Jun 14, 2023

Back in the Day: Clean, shiny shoes a mark of excellence

A few weeks ago, a colleague told me that she had a topic that may be a good column for me. The thought came to her as she was getting dressed for work.

She says the thoughts went through her mind as she dressed and slipped into her shoes. Do you have memories of keeping your shoes polished, back in the day, was the question she asked of me? (A good topic, I thought, even though I touched on it in a column in October of last year.)

My memories, of clean well-polished shoes, go back to a time when I was 1 or 2 years old. Many of you that grew up before 1970 will recall — even if only by your baby photographs — of First Walker Baby Shoes.

Undoubtedly, it has been many years ago, but you might recall them as the high-top, hard-bottom, white laced up shoes you started wearing after you took your first steps. Or you probably have seen babies of relatives wearing these shoes in the more recent past.

My focus on these shoes is not about the construction of the shoes themselves, but rather vivid memories of how parents made every effort to keep them clean — super clean. Can you envision a family member, pouring white liquid polish on a cloth to clean baby's shoes? I can imagine some of my family members scrubbing their baby's shoes with cleanser or toothpaste to remove tough stains before applying the polish.

Prior to the bottle with the special applicator with a handle, my mother took a small pad out of the shoe polish box, dabbed white polish on it and placed polish over the entire shoe, shoe strings included. My shoes were often placed on the window sill, with the window open to dry.

Thus, at an early age, the importance of clean, freshly polished shoes was instilled in me. I do not recall a parent, in those days, taking a young child out in public wearing unpolished shoes.

First Walker Shoes have seemingly disappeared.

Parents now place sneakers on the feet of children when they start to walk.

Could there be a relationship between the scuffed-up shoes we see many young people and adults wearing today and the disappearance of the First Walker Shoes that were well-maintained by our parents and loved ones, back in the day?

I vividly remember my adolescent days and issues with shoes. Back then, I only wore brown shoes. My parents felt that black shoes were for older folk.

The importance of clean, freshly polished shoes was instilled in me from my days of wearing highly polished white baby shoes. During adolescence, I can remember my mother telling me to polish my shoes the night before school or church. Highly polished shoes were a sign of pride. I wish to emphasize shoes, as we were not allowed to wear sneakers to school and definitely not to church.

So, my routine involved securing a shoe box from my parents’ bedroom where shoe shining materials were kept. While it has been more than 60 years, I can still see the bottle of Griffin shoe polish that was in this box. Not only was the bottle in the shoe box, but for reasons I do not know, my parents always left the bottle in its original cardboard box. I continued this practice of keeping the bottle in its cardboard box for as long as I purchased liquid shoe polish. If you do not recall Griffin shoe polish, then you may recall Metropolitan, Kiwi and Bostonian liquid shoe polish. When I graduated to the canned cream polish, the bottled polish and its cardboard box disappeared from my shopping list. While I have no idea of its origin, in my wood, not cardboard, shoe box, with all colors of shoe polish, I keep one bottle of liquid shoe polish in its original cardboard box. At the beginning of this column, you recall my colleague telling me about her practice of getting dressed that lead to the focus of this column. She told me that rather than putting polish on her shoes, she often went to her medicine cabinet and took out a jar of Vaseline. Some of you will recall rubbing Vaseline on your shoes to give them a shine; in particular, old man's "comforts" and patent leather shoes, back in the day.

There are other things that we did to give our shoes a good — if not an outstanding appearance. I suspect that some of you used one of the self-shinning polishes. Is Soft Sole instant shine sponge one that you used? As white bucks were popular, back in the 50s, some of you remember the small chalk bag that we would pat on the areas of our white bucks that needed touching up.

If you remember this bag, then I am certain that you remember using a suede brush to clean away dirt and using a hard, white eraser to remove any scuff marks. Those of us that wore white bucks had to wear them without scuffs, dirt or grim as this was the ultimate in being cool. Since I mentioned the suede brush, those of you that wore suede shoes will recall using the small, stiff brush that was sold exclusively for cleaning suede shoes. This same type of brush was used on desert boots. If you were around in the 50s and 60s, you had to have a pair of desert boots, and like white bucks, they too had to be neat and clean. You may also recall the popularity of dyeing shoes in the past. You knew that you were "dressed to impress" when you had a freshly dyed pair of shoes that matched your dress, coat, suit, jacket, belt or hat. You will recall that dyeing shoes was the only way to match up your shoes with some other item that you were wearing.

The mention of dyeing shoes must resurrect memories of newspaper, daubers, rags and, rubber gloves, of course. You may also recall leaving them in a separate area to dry due to the smell. Applying a second coat of dye and rubbing well with a rag was often necessary before applying polish. While dyeing shoes is seen as a thing of the past, females, preparing for weddings, proms, or special occasions today tend to go back to dyeing their shoes to match their dresses or gowns. If you plan on dyeing shoes, you can bet that the process is as messy today as it was, back in the day. Today, most women prefer to have this done professionally.

The attention I pay to caring for my shoes today can clearly be traced back to my childhood. It was during my college days, however, when I really paid great attention to keeping my shoes shined. This is when cedar shoe trees, not plastic ones, were introduced to my shoe care regimen. During those days I also began using sole dressing. The importance of a shiny pair of shoes was evident in the past with the number of shoe shine stands and young people going around with shoe shine boxes. I wonder how many of you have had your shoes shined at a stand or by someone with a shoe shine box in recent years. In fact, they seem to be hard to find. I ask, as I did in a previous column, that you look around while at your place of employment, in the sanctuary at church, while dining out, participating in social events or just walking down the street and observe the shoes of others. I have no doubt that what you see now is a far cry from what we saw in the past. You see men, but few women, wearing shoes that are scuffed up, run over with broken shoe laces that are tied together, and in some cases, soles separating from the shoes. A most common sight are shoes with run-down heels. There was at least one business in our neighborhoods that played a major role in keeping our shoes "looking good" in the past; businesses that are hard to find in this day and age. This business I speak of is the shoe repair shop.

I do not expect most of you to embrace my views with regard to the importance I place on a well-kept, shiny pair of shoes. For women yes, but not for men. For many of you, going to the office, church, school or out on the town wearing a nice outfit with sneakers is just "hunky-dory." After all, these are different times with different standards. It is hard to find anyone wearing a pair of cap-toed, laced-up oxfords, wing tips, spectators, loafers or cordovan shoes today.

It is also difficult to find in homes today some of the modern devices to care for shoes such as an electric shoe shine buffering machine. But, I would like to encourage those of you that have read this column to start a movement that recognizes that you can tell if a man is a gentleman by the look of his shoes today as was very much the case, back in the day.

Alonzo Kittrels can be reached at [email protected] or The Philadelphia Tribune, Back In The Day, 520 South 16th St., Philadelphia, PA 19146

Alonzo, I also share these memories. I embrace the days when men were clean shaven or had neatly trimmed facial hair and took pride in their appearance. Call me old fashioned or a throwback. I really don't care, because I know what is attractive to me.

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