Polishing shoes used to be on the to-do list with the same regularity as ironing and taking out the ashes. No matter how worn the condition of our shoes, their shine or the lack thereof was a mark of one’s upbringing.
Fortunate were we who owned three pairs of wearable shoes at any given time. Normally they were classified as Sunday, everyday and school. Sunday shoes might get by with a good buffing a time or two, but school shoes needed a complete polishing at least once a week.
Our mothers counseled us about how to avoid scuffing our shoes, but it just happened in the course of playground games and mindlessly kicking the legs of our desk. (And maybe kicking a few rocks along the path as we walked home.)
The way our everyday shoes looked was not so important but polishing them for preservation and extending their life was. We applied the waxy polish generously to resist the dew and dirt that took their toll on the leather. Every so often my father slathered old lard on his heavy brogans and left them sitting overnight in the shop to soak to make them more supple and weather repellent.
Polishing shoes was not my favorite chore. I hated having to wait for the wax to dry before I could rub it to a high gloss with a heavy flannel cloth. Yet, I couldn’t leave and do something else because it didn’t need to dry too long either. If I was in a magnanimous mood, I might polish all the shoes in the family’s closet (far fewer than today’s collections!) and seek out the praise that I was surely due.
I was gleeful when someone invented liquid self-shining polish that you applied with a cotton dauber on a wire stem attached to the inside of the bottle top. Yet, its shine was not high quality and it did not condition the leather as well as wax. Liquid polish was one of those tempting steps toward easier living that we humans continue to fall for.
The Griffin brand dominated the market in shoe polish, as Burma-Shave had the monopoly on shaving cream. I appreciated the clever little built-in lever that you could turn and it would push open the tight-fitting lid of the tin shoe polish container. I liked seeing advertisements of the polish that we used at our house in the newspaper and magazines and hearing it praised on radio commercials.
Because we wanted to look nice, and because we wanted to preserve the shine on our shoes as long as we could, we sometimes walked barefoot to our destination and carried our shoes. Out of sight before we got there we wiped the dust off our feet on the grass and slipped on our shoes, arriving on the doorstep with them shining.
Since the businessman was known by the shine of his shoes, shoeshine stands were in barber shops and handily set up on street corners to snare the passersby.
Gone are the days. We wear flip flops or dirty sneakers and traipse on down the road. unconcerned.