A Brief History of Shoe Care

November 18 2012

My dad always told me, as I’m sure many dads told their sons, to always take care of your things. Of course when you’re in the free-willing youth mindset, taking care of your things is the last of your concerns. And it should be that way, you’ve got girls and pimples to worry about. However, as time shortly catches up with us and we decide to buy our own pair of boots one day with our own money, that saying sets in.

As long as there have been shoes, the people wearing them have found themselves searching for ways to care for them and make them last. What might start with the best materials and the best shoemaker will most certainly always be put to the test with a combination of wear and weather. Before 1900, your basic shoe polish was made from ashes, tallow (a rendered form of beef or mutton fat), and beeswax.

This combination would give leather boots some serious water resistance, which would soon be followed with the addition of “shine” or “blacking” being added into the polish. This happened sometime around the 1700’s.


Chicago shoe shiner

New York shoe shine boys

With the start of the industrial revolution, factory production of shoes was in full swing. More workers mean more feet, mean more shoes. Because of this, the 1800s saw an increase in street corner shoe shiners, especially in cities like New York and Chicago, as well as the production of shoe shining products.

By the 1900s, shoe shining was in full swing with shoe shining stations placed throughout cities, inside and out. In fact, during a period in New York, early in the administration of Commissioner Robert Moses, shoe shining stations were targeted to “reduce clutter” on sidewalks and parks. Most bootblacks and show shiners were eliminated around City Hall Park and Union Square.


1906 was a big year for shoe shiners everywhere. On a day just like today, a Scottish-born Australian man by the name of William Ramsay started to manufacture and distribute a shoe polish called Kiwi. The choice of the name KIWI as a trademark was a tribute to William’s wife who was a native of New Zealand, home of the Kiwi bird and New Zealand’s national emblem. During Ramsay’s visit to New Zealand he had noticed the quaint, wingless birds with their crisp, glossy plumage. The kiwi bird design looked good on the small round tin, and the name was easy to see and attractive to look at. By 1924, KIWI polish was being sold in more than 50 countries.

During WWI and WWII, shoe polish became a high-demand item because of all of the boots used during the wars. Up until the 1960s and 1970s, shoe polish was a high demand item. Kiwi created an international brand, known as Kiwi International, to unite all of the separate Kiwi brands. Now boots all around the world had no excuse not to be shiny.


Then along came sneakers. After the 1960s and ’70s, sneakers started to quickly replace the popularity of boots and dress shoes. California surf and skate culture sent shockwaves throughout the country, allowing all individuals the ability to quietly walk around the house or office. The demand for shoe polish and shoe shining dramatically fell. Now, shoe shining stations are seldom seen in airports, malls, and high end footwear retailers.

Even with the decline, this lost art and a general know-how to care for your shoes can still be done at home with the right materials.


Here are some basic tips for caring and continuing the life of your boots and shoes for years to come.

1. Keep them dry and clean: Although this option might not be the easiest, it’s sure to be the best way to retain the life of your footwear. If you come in from a rain storm or walking through slush, the first thing you should do is clean your feet off before you walk in the door, out of common courtesy. Once you’re inside, dry them off with a damp towel and place them somewhere to vent and dry. Sitting them next to a floor vent or hot wood stove works perfectly.

2. Use shoe trees: Whether you’ve spent some serious pocket change or not on your shoes, holding their shape is important. Shoe trees will extend the life of your shoes, especially if you sport the sockless look, for some time to come. When you’re looking for a shoe tree, look for a good shape over the material. The tree needs to retain the shoe’s original shape as best as it can, period.

3. Buff and polish regularly: And now comes the fun part. It’s just like your skin after a long day in the sun; without proper conditioning and care, your shoe will dry out and look like the face of an 80 year old smoker. Certainly not dinner material. Here are our instructions for shoe and boot polishing:

a. Clean the shoes. You wouldn’t want to put sunscreen on over top of sand would you? A damp towel should do most of the trick, just make sure they’re dry before you begin to polish them.

b. Condition and polish. For natural leather shoes, you’ll want a tin of neutral, all-natural leather care, not black. Unless you’re really trying to turn your brown boots black. Proper conditioning helps preserve the finish and life of your footwear and simply put adds essential moisture back into the leather. Try Red Wing’s All Natural Boot Oil, Mink Oil, or All Natural Leather Conditioner. You can apply these conditioners with your fingers, soft cloth or sponge.

With black gloss dress shoes, lay a coat of black wax polish evenly throughout the shoe. Let the polish sit and almost dry before you buff it off with a brush or an old dry t-shirt. For shoes that are in really bad shape, apply a second coat of polish and let it dry overnight before buffing it off first thing in the morning.


Red Wing Boot Cream is perfect for cleaning and buffing to your desired shine. It’s made of a special blend of high quality waxes, solvents and dyes with lanolin added so it stays on once applied. When applied correctly, this creme lubricates the leather to prevent drying out and gives the shoe a lustrous shiny finish.


Red Wing All Natural Leather Conditioner is developed to protect your oil-tanned shoes or boots. This is a paste version of our Red Wing Boot Oil containing beeswax, pine pitch, mink oil and other natural waxes that fully saturate the leather and keep it pliable and rich in color.


Red Wing Mink Oil is perfect for all smooth and waterproof leathers. It contains a blend of lanolin and silicone with incredible softening and conditioning qualities.

For more information on Red Wing boot and leather care, please visit their shoe care page.