Tires are a fairly new technology, only really coming into their own over the last 170 years or so. Tires as we know them today are the result of a series of innovations that occurred from 1844 until today. Since the bulk of the history of tires and the innovations that occurred can be found online, I won't delve too much into that. Instead, I wanted to focus specifically on the way we have gone from white tires to black tires.
Tires have always been made from rubber (except during periods in WWI and WWII when rubber was scarce and people used lesser alternatives). Early tires were the were the bare minimum definition of 'tires,' basically rubber strips wrapped around steel or wooden wheels. The earliest inflatable tires were made of natural rubber, which is derived from the sap para rubber tree. The milky white sap produced tires that were similarly milky white in color--until they were driven on the muddy roads of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, that is.
As vulcanized rubber became used more prevalent, in part because of its durability and better traction, tires became black (because vulcanized rubber is blackened by the carbon the rubber is combined with). Initially just the treads were made of vulcanized rubber, creating a black outer strip with white side walls-a whitewall tire. The look was popular, especially on luxury cars and limousines and white wall tires remained popular until the 1970's (and are still sold today, occasionally popping up on new Cadillacs and Lincolns).
Eventually though, most tires became black. Whitewalls were a style thing by the teens, and as with all thing fashion related, they didn't go with every outfit. Sporty cars and boring sedans did not benefit from the whitewall tires as much as the flashy limos of the day. By the 1960's, with muscle cars all the rage, whitewall tires began to fall off the radar screen.
Today, whitewalls still grace many of the most famous classic cars. No new cars are sold with whitewall tires, although as I mentioned above, some people still buy them for their new luxocruisers. So next time you look at those four boring rings of rubber on your wheels, consider the history that has gone into creating them and be thankful that they are there, the ride would be much rougher without them!
Tires, clockwise from lower right, are modern tires on a 2005 Bugatti 16/4 Veyron, 50's whitewalls on a 1953 GM Futurliner, early whitewalls on a 1924 Franklin Model 10C, solid rubber tires on a 1921 White Tanker Truck, natural rubber tires on a 1903 Duryea Three-Wheeled Phaeton, natural whites again on a 1913 Mercer Raceabout Type 35 J, and early black tires on a 1910 Oldsmobile Limited Touring Seven Passenger