Throughout the late 19th century, shoeshine boys plied their trade on the streets of the Australia, the United Kingdom and America. Setting up portable stations outside of busy pedestrian thoroughfares like railway platforms and the business districts of large cities, offering to buff shoes with everything from tallow, through to beeswax and honey. The Industrial Revolution had brought with it the mass production of shoes in factories, and because the general public was accustomed to spending a proportionally high percentage of their yearly wage on footwear, it was important to find methods of making their shoes last longer, like a regular wax and buff.

By the 1900s, specialty shoe shine products were in high demand. The first shoe polish to resemble the modern varieties that we know today (designed primarily to produce shine) was invented in Melbourne, by Scottish ex-patriots William Ramsey and Hamilton McKellan. Called ‘Kiwi’, the boot polish incorporated ingredients that increased suppleness and added water resistance. The popularity of ‘Kiwi’ spread far and wide during WWI, when Australian and New Zealand troops would trade tins of polish for cartons of cigarettes and other luxury items along the front line. The first World War also necessitated the use of polish for shining belts, gun holsters and horse tack.


During the Great Depression many unemployed men turned to the art of polishing shoes, earning enough money to keep their families afloat. Relatively cheap to buy, one tin of polish could last a shoeshine several weeks, and like the local barber shop, the shoeshine chair became a popular spot to congregate, share stories and offer life advice. 

In 1956 Johnny Cash released ‘Get Rhythm’ as the B-side to his number one hit, ‘Walk The Line’. Based around the life of a shoeshine boy who develops rhythm and blues to overcome with the tedium of his job, the country superstars’ track was, perhaps surprisingly, not the first pop cultural reference to the tough business of polishing shoes.  

The history of shoe shining in modern cinema can be traced back to the 1943 short film, ‘The Shoe Shine Boy’. Produced by MGM, the story traces a day in the life of a young shoe shiner, desperate to raise $2 for a second hand trumpet before being shipped off to war.  Although the 15-minute film is obvious WWII propaganda, the young boys’ efforts are not out of the realm of possibility. In fact, the “god-father of soul”, James Brown, started out as a shoe shine in Augusta, Georgia, earning 3 cents a pair.

During the 1960s and 70s it became increasingly popular for men to wear athletic trainers instead of leather shoes and boots. As a result, the previous demand for polish and shoe shining services began to fall. The recent resurgence in “dapper” style has seen a return to traditional services like cut throat shaving and shoe shine chairs. Fortis Green is proud to announce the launch of their own shoe shining service, available for hire throughout Melbourne, perfect for your next party, corporate event or function. Contact shoeshine@fortisgreen.com for more information.