Shine your shoes!

November 20, 2014 · Collections ·

I was working on the reference desk in CHS’s Waterman Research Center recently when a fellow came through the door, peering left and right, clearly looking for something. After introducing myself, he asked if we had any information on bootblacks in Hartford. His reason was personal: his father, now retired to Florida, as a teenager had worked as a bootblack in Hartford in the early 1960s.

This 1850s wood engraving shows an African-American bootblack plying his trade in Hartford. CHS 1959.81.1a

This 1850s wood engraving shows an African-American bootblack plying his trade in Hartford. CHS 1959.81.1a

Think about it: when was the last time you saw a bootblack—or shoe shiner—anywhere? My own recollection is that there might still be folks working in airport and railroad terminals for the convenience of travelers; in high traffic locations where the chances of making some kind of living would be better than, say, on the streets of Connecticut’s capitol city. The other experience some of us have had is getting your shoes polished while staying at a hotel; you leave the shoes with an employee and they show up at your room the next morning, nicely polished. The shoes, not the employee, that is.

John Arango’s bootblack kit likely dates to the 1940s and saw use into the early 1960s. CHS 2005.113.1

John Arango’s bootblack kit likely dates to the 1940s and saw use into the early 1960s. CHS 2005.113.1

Well, back to the story. As it turns out, in the CHS collection we have a Hartford bootblack’s kit, likely dating from the 1940s and used into the 1960s. I showed it to our visitor, who speculated that its owner (believed to be one John Arango) and this man’s father might possibly have crossed paths. Arango appears to have been of Cape Verdean descent, born in Massachusetts after World War I. He is listed as working as a laborer in a variety of jobs in Hartford in the 1940s and 1950s.

Bootblacks then, like street food vendors today, were required to be licensed by the city. When this requirement began is unknown to me, but a look at the 1864 Hartford city ordinances finds no mention of bootblacks. Certainly by the 1930s, if not earlier, bootblacks (many of whom were as young as 12 years old) were affiliated with groups like the Boys Bootblack Association and the YMCA, which kept watch over their activities. But back to licensing, our kit has two licenses attached, reminiscent of those small fake license plates we used to attach to our bikes as kids. And, according to this researcher’s father, the city used to mark curbs in different parts of the downtown business district with the initials “BB”, indicating where bootblacks could set up shop. This fact was confirmed by a November 21, 1953 Hartford Courant article, which stated that the city would so mark sidewalks at 325 stations in the central business district.

Like street vendors, bootblacks were also licensed by the City of Hartford as evidenced by the plate attached to the kit. CHS 2005.113.1

Like street vendors, bootblacks were also licensed by the City of Hartford as evidenced by the plate attached to the kit. CHS 2005.113.1

The question as to why there are no street bootblacks these days, at least in Hartford so far as I know, has several answers. First, the development of suede, oiled leather and synthetic materials for shoes in the post-World War II decades precludes the need to polish them. Second, there is a wide variety of home shoe polishing products and equipment, including electric buffers that produce a glossy finish without the elbow grease needed for hand buffing with a cloth. Third, and perhaps most importantly, there has been a transition from formal to less formal attire, even in the business world, since the 1960s. While some people do wear shoes that require polishing, there are fewer of them working in Hartford and elsewhere around the country.

I admit I frequently wear bucks or boat shoes, so only occasionally do I wear shoes that actually need to be polished these days. But on those rare occasions when I do, you will find me dragging out the 1950s vintage shoe shining kit hidden in my closet, inhaling the rich smell of polish as I apply brush and buffing cloth. Not as good a job as a skilled bootblack might have done, perhaps, but it is hard to find the John Arango’s of the world today.

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