Boot polish history

A brief history

Shoe polish – Before the 20th century

Since medieval times dubbin, made from natural wax, oil and tallow, was used to soften and waterproof leather. However, its purpose was not to impart a shine. As leather with a high natural veneer became popular in the 18th century, a high glossy finish cleaner became important, particularly on shoes and boots. In most cases, a variety of homemade polishes were used to provide this finish, often with lanolin or beeswax as a base.

Blacking factoryIn the 19th century, many forms of shoe polish became available, yet were rarely referred to as shoe polish or boot polish. Instead, they were often called blacking (usually soot mixed with beeswax or lanolin) or simply continued to be referred to as dubbin. The first commercial shoe polish was a mixture of sugar, vinegar, black dye and water, the problem was that this substance, as with the ‘blacking’, came off on peoples clothes. Tallow, an animal by-product, was used to manufacture a simple form of shoe polish at this time. Chicago, Illinois, where 82 percent of the meat consumed in the United States was processed, became a major shoe polish producing area for this reason.

Prior to 1903, shoe polish was not well known as a purchasable product, nor was it particularly sophisticated. While sales were not especially high, a few brands, like Nugget, were available in England during the 1800s. The practice of shining people’s shoes gradually caught on and soon many shoeshine boys in the city streets were offering shoe shines using a basic form of shoe polish along with a polishing cloth.

Shoe polish – Modern polish

Whilst a number of older leather preserving products existed (including the Irish brand Punch, which was first made in 1851, and the German brand, Erdal, which went on sale in 1901), the first shoe polish to resemble the modern varieties (aimed primarily at inducing shine) was Kiwi. Scottish expatriates William Ramsay and Hamilton McKellan began making “boot polish” in a small factory in 1904 in Melbourne, Australia. Their formula was a major improvement on previous brands. It preserved shoe leather, made it shine, and restored colour. By the time Kiwi Dark Tan was released in 1908, it incorporated agents that added suppleness and water resistance. Australian-made boot polish was then considered the world’s best. Black and a range of colours became available, and exports to Britain, continental Europe, and New Zealand began.

kiwi advertWillaim Ramsay named the shoe polish after the kiwi, the national bird of New Zealand as Ramsay’s wife, Annie Elizabeth Meek Ramsay, was a native of Oamaru, New Zealand. It has been suggested that, at a time when several symbols were weakly associated with New Zealand, the eventual spread of Kiwi shoe polish around the world enhanced the popular appeal of the Kiwi and promoted it at the expense of the others.

A rival brand in the early years was Cobra Boot Polish, based in Sydney. Cobra was noted for a series of cartoon advertisements in The Sydney Bulletin, starting in 1909, using a character called “Chunder Loo of Akim Foo.” (The word chunder, meaning “to vomit”, possibly originated through the rhyming slang of Chunder Loo and spew.)

Shoe polish – Surge in popularity

At the end of the 19th century, leather shoes and boots became affordable to the masses, and with the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the demand for large numbers of polished army boots led to a need in the market for a product that would allow boots to be polished quickly, efficiently and easily. The polish was also used to shine leather belts, handgun holsters, and horse tack. This demand led to a rapid increase in the sales of shoe and boot polish. The popularity of Kiwi shoe polish spread throughout the British Commonwealth and the United States. Rival brands began to emerge, including Shinola (United States), Cherry Blossom (United Kingdom), Parwa (India), Jean Bart (France), and many others. Advertising became more prominent; many shoe polish brands used fictional figures or historical characters to spread awareness of their products.

kiwi ww2 advertShoe polish was to be found just about everywhere Allied troops ventured. American war correspondent Walter Graeber wrote for TIME magazine from the Tobruk trenches in 1942 that “old tins of British-made Kiwi polish lay side by side with empty bottles of Chianti.” A story indicative of the rise in global significance of shoe polish is told by Jean (Gertrude) Williams, a New Zealander who lived in Japan during the Allied occupation straight after World War II. American soldiers were then finding the dullness of their boots and shoes to be a handicap when trying to win the affections of Japanese women.

When the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces arrived in Japan — all with boots polished to a degree not known in the U.S. forces — the G.I.s were more conscious than ever of their feet. The secret was found to rest not only in spit and polish, but in the superior Australian boot polish, a commodity which was soon exchanged with the Americans on a fluctuating basis of so many packets of cigarettes for one can of Kiwi boot polish.

Soldiers returning from the war continued to use the product, leading to a further surge in its popularity. A few years after World War II, Kiwi opened a manufacturing plant in Philadelphia, making only black, brown, and neutral shoe polish in tins.

Shoe polish – Modern day

Shoe polish products are low-value items that are infrequently purchased. Demand is inelastic or largely insensitive to price change, and sales volumes are generally low. In the shoe polish market as a whole, some 26 percent of sales are accounted for by pastes, 24 percent by creams, 23 per cent by aerosols, and 13 percent by liquids. In recent years, the demand for shoe polish products has either been static or has declined; one reason is the gradual replacement of formal footwear with trainers for everyday use.

There are numerous brands available, as well as store own-brands. There are two chief areas of shoe polish sales: to the general public, and to specialists and trade, such as shoe repairers, and cobblers. The sales percentages between the two outlets are roughly comparable.

Kiwi remains the predominant shoe polish brand in most of the world, being sold in over 180 countries and holding a 53 percent market share worldwide. Today, it is manufactured in Australia, Canada, France, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. Other leading brands include Shinola, Lincoln Shoe Polish, Meltonian, and Cherry Blossom.

cherry blossom current logoKiwi was acquired by the American company Sara Lee following its purchase of Reckitt and Colman in 1991 and Knomark in 1987. The Federal Trade Commission ruled that Sara Lee had to divest its ownership of these companies in 1994 to prevent it from becoming a monopoly. Since this ruling, Sara Lee has been prevented from acquiring any further assets or firms associated with chemical shoe care products in the United States without prior commission approval. The Competition Commission in the United Kingdom also investigated the potential monopoly of Sara Lee in the shoe care industry and require the selling of the Cherry Blossom brand.

In India, shoeshine boys are known as boot polish boys, and can still be found in operation today, particularly at railway platforms.