with their Dockside boat Shoes. These non-slip boat shoes influenced other makes of boat shoes with their moccasin-inspired shape, brass eyelets, and “white boat shoes” rubber soles. These new Sebago boat shoes soon became popular not just for sailors, but for anyone looking for something stylish to wear.

Graduating from College

While boat shoes were becoming fashionable, they were still fairly niche throughout the 1970s, being relegated mainly to the New England area, and especially to regional colleges. The humorous The Official Preppy Handbook gave wider America a look at the styles of these colleges, including fashion choices like boat shoes. While the book was certainly poking fun at New England stereotypes, it also helped to spread them, making New England fashion suddenly accessible nationwide. 

And as The Official Preppy Handbook states, the first check for New England fashion that people look for are the shoes. Suddenly boat shoes were a distinct fashion choice - and a popular one at that. Just look at all the celebrities who understand their comfort and style.

The Boat Shoes Revolution

We’ve come a long way from the first Sperry boat shoes. While there is certainly an appeal to the classic brown leather boat shoes, some find this constant reiteration a little boring. Men’s boat shoes have gone beyond simple adjustments like black boat shoes or white boat shoes. New designers are pushing the limits of style while remaining true to the spirit of boat shoes.

You can find tons of great men’s boat shoes today in a variety of patterns and colors. Designers are now pushing the limits on fabrics and constructions to bring you boat shoes that really pop. Best of all, you can find a lot of the most fashionable boat shoes right in our shop. While Froats is proud of the heritage of where boat shoes come from, we also believe in bringing style right to you - no matter where you are in the world. Summer is just a state of mind. 

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