A Chat with a Boot-black: 1897

Must Have All Colors Now.

“Shine ’em up, sir? Polish?”

He was one of the bright old-fashioned boot-blacks we read about, and as keen as a steep trap, says the Pittsburg Dispatch.

“Haven’t tan shoes hurt your business a great deal?” I asked.

“Naw! Y’see, it’s this way, mister. When everybody wore black shoes a good many men kep’ blacking kits in their bedrooms, and use to get hot in the collar every morning doing their own shines, and doing us out of the job. But when it come to tan and oxblood and pale yaller and green and veaswy kids, why, they just give it up. No man whose time is worth anything in his own business is going to have seven or eight different kinds of pastes and polishes on hand. yes, and lots of ’em even forget to keep stocked up with blacking. Honest, I think we get more nickels than before. In good neighborhoods, I mean. Mebbee business is dull in some parts, where the men aren’t very flush. I’ve seen times in Wall Street when brokers would give a quarter for a shine, and times when they’d play the limit–go without as long as they could, you know.”

“And do you bootblacks have polishes to fit all the different kinds of shoes?”

“Naw! Of course there’s stuff made for every color. The shoemaker sees to that. And some fellows who have stands in barber shops and places like that keep a good many kinds. But the kids on the ferryboats and on the street have oil and yellow paste and blacking. I keep a good many myself, though: it doesn’t cost any more in the long run; but if I get out of any of them I don’t put up my shutters. I never seen the boots yet I couldn’t do with either blacking or plain oil–if the owner is a real gentleman.

The Ypsilanti [MI] Commercial 12 August 1897: p. 5

Mrs Daffodil’s Aide-memoire: “Veaswy Kid” is a mis-heard rendition of “Vici Kid,” the “Trade name for chrome-tanned, glazed-kid leather,” according to the American Leather Chemists Association.

Mrs Daffodil does not altogether approve of these “swell” colours of shoe polish. It makes the boots-and-knife boy’s life–never a sinecure–ever so much more difficult. With blacking, you always know where you are.  Mrs Daffodil recalls with pleasure a former B-and-K boy who, in the early morning hours, “mistook” brown polish for blacking while polishing the riding boots of a visiting Major of a boorish and exacting temperament. Sadly the Major missed his point-to-point while his boots were being cleaned and repolished. He had, it was later learned, had a substantial wager placed on himself, bribed a stable lad to nobble the favourite, and expected to romp home. He lost his little all and had to go out to India where he married an heiress who keeps him on a tight rein and an inadequate allowance. How different life would have been, had there been no brown polish at the Hall.

Many thanks to Al Saguto, Master Shoe and Bootmaker and Valentine Povinelli, Journeyman Shoemaker of The Shoemakers’ Shop, Colonial Williamsburg for their assistance.

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