Leather Care and BootBlacking History

shoe shine boy

Since I am running for IMsBB this year, I thought I would take a moment to talk about leather care. Even if you don’t identify as leather, leather is a big part of our gear. Here we talk about Leather care, shoe/bootshining, and polishes in particular. 

Leathercare – the beginning

Leather care is the story of caring for animal hides. It has a long history and there is no definitive history of shoe shining and bootblacking, but rather some spotty history around polishes and conditioners. I’ve made a stab at piecing together a history here, but please do not use it as you would a history book. And please feel free to add any facts you know or any corrections in the comments. 

The first way that people took care of their leather was conditioning it. This has gone on for millennia. Often with animal fat or some other grease that kept the leather from stiffening and cracking. The first time an actual mixture came into our lexicon was the middle ages. That mixture was dubbin and was made from natural wax, oil, and tallow. This was used to keep the leather supple and waterproof. 

There were still shines in the 18th and 19th centuries though, but only for those who could afford access to the products. Without the polishes we know today, getting a glossy shine was a skill that showed status and wealth – and that someone had done a lot of hard work.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that shining boots became a thing. A new invention in tanning made leather easier and cheaper to tan. And that leather had a better shine. Most of the ‘polishes’ were made at home – the base was often beeswax or lanolin (dubbin, again), and to blacken shoes and boots, there was ‘blackening’ or the dubbin mixed with soot As you might guess, this sort of thing didn’t adhere very well to leather and often dirted any fabric it came in contact with. 

A few shoe polish brands existed in this time – including Nugget, available in England in the 1800s, the Irish brand Punch, which was first made in 1851, and the German brand, Erdal, which went on sale in 1901. However, these weren’t usually purchased on a large scale by the public, they didn’t need to – there were shoe shine boys on every corner. In addition, commercial shoe polishing products were made from tallow, sugar, black dye and vinegar. That made the shoes and boots black and kept the leather supple, but there wasn’t a shine. 

Kiwi is often credited with changing that. From their site “Scottish expatriates William Ramsay and Hamilton McKellan began making “boot polish” in a small factory in 1904 in Melbourne, Australia. Their formula was a major improvement on previous brands. It preserved shoe leather, made it shine and restored color. By the time Kiwi Dark Tan was released in 1908, it incorporated agents that added suppleness and water resistance. Australian-made boot polish was then considered the world’s best.” 

Buying a product to shine at home became accessible to almost everyone, though shoeshine boys still persisted in this age.

While it’s true that shoes became affordable for the masses at the end of the 1800s, that is not what drove the need for polish. But something did happen to bring shoe and boot shining to a whole new level. 

WWI. 

While men were fighting in the trenches that were often filled with water and other things that could damage the usability of their leather gear (inc. belts, gun holsters, and horse tack), products to condition and shine leather and help it maintain its durability became sought after. It became so popular that troops were known to trade tins of polish for cigarettes and other items.

Vintage Kiwi shoe polish magazine advertisement with the strapline showing RAF personnel discussing the merits of using Kiwi polish published February 1947.

During this time other brands were coming into the market all over the world; Rival brands began to emerge, including Shinola (United States), Cherry Blossom (United Kingdom), Parwa (India), Jean Bart (France), among others. 

It’s here that shoe shining gets some of its racist origins in America. These polish companies had to advertise, and they advertised to the ones who were doing the shining – black males (both young and old). It doesn’t take long on Google to see some truly racist polish ads from the 20’s onwards. Not all of them were, of course, but racist roots of shoe shining in America cannot be ignored. 

WWII only drove the need for polish higher. Polish became part of a soldier’s kit, and shoe shining techniques were often the topic of conversation. Most people know the term ‘Spit Shine’, which gives a hint to the most popular technique to a mirror-like shine. 

When the soldiers came home, they continued to use the products and make shoe polish something found in almost all homes. 

Shoe Shine Boys

Shoeshiners themselves follow a trajectory that is a little different. No one can say for sure when shoeshiners became a thing, but it is generally accepted that it happened in the 1800s. A shoeshiner was someone who offered shoe shines using a basic form of shoe polish along with a polishing cloth, offering to buff shoes with everything from tallow, through to beeswax and honey, and, after the first World War, commercial polishes. Their trade was portable, and they often stood outside of railway platforms and the business districts of large cities.

Because Louis Daguerre’s picture process took several minutes, moving objects were not captured – which is why the two stationary figures are so significant in the left of this 1838 photograph The figure of a man is visible, albeit blurred, standing on the Boulevard du Temple, Paris, in 1838 receiving a shoe shine, the earliest known picture of a shoe shine.

When polish wasn’t a household item, and people wanted to keep their footwear in good condition, shoe shine boys filled a need. The reasons small children did it then, is the same reason children in India and Afghanistan do it today – poverty. All that is required for this profession is a few supplies and a willingness to get at shoe level with a customer. Shoeshiners were often people that found it hard to find other employment, like children – or, in the United States, African-Americans. 

In 1988, the Los Angeles Times interviewed men who had once been shoe shine boys. 

“That was the black man’s job,” Leon volunteered, a bulge of Redman chewing tobacco swelling his cheek. “That’s the shoeshine boy.”

Like familiar dance partners tracing unrehearsed but familiar steps, porters in the shop caught customers’ coats as they slid from tossed-back shoulders. Then the “boys” tended to the shoes, Keaton said.

“My brother Joe could take a rag and make it talk like a man,” Keaton said.

Slapping the air with an imaginary cloth on an invisible shoe, Keaton pantomimed what he called “the jig,” singing the opening bars from “When the Saints Go Marching In” and mouthing “pop, pop, pop.” He did a quick dance, stooped over at the waist as smoothly as a ballet dancer and thrust his right hand forward, palm up, with a wide smile.

“Most of the white guys (would) go ‘Here boy,’ and flip a quarter,” Keaton said.

“I’m not talking about what I heard, but what I did when I was like here,” he said, holding his hand at knee level.

“That was the black man’s job,” Leon volunteered, a bulge of Redman chewing tobacco swelling his cheek. “That’s the shoeshine boy.”

Singing songs, tap dancing, scratching your head, clowning, “white America thought that’s the way blacks were,” said Carl Jackson, chairman of the Afro-ethnic studies department at Cal State Fullerton. “If you’re ‘good,’ people tipped you. You played down your status.”

The shoeshine boys’ behavior was expected, Jackson said. “They acted that way to survive. It was a shill to survive. If you acted like you had a chip on your shoulder, nobody would patronize you.”

It was expected that show shine boys, especially Africa-American shoeshine boys would put on a ‘show’. One of the ways they would do that is  “rag poppin”. Rag popping referred to the sound achieved by “popping” a shoeshine rag. 

Again, this was developed as a way to entertain the white customers and has a complicated history in our culture. Yes, it is a skill, and yes, it is exciting to watch, but it cannot be viewed without the awareness that this activity was seen as a way to get white business. 

Regardless of its racist origin, shoe shining and leather care became part of the African-American experience. Songs such as “Shoe Shine Boy” made famous by Lester Young became popular. If you would like a full breakdown of this song, you can find it here. Johnny Cash even refers to the rag-poppin in “Get Rhythm

There are several former shoeshiners whose names you might know: 

  • Mahmoud Ahmed – Ethiopian singer
  • James Brown – “The Godfather of Soul”. He used to shine shoes and sing and dance on 9th Street in Augusta, Georgia; in 1993 the road was renamed “James Brown Boulevard” in his honour.
  • Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – later President of Brazil
  • Malcolm X – worked as a shoeshine boy at a Lindy Hop nightclub in New York City
  • Sammy Sosa – Former Dominican baseball player predominately for the Chicago Cubs
  • Čika Mišo,- last Bosnian shoeshiner
  • Willie Brown – San Francisco Mayor and Speaker of the California Assembly

You can still find shoeshiners today especially in India and the African continent.  In India, shoeshine boys are known as boot polish boys, and can still be found in operation today, particularly at railway platforms.

In America, you find them in airports, train stations, upscale hotels, and in the Leather community. 

How does shoe polish work?

This section is taken from Savvy About Shoes

Shoe polishes are made of a mixture of waxes, solvents, oils, and dyes. When the polish is applied to your shoes, the friction generates enough heat to melt the paste layer into a viscous liquid that transfers to the leather, flowing through cracks and scuffs. The oils slow down the leather’s oxidation process and keep it supple, while the dyes help with the color.

Initially, the polish looks matte and dull because the rough wax diffracts light at a microscopic level. Only after the polish is done, the wax is melted and smoothed out to reflect the light and the leather gets that shiny, glossy look.

What is shoe polish made of?

Shoe polishes are made of a mixture of waxes, solvents, oils, and dyes, in various percentages, based on their type. A blend of waxes with various melting points are used in order to reach a compromise between ease of application and gloss. Some of them contain Gum Arabic as a viscosity stabilizer.

Waxes

Shoe polish contains either natural or synthetic waxes or a combination of both. The main types of waxes used are:

  • Paraffin – a petroleum-based wax
  • Carnauba – a plant-based wax
  • Beeswax – an insect-based wax

Solvents

Solvents are used to match the wax and make it easier to apply.

  • Naphtha – Petroleum distillate
  • Turpentine – Pine Tree resin distillate
  • Stoddard Solution – Mineral Spirits

Oils

Oils are responsible for protecting the leather, which is why you’ll see them used in most shoe conditioners as well. The main types of oils used are:

  • Lanolin
  • Neatsfoot Oil
  • Mink Oil
  • Collagen
  • Plant-based oil like olive oil or peanut oil are not used in shoe polishes.

Dyes

Depending on the color of shoe polish, various dyes are used, the most common being carbon black and azo dye.

Basic types of shoe polishes

Depending on their composition, there are 3 different main types of shoe polishes:

  • Wax-based Shoe Polish
  • A Wax-based shoe polish is a hard polish that comes in solid form. It’s composed of waxes (about 20-40%), solvents (around 70%), and dyes (2—3%).

Due to the high content of volatile solvents, wax-based shoe polish hardens after the application while still maintaining its gloss. It’s harder to get it to shine, but the shine lasts much longer.

Using a wax-based shoe polish you can get that spit shine or military shine look.

Cream – Emulsion Shoe Polish

A Cream Polish is a softer polish that contains more oils and less wax, the liquid content being higher and giving it a gelatinous consistency.

Due to the high presence of oils, it can act as a shoe conditioner, which is why some people use both a wax-based shoe polish as well as a cream one when polishing their shoes.

The cream polish is ideal for softer leather with a lot of textures because it can get into hard-to-reach crannies and nooks much easier, but you can’t get a spit shone using a cream polish.

Liquid Shoe Polish

Liquid shoe polish has a very low wax content, but instead of conditioning your shoe, it adds a layer of the top to protect it. Longer-term, this can cause the leather to dry and crack, so it’s not recommended.

Does Shoe Polish Expire or Go Bad?

No, shoe polish does not expire or go bad, which is why you’ll only see a manufactured date on the product, and not an expiring date. However, if you leave the tin open, the solvents can evaporate and the polish will dry out and crack, making it harder to use or in some cases unusable.

This is just the first installment in our series. Next, up is what kinky things can you do with shoe shine/ bootblack items.

References:

Boot Polish History

How Does Shoe Polish Work?

As Shoeshine Stands Fade From the Scene, So Does an Era

Keep it kinky!

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