I shined my shoes today for the first time in at least 30 years, and I was surprised at how much I had forgotten and how old-fashioned the ritual now seemed.
First of all, I only have two pairs of leather shoes that are shinable, one black and one brown. These are the Rockports I wear when volunteering at Longwood Gardens. All of my shoes for daily wear have been nylon mesh running and hiking shoes, or maybe an occasional pair of white tennis shoes.
The Reading Terminal Market has a full shoe-shine stand right outside of the restrooms, run by several old black guys my age who enjoy a great comradery—but never any business. I would love to give them my business, but I am never wearing my shinable shoes when I see them. It would be worth the cost just to see that old ritual again, especially when done by professionals, snapping of the polishing cloth and all of that.
My shoe-shine supplies were in the back of my closet in a dusty wooden box whose handle was a foot-rest, even a notch for the heel (my box is sort of like the photo above, but not as good). There were two separate sets of supplies for brown and black—the polish, of course, but also the small, stiff brush to apply the polish and the larger, expensive, soft brush to buff off the dried polish (which was a wax). A soft polishing cloth put on the final shine, again one for black and another for brown.
The box also contained an ancient merchandising card holding several metal taps that we hammered into run-over shoe tips and heels, and several sole patches with a tube of dried-out rubber contact cement that never held, anyway. A flapping sole patch was a common hazard in every boy’s life (we really needed a soul patch).
For awhile, in my high school years, I remember putting a spit-shine on my cordovans. I am not sure of the procedure, but I think I put a teaspoon of water in the lid of the polish can, and used that to dampen a rag to apply several coats of polish to my shoes. The last coat came up shinny, and that was buffed with a dry rag to a high shine like patent leather. (Actual spit was not involved.) I also remember a penny was laid on top of the polish in the can, but I can’t remember why. (All of this is only my memories; it is not meant to be a list of instructions.)
The rumor was that girls in Catholic school were not allowed to wear patent leather shoes because boys would use the reflection to look up their dresses. I could never get that to work, even with binoculars and a flashlight.
We took great pride in well-shined shoes. I knew one fastidious guy who polished his shoes the night before, then put them in a bag to keep the dust off until he wore them. But that was considered extreme even then.
Then, one day, at least 30 years ago, I just stopped all of that, and never looked back. But don’t my shoes get dirty? Of course—they’re shoes!