As long as people have been wearing shoes and boots to protect their feet, there has been a need for maintenance of them. Keeping footwear clean and well cared for has been necessary since the advent of shoes. Well cared for shoes and boots can last years and travel many miles protecting the feet of their owners.
A shoe shiner, boot polisher or bootblack is a profession full of people who buff and clean shoes and boots with polish. The term “shoeshine boy” was adopted because a male child traditionally filled this job. Some shoe shiners also repair shoes and offer general fixes to shoe problems such as sole repair or new laces. This profession is still common practice in many countries. Often, the wage of a shoeshine boy will be a significant portion of a family’s income if the father has died or can longer earn money. In the United States today, shoe shining is generally done at home or by a cobbler in a shoe repair shop.
Shoe polish was not a product commercially available until the early 1900’s. Until then, shoeshine boys used homemade concoctions. Some homemade shoe polish was commonly made from grease and oven soot and made black boots look like new. Linseed oil was later used for patent leather and could make it seem almost reflective. Some of the poorest (and often the best) shoe shiners used plain old spit and a rag or bristled brush. With the quick motion of the rag or buffing brush they could create a friction that would buff the dirt right off the shoes and create a high gloss.
By the mid-20th century, cowboy boots were all the rage again. This time, shoe shiners had commercial products at their fingertips. Shoe shiners were again on every street corner and in every transportation station ready to keep those boots sparkling. Keeping cowboy boots free of dirt and dust was the only way to wear them in the days of Western movies and glittering cowboy stories. With the cracks and crevices produced by the leather, this was a tall order and kept shoe shiners in business for years.
Many famous and important people have risen to the top starting at the bottom of your shoes. Rush Limbaugh, a famous conservative radio talk show host, shined shoes as a boy to earn money. Lee Trevino, a professional golfer born in Dallas, Texas, earned money as a shoe shiner at the golf club where he also caddied. James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul”, is also a former shoeshine boy. He used to shine shoes while singing and dancing in his hometown of Augusta, Georgia. The street where he polished people’s shoes is now called James Brown Boulevard.
Shoe shining is not dead, but certainly an art form that will never again be the same. With shoe repair shops, online cobblers and at home kits, getting your shoes professionally shined is a luxury of the past. The glory of sitting high in the shoe shine stand while your shoes are cleaned to perfection is not something that the next generation will get to experience.