Welcome to the lost art of the shoeshine not a regular
shoeshine, but a shine on leather as reflective as
a mirror. Learn how a little polish can add
a lot of sparkle to putting your
best foot forward.
it was said during
the Great Depression,
Note: This material was written to be one of the
last chapters in my 1995 book, Living Longer Stronger,
but it was removed because the text needed to be shorter.
My best shoes, cap toes from Alan McAfee of London, England,
were purchased in 1988 and have been polished several hundred times.
by Ellington Darden, Ph.D.
In the 1980s, I frequently lectured on strength training to high school coaches who attended the MacGregor Coaching Clinics, which Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries co-sponsored for many years.
During one of the basketball clinics in Chicago, I was in the walkway near the back of the auditorium eating a continental breakfast and visiting with a few friends. Several well-known coaches were speaking before my presentation and I was sizing up the setting. Many coaches were passing by, grabbing a quick snack, and moving into the lecture hall. After a while, I felt a tap on my shoulder.
"Excuse me, but Id like to shake your hand," a deep-voice said. I wiped the last drink of orange juice off my mouth, pitched the napkin aside, turned around, and shook the huge hand of an elegantly dressed man.
"I couldnt help noticing your shoes," he continued. "Ive always taken great pride in mine the shinier the better and youve got me beat. I want to compare notes, but right now Ive got to get up front."
He quickly rushed away and I never got a chance to say anything other than . . . thank you.
That big man in an olive-green, double-breasted tailored suit, with shoes almost as shiny as mine, was Chuck Daly.
At that time, he was the head coach of the World-Champion Detroit Pistons and was the next presenter. Since I was due in front of the group immediately after Coach Daly, I never got a chance to follow up with him. But I did visit with one of his assistants. He said Daly was obsessive about his shoes. That he had dozens of pairs and kept them all brightly polished. "Sometimes, I think hed rather talk about shining shoes," smiled the assistant coach, "than shooting basketballs."
I wouldve certainly liked talking shoes and shines with Chuck Daly and perhaps a little hoops, too.
Readers over the age of 50 years will have an interest in shining shoes. Why? Because we grew up doing it almost daily, or certainly, weekly. Even you guys in your 40s, or anyone in the armed forces, will identify with many things Im going to cover.
My interest in shining shoes started with my grandfather.
I dont remember much about my grandfather. He passed away when I was 5 years old. His name was Thomas Ellington Darden and his friends called him Ell, as they did me when I was growing up.
One thing I do remember about him was his black, cap-toe shoes, which were manufactured by Stacy Adams. These dress shoes, when he shined them, sparkled like oil on water. In the right light they actually looked like a black mirror.
After my grandfather died, I spent a lot of time visiting with my grandmother. She would baby sit my sister and me on most Saturday nights, while my mother and father played bridge with friends. Between the typical coloring, drawing, learning to play dominoes, and making fudge, we often talked about him.
Grandfather was not a wealthy man. He owned a grocery and dry goods store in Willis, Texas, a small town 8 miles north of Conroe, where I was raised. Grandma said he liked to buy a new suit and a new pair of shoes almost every spring, until the Great Depression hit. Then, he had to make do with what he had for more than 10 years. He compensated by keeping his shoes highly polished.
He loved to fiddle with his shoes, she said, and he did so almost every night while we listened to the radio. Some Saturday nights, Grandma would bring out Grandpas shoes along with brushes, rags, and polish and Id practice polishing them, with her help.
When I was in the sixth grade, Grandma gave me a shoeshine box, with all the trimmings, for my birthday. Wow, was I excited. I got out my oxfords and polished them that night.
That box, besides containing all the brushes and polishes, had a foot rest on top. It wasnt long before I felt like I was confident enough to walk down town and shine shoes on the corner for 10 cents. On a good Saturday I might shine the shoes of a dozen men. The best part wasnt the money it wasnt that much it was observing the men as they walked away. Every single one of them walked taller and acted more confidently. Furthermore, shined shoes for some reason, make you smile more.
When I entered high school in 1959, the style of dress for boys was a sport shirt, blue jeans, white socks, and loafers. I had two pairs of loafers: black and cordovan. I took pride in keeping them polished. Before school most mornings all the guys who polished their shoes would compare their shines in one area of the school grounds. It quickly became no contest, as I always won. My shoes were the only ones with a mirror finish.
The mirror finish was sometimes called a spit-shine, because it required a special technique of combining wax polish and the just right amount of moisture. Once you built up enough of a base shine, then you could brighten it quickly with a dab of wax and saliva hence the term spit-shine.
Often one buddy, David Pyle, who could come pretty close to my shine, accused me of putting sole dressing on the toes of my shoes. Sole dressing was an enamel that was painted on the edges and heels of the shoes. It was put on last to add the finishing touches to the shine. To put it on the toes of the shoes would make them shine more, but it would easily chip and mess up the leather.
Sole dressing on the toes was considered cheating. Im sure some of the scratches I found on my toes after football and basketball practices were put there by David Pyle, as he just couldnt believe that my shoes werent covered with sole dressing. They werent!
Sometimes after practice Id find gum on and in my shoes. That just spurred me to make my shoes better than ever the next day.
Ever since I graduated from high school in 1962, Ive kept my best shoes brightly shined. Granted, in Florida, I dont wear my highly polished dress shoes often. Sandals are on my feet most of the time. But when I wear a coat and tie, I always bring out my good shoes and touch them up before I put them on.
If you want an extraordinary shine, youve got to have a quality pair of leather shoes with smooth fine-grained leather on the toes and anywhere else you want a polished look. The most shinable shoes seem to come from England. The English shoes are heavier, finer grained, and more carefully assembled.
Ive traveled to London several times and the shoes Ive purchased there are superb.
My best dress shoes are made by Alan McAfee. You can buy them in the United States at Churchs Shoe Stores. I have a favorite pair of cordovan loafers that I can get a great shine on by using oxblood polish. I purchased them in a small shop that you might want to visit or write: W.S. Foster & Son, 83 Jermyn St., St. James, London, England SW1Y 6JD.
I know some of you like Italian-made shoes. Their soft leathers and workmanship make them a comfort to wear, but Ive never been able to get a high-gloss shine from the softer, thinner, Italian shoes.
American-made shoes vary greatly. Most of the time, however, you get what you pay for. The higher-priced dress shoes do seem to take a better shine. Today, Allen-Edmonds makes a fine cap-toe shoe for the businessman.
As far as color goes, black shines best. Ive never been able to get a superior shine out of any brown or tan shoes. If I wear brown, I choose a suede finish, which requires brushing not shining. Cordovan, however, is a horse of a different color. This burgundy color can be shined to a degree that, for whatever reason, may equal black.
Although there are many polishes available, the one I believe is a cut above the rest is Kiwi. Kiwis paste wax is unsurpassed. In fact, "Parade Gloss," the version sold in England, which has recently been introduced into the United States, is my personal favorite. Those British guards with the shiny black boots and tall headdresses, who surround the Queens London palace, use this polish. You must try it.
Im also partial to Kiwi saddle soap, brushes, sole dressing, and other shoe accessories.
Heres the step-by-step procedure passed down from my grandfather that Ive applied for 50 years to yield a shine thats as reflective as a mirror.
Use shoetrees inside your shoes to stretch the leather to the natural shape of your feet. Keep the trees in your shoes when you shine them.
Wipe any noticeable dust or dirt off your shoes and soles with a damp towel. Always do this with a towel, and never your shoe brush. Cleaning your shoes with your brush will get dirt in the bristles. This dirt may be transferred back to your shoes during the shining process, which involves some brushing. Dirt, if you dont already know it, is the enemy of a shine. Thats why its important to clean your shoes properly before you polish them.
Lather up some saddle soap and brush it on the tops, sides, and bottoms of your shoes. Yes, I said bottoms. Cleaning the soles of your shoes not only preserves them better, but it keeps the potential dirt farther away from the tops and sides.
Wipe off the saddle soap softly and carefully. You shoes should now be squeaky clean.
Find a well-lit area to do your polishing. A desk next to a window works best, as youll get the benefit of natural lighting.
Cut a piece of smooth cotton cloth approximately 2 inches by 4 inches. An old cotton tee shirt will suffice. Cut the cloth in half so you have two 2-inch by 2-inch pieces. Wrap the piece of cloth around a small cotton ball. This cloth around the cotton ball is what youre going to use to apply the polish to the shoe. Youll use the second cloth and cotton ball later. Also you need a small saucer and an ice cube. Take your shoes, polish, brushes, cloth, cotton balls, and ice cube to the well-lit area and sit at a desk or table.
Open the can of paste-wax polish. Take the cloth-surrounded cotton ball and dampen it slightly on the ice cube. Cool water facilitates the spreading and drying of the paste wax on the leather. Rub the cloth on the wax and spread the polish on the shoe in small circles. The idea is to use only a moderate amount of wax each time. I start in the middle at the tongue of the shoe, move down to the toe, and then cover the sides. I repeat the same procedure on the other shoe. Both shoes now have a dull appearance from the unbuffed wax. Pick up the first waxed shoe with one hand and the soft brush in the other.
Brush the shoe smoothly with long strokes. Repeat with the other shoe. Examine each shoe closely and touch up with polish any dull or rough area. Buff it out with the brush. For a higher gloss, use a shine cloth next.
Fold the shine cloth until its about the size of your wallet. Sprinkle some of the ice water across the tops of each shoe and vigorously polish with the cloth. Give special attention to the toes. The idea is to get them to shine as much as possible before the most important steps. These last steps are what separate a good shine from a mirror shine, or what was commonly called a spit-shine. They involve taking the second cloth-covered cotton ball and slowly working a small amount of polish and cold water onto the shoe until even a brighter shine emerges.
Apply the polish in very small circular motions. Keep working each area, which should be only the size of a quarter, until the shine comes through. A little cold water helps seal the wax. Too much water, or too much wax, however, will dull or water-spot the shine. Youre better off having too little water and wax, rather than too much.
Continue polishing quarter-sized areas over your entire shoe. Again give the toe area special attention. At first, you may think the shine will never come, but it will. Just be patient. The gratifying thing is that day after day, week after week, month after month, the shine keeps getting better and better. Finally, a true mirror finish surfaces. In fact, it usually takes three or four weeks of almost daily shines to build a significant base. Once you build a significant base, your polishing time is reduced drastically.
Buff with a piece of nylon wrapped around your index finger in short strokes for even more sparkle. This is especially appropriate for those hard-to-get-at places around the seams, laces, and any area that needs consistency. The nylon can come from the toe of an old pair of socks or even pantyhose. Nylon, unlike cotton, doesnt absorb polish so it does the best job of adding a final glow to the shine.
Edge your soles and heels with a light coat of sole dressing. Sole dressing can build up quickly, so it is only necessary to apply it once every five or six shines.
Follow these thirteen steps consistently for a few weeks and youll soon have a mirror shine that will draw attention from anyone who appreciates shoes and style.
There are parallels between shining shoes and strength training. They both require discipline and patience in building a base. Once you have a solid base, the process gets easier. Furthermore, highly polished shoes get attention, as do lean, strong bodies. Dont underestimate the importance of getting attention in todays society.
I can still hear my grandmother relating that my grandfather thought you could tell a lot about a man by the shine of his
shoes . . . and not just the shine on the toes, but also the backs and sides. Many businessmen in the 1930s, she said, built their wardrobes from the ground up: shoes before suits and shirts. "Highly shined shoes," Grandma said, "meant that the man was successful."
I remember a segment from the popular TV series Matlock, where Andy Griffith, who plays the aging attorney, is shown in his office shining his shoes prior to presenting his final argument to the jury. "Theres a dull spot right here on my right instep," Matlock motioned to his assistant, as he dipped his clothe into the water and wax, "that just might convict my client. That jury will sur-nuff notice it if I dont polish it out."
I believe Matlock was correct. Juries do notice the shoes of attorneys. Little things do make a difference.
Frank Pacetta, author of Dont Fire Them, Fire Them Up, would agree with Matlock. Pacetta is credited with turning around Midwest sales teams at Xerox. One of his top ten sales tips is: Dress and groom yourself sharply. "I give brushes and cans of polish to reps who have trouble keeping their shoes shined," writes Pacetta. Theres no room for the scuffy-loafer salesman on his team.
Besides the parallels above and the actual shine on the shoes, there was something else about the entire process that was meaningful to me.
I never completely understood why I liked to shine shoes, but I knew I did. Working with the hands on small, precise tasks always provided me a certain amount of satisfaction. At times it could be therapeutic.
I gave it little thought until I read Maybe (Maybe Not) by Robert Fulghum. Fulghum talks about how he gets great solitary pleasure out of ironing his own dress shirts. From the cuffs, to the collars, to the plackets, he details how he learned this skill from a housekeeper who watched over him when he was growing up. The ironing process was slow and deliberate. It couldnt be hurried. Fulghums description made me think of my grandmother and how she helped me establish skill and pride in shining shoes.
Then, Fulghum writes about how years later he journeyed to Japan to live in a Buddhist monastery. There he was commanded to do mundane tasks to focus his mind. One day his job was to rake the gravel paths throughout the monastery gardens.
All morning and all afternoon he raked, and raked, and raked. Toward the end of the day, he had a sudden realization. Raking a gravel path right was just like ironing a shirt correctly. Adhering to the details with efficient precision, Fulghum noted, was the Buddhist doorway to understanding.
Simple, seemingly boring things once you lock into the experience can expand your mind to new levels.
At that moment, I knew what Fulghum was feeling. I had experienced the same thing many times as I shined my shoes the solitary pleasure of the eye, hand, cloth, polish, and leather becoming one. You never, never hurry such a process. Rushing dulls the shine and clouds the mind.
Im sure youve probably had some of these solitary pleasures. Weeding in the garden, detailing the car, chopping wood, painting the garage, and fishing with a cane pole sometimes we use these times to reflect and talk to ourselves. Sometimes it even becomes active meditation.
Whatever success or failure Ive had at whatever else Ive tried to do, deep down I hold this engraved fact:
At the very least, I can shine shoes . . . shoes that would make my grandmother, grandfather, and even Chuck Daly proud . . .
In the hustle of todays business environment, when I need solitary pleasure I often shine my shoes.