Beyond Nike: Celebrating the Heritage of America’s 14 Oldest Shoe Brands

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While contemporary giants like Nike, Under Armour, and Skechers dominate today’s market, these old American shoe brands have crafted shoes since the mid-1800s, shaping the nation’s footwear industry.

From timeless classics to innovative designs, each brand has left an indelible mark on American fashion, showcasing unparalleled craftsmanship and dedication to their craft.

Continue reading as we explore the stories behind America’s oldest shoe brands, celebrating their heritage and lasting impact on footwear culture.

1. Johnston & Murphy – Crafting Quality Work Shoes Since 1850

From outfitting President Millard Fillmore with custom-designed shoes to becoming the preferred choice for every American president, Johnston & Murphy, an iconic American footwear brand established in Newark, New Jersey, in 1850, boasts a storied history.

Founded by William J. Dudley, a skilled craftsman with a traditional English shoemaking background, the company initially focused on producing durable work shoes for men, women, and children.

Johnston & Murphy is the oldest continually operating footwear brand in the USJohnston & Murphy is the oldest continually operating footwear brand in the US (Credit: Johnston & Murphy’s Instagram)

In 1880, James Johnston joined forces with Dudley, ushering in an era of expansion and diversification of product lines. With the addition of William A. Murphy as a partner in 1882, the company evolved into Johnston & Murphy.

Under the leadership of Herbert P. Gleason in 1895, Johnston & Murphy embraced national sales and marketing strategies, solidifying its reputation as a premier shoe brand. Over the decades, the company thrived, catering to a diverse clientele and adapting to changing consumer preferences.

Now a subsidiary of Genesco Inc., Johnston & Murphy stopped making shoes in the United States in 2017​ when it shut down its sole US factory in Tennessee.

2. The Frye Company – Producing Iconic Leather Boots Since 1863

Founded in 1863 by John A. Frye, The Frye Company’s journey began on Elm Street in Marlboro, Massachusetts, where the first Frye shop opened its doors. This laid the foundation for generations of skilled artisans dedicated to shoemaking.

Over the years, Frye’s durable leather boots have adorned soldiers in World War II and became a staple among college students in the 1970s, reflecting their timeless appeal.

DJ Cassidy attends The Frye Company Flagship Opening Celebration in The Great Hall of The Cunard Building on September 9, 2011, in New York CityDJ Cassidy attends The Frye Company Flagship Opening Celebration in The Great Hall of The Cunard Building on September 9, 2011, in New York City (Credit: Roger Wong / INFphoto)

Despite changes in ownership, from John A. Frye’s retirement in 1944 to acquisitions by various companies, including Authentic Brands Group, which acquired a majority stake in Frye in 2017, the brand has maintained its commitment to crafting high-quality leather footwear.

With a rich history of craftsmanship and innovation, Frye’s iconic Campus and Harness boot styles for both men and women continue to captivate fashion enthusiasts today.

3. Etonic – A Legacy of Innovation in Athletic Footwear Since 1876

Established in 1876 by Charles A. Eaton in Brockton, Massachusetts, Etonic quickly became synonymous with comfort, innovation, and performance in athletic footwear.

Initially manufacturing military boots and golf shoes, the company began producing running shoes during the fitness boom of the early 1970s.

Etonic was founded in 1876 by Charles A. Eaton in Brockton, Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest and historically significant brands in the athletic footwear industryEtonic was founded in 1876 by Charles A. Eaton in Brockton, Massachusetts, and is one of the oldest and historically significant brands in the athletic footwear industry (Credit: Etonic’s Instagram)

Throughout its history, Etonic remained at the forefront of technological advancements, introducing waterproof leathers and biomechanically designed outsoles for golf shoes in the 1980s.

In 1990, Etonic revolutionized the golf footwear industry with the spikeless “Difference” golf shoe while introducing innovative technologies like StableAir and DRP for running shoes.

The brand’s commitment to innovation continued with the launch of a new generation of technical running shoes in 2005 and the introduction of PowerUp Technology in golf footwear in 2008.

4. G.H. Bass & Co. – Elevating Fashion With Timeless Styles Since 1876

Founded in 1876 by George Henry Bass in Wilton, Maine, G.H. Bass & Co. has cemented as a legendary American footwear brand known for its commitment to timeless style, comfort, and durability.

Offering premium footwear for men, women, and kids, the brand began introducing the iconic hand-sewn moccasins, known as Weejuns, in 1936, revolutionizing the footwear industry.

G.H. Bass & Co. was founded in 1876 by George Henry Bass in Wilton, Maine, and is particularly famous for their Weejuns, the original penny loafers introduced in 1936G.H. Bass & Co. was founded in 1876 by George Henry Bass in Wilton, Maine, and is particularly famous for their Weejuns, the original penny loafers introduced in 1936 (Credit: G.H. Bass & Co.’s Instagram)

G.H. Bass & Co., with a legacy spanning over a century, has been a trailblazer, introducing innovative designs and technologies while offering modern interpretations of classic aesthetics and staying true to its rich heritage.

From creating the first penny loafer in 1936 to outfitting the American Olympic Team in 1948, the brand has continually pushed the boundaries of style and functionality. Currently, the brand is a subsidiary of the American clothing company G-III Apparel Group.

5. Justin Boot Co. – Mastering Western Footwear Since 1879

Justin Boot Co. has been renowned for quality and artistry in Western footwear for over 140 years.

Established in 1879 by H.J. Justin, his journey began with a bold vision and determination to become a boot maker, starting with a humble apprenticeship at the Norton Shoe Shop in Gainesville, Texas.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Justin Boots – Cowboy Boots (@justinboots_)

Recognizing the need for durable and stylish boots among cattlemen on the Chisholm Trail, Justin established Justin Boots in Spanish Fort, Texas, with just $35 and a passion for leatherwork.

With meticulous attention to detail and innovative design techniques, Justin Boots quickly gained popularity, becoming known for its decorative stitching and durable construction.

Over the years, the brand has continued to push the boundaries of Western boot design, creating iconic styles like the Roper and garnering praise from movie stars and presidents alike, including President Lyndon B. Johnson.

6. Wolverine – Creating a Legacy of Durability Since 1883

Founded in 1883 by G.A. Krause, Wolverine has become famous for durable work boots, outdoor footwear, and innovation in the footwear industry.

Starting as a small leather tannery in Michigan, the company’s dedication to craftsmanship led to the production of renowned work boots and gloves celebrated for their comfort and toughness.

Wolverine's foundation in 1883 marks its long history in the shoe manufacturing industry, where it has established a reputation for crafting high-quality boots and shoes, including work, outdoor, and casual footwear Wolverine’s foundation in 1883 marks its long history in the shoe manufacturing industry, where it has established a reputation for crafting high-quality boots and shoes, including work, outdoor, and casual footwear (Credit: Wolverine’s Instagram)

In 1903, Wolverine expanded its operations, producing 300 boots daily in a new factory and bringing electricity to Rockford, Michigan, where it remains headquartered.

Over the years, the company has continued to innovate and expand its business, becoming a globally recognized footwear manufacturer with a diverse portfolio of brands.

Today, Wolverine Worldwide is known for its eponymous Wolverine Boots and Shoes and other brands, such as Hush Puppies and Merrell.

7. Saucony – A Century of Running Excellence Since 1898

Established in 1898 by businessmen William A. Donmoyer, Thomas S. Levan, Walter C.C. Snyder, and Benjamin F. Reider, Saucony has become a premier American brand of athletic footwear and apparel.

The brand’s name (pronounced “sock a knee”) pays homage to its roots next to the Saucony Creek, symbolizing constant flow and strength.

In April 2023, Saucony celebrated its 125th anniversary by poking fun at the mispronunciation of its name with a humorous twist, reminding everyone it's 'Sock-a-knee'In April 2023, Saucony celebrated its 125th anniversary by poking fun at the mispronunciation of its name with a humorous twist, reminding everyone it’s ‘Sock-a-knee’ (Credit: Saucony’s Instagram)

With over a century of expertise in the running industry, Saucony has evolved from a local factory to a global powerhouse, inspiring countless runners worldwide.

Rooted in its performance legacy, the brand continues to lead the way with best-in-class running shoes, running apparel, and timeless retro footwear.

It has evolved from its humble beginnings in Kutztown, Pennsylvania, to its acquisition by Hyde Athletic Industries in 1968 and has been a part of Wolverine Worldwide since 2012.

8. Red Wing Shoes – Where Comfort Meets Quality Since 1905

Red Wing Shoes, established in 1905 by Charles H. Beckman in Red Wing, Minnesota, has become synonymous with high-quality work boots designed to endure the harshest environments.

From factory floors to farms and construction sites, Red Wing boots are celebrated for their durability and comfort. They embody a legacy of excellence over a century.

In February 1905, Charles Beckman founded the Red Wing Shoe Company with a commitment to quality and craftsmanship through "pegged-and-nailed construction," values that still define the company todayIn February 1905, Charles Beckman founded the Red Wing Shoe Company with a commitment to quality and craftsmanship through “pegged-and-nailed construction,” values that still define the company today (Credit: Red Wing’s Instagram)

In addition to their renowned work boots, Red Wing offers lifestyle footwear and leather goods, expanding its offerings in 2008 with the addition of a Heritage catalog, blending archival inspiration with modern design to cater to the needs of contemporary men and women.

From the debut of the Gloria, the original women’s boot in 1926, to creating iconic styles like the 877 Moc Toe in 1952, Red Wing has consistently delivered durable footwear crafted with pride and purpose.

9. New Balance – From Arch Supports to Athletic Footwear Since 1906

Founded in 1906 as the New Balance Arch Support Company by William J. Riley, an English immigrant based in Boston, Massachusetts, New Balance has evolved into a global sports footwear and apparel giant.

Initially producing arch supports for improved shoe fit, New Balance ventured into athletic footwear, crafting innovative products with technical features like blended gel inserts and heel counters.

New Balance has evolved from producing arch supports in 1906 to becoming a renowned athletic footwear brand, maintaining a legacy of performance and qualityNew Balance has evolved from producing arch supports in 1906 to becoming a renowned athletic footwear brand, maintaining a legacy of performance and quality (Credit: Felix Zahn / DPA / Cover Images)

The brand’s name, “New Balance,” is said to have originated from Riley’s observation of chicken feet, highlighting the importance of balance.

Throughout the years, New Balance has remained committed to quality and innovation, with milestones such as the invention of the “Trackster,” the first running shoe with varying widths, in 1960.

10. Converse – Enduring Trends and Timeless Classics Since 1908

Converse, an American lifestyle brand, traces its roots back to 1908 when Marquis Mills Converse established the Converse Rubber Shoe Company in Malden, Massachusetts.

Initially producing rubber-soled shoes and boots, the company began manufacturing military footwear during World War II. The iconic Converse All-Star basketball shoe, introduced in 1917, gained popularity during wartime.

Rihanna rocks timeless style in classic Black Converse All Star Chuck Taylors, proving that some fashion statements never fadeRihanna rocks timeless style in classic Black Converse All Star Chuck Taylors, proving that some fashion statements never fade (Credit: INFphoto)

In the 1920s, basketball player Charles H. “Chuck” Taylor joined Converse as a salesman, contributing to the success of the All-Star line. His signature was later added to the shoe’s patch, solidifying its iconic status.

Despite facing bankruptcy in 1929, Converse rebounded and continued to innovate, introducing low-cut styles in the 1960s and expanding its product line to include various trademarks like Cons, Jack Purcell, and One Star.

11. Tony Lama – Crafting Legendary Western Boots Since 1911

Tony Lama, a renowned name in Western footwear, can be traced back to 1911 when Italian immigrant Tony Lama began crafting boots in El Paso, Texas.

Orphaned at a young age, Lama learned the art of cobbling and the properties of various leathers while apprenticing in New York. Stationed with the cavalry at Fort Bliss, Texas, Tony’s reputation as a custom boot maker quickly spread among cowboys and ranchers in the Southwest.

Tony Lama was started in 1911 by Tony Lama Sr., a cobbler and former soldier who learned the boot trade at an early ageTony Lama was started in 1911 by Tony Lama Sr., a cobbler and former soldier who learned the boot trade at an early age (Credit: Tony Lama)

In 1912, Tony Lama established his boot repair shop in El Paso, where he handcrafted boots for soldiers and locals. Over the years, his dedication to quality and style earned him recognition, with demand growing steadily.

Despite challenges during World War II, Tony Lama’s business flourished post-war, leading to innovations in boot styles and technology during the 1950s. By Tony Lama’s passing in 1974, his company produced thousands of pairs of boots daily.

Today, Tony Lama’s legacy lives on under the ownership of Berkshire Hathaway, continuing to craft legendary boots cherished by cowboys and enthusiasts worldwide.

12. Keds – Pioneering Casual Comfort and Fashion Since 1916

Keds, an iconic American brand, has been synonymous with comfort and style since its establishment in 1916 by U.S. Rubber. Originally intended to be named “Peds,” the brand became known as “Keds” due to trademark constraints.

Their pioneering canvas-top sneaker, the Champion, revolutionized casual footwear, earning them a place in history as the first mass-marketed canvas-top shoe. In 1938, Keds introduced the Kedettes, a line of washable high-heeled shoes for women, further expanding their appeal.

In 2023, Keds celebrated its 107th anniversary, marking over a century of evolution from its origins in arch supports to becoming a beloved athletic footwear brandIn 2023, Keds celebrated its 107th anniversary, marking over a century of evolution from its origins in arch supports to becoming a beloved athletic footwear brand (Credit: Keds’ Instagram)

Throughout the 20th century, Keds became a favorite among athletes, celebrities, and everyday wearers. Olympic soccer players, tennis champions, and Hollywood stars like Audrey Hepburn and Marilyn Monroe donned the iconic white canvas design.

Keds continued to evolve throughout subsequent decades, introducing new silhouettes, colors, and patterns while remaining true to their roots of comfort and versatility.

Today, Keds remains a beloved choice for those seeking comfort and fashion, with celebrities like Taylor Swift and Mischa Barton supporting the brand through ad campaigns.

13. Allen Edmonds – Setting the Standard for Men’s Shoes Since 1922

Allen Edmonds has been a cornerstone in men’s footwear since its inception in 1922 by Elbert W. Allen in Belgium, Wisconsin.

Originally known as the Allen-Spiegal Shoe Company, it later evolved into the Allen Edmonds Corporation in 1931 when Allen partnered with salesman Bill Edmonds.

Allen Edmonds has been setting the standard for men's shoes since its establishment in 1922, known for its premium quality, craftsmanship, and classic American stylingAllen Edmonds has been setting the standard for men’s shoes since its establishment in 1922, known for its premium quality, craftsmanship, and classic American styling (Credit: Allen Edmonds’ Instagram)

The brand’s commitment to quality craftsmanship has remained steadfast throughout its history. Each pair of shoes is meticulously crafted by hand in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

Despite the trend of outsourcing manufacturing overseas, Allen Edmonds has proudly upheld its tradition of American production, with more than ninety-eight percent of its shoes being made domestically.

The brand earned a prestigious reputation, making it the preferred choice for every U.S. president, from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush on inauguration day.

14. PF Flyers – A Symbol of American Innovation Since 1937

Since its inception in 1937, PF Flyers has been applauded for its athletic innovation and style. It introduced the revolutionary “Posture Foundation” arch support insole, setting a new standard for comfort and performance in sports shoes.

Founded by B.F. Goodrich, the brand quickly gained prominence, with basketball legend Bob Cousy of the Boston Celtics endorsing PF Flyers, catapulting them to iconic status in sports footwear.

PF Flyers has symbolized American innovation in footwear since 1937, renowned for its classic designs and the iconic "Posture Foundation" insole that revolutionized comfort in sneakersPF Flyers has symbolized American innovation in footwear since 1937, renowned for its classic designs and the iconic “Posture Foundation” insole that revolutionized comfort in sneakers (Credit: PF Flyers’ Instagram)

Throughout the 1940s and 1950s, PF Flyers expanded beyond the court, becoming a fashionable choice for active individuals seeking both style and functionality. Their slogan, “Run Faster, Jump Higher,” embodied the brand’s commitment to performance.

Despite industry changes in the 1970s, PF Flyers remained a beloved American sneaker brand, even earning a place in pop culture with appearances in films like The Sandlot.

Acquired by New Balance in 2001 and relaunched in 2003, PF Flyers persevered through legal challenges and now, under Kassia Designs, LLC, remains dedicated to offering high-quality, stylish footwear.

Filed Under: Brands