Shoe Shine

The Irritable Shoeshine Man


The most interesting part of a shoe-shine box isn’t the actual box, but the wild story that is behind it. Shoe shiners where a diverse group, but they always had one thing in common; a crazy attitude that was needed to be a shiner.

Take for example this 1920’s piece. At a first glance, it might just seem like a very simple box. A closer look however shows the story of a man who shouldn’t be in customer service. Above the shoe rest is written “look at your shoe”, meaning the customer has to stare at the floor the whole time and not make any eye contact. Below that on the hatch he has written “mind your own damn business”, as if the customer is going to be nosy while staring at the floor.


Even the actual red lettering seems angry. He originally had the price written at 5 cents, but wrote 10 cents on top without covering up the original price. It’s like the discount stores that show the manufacturer’s price and then their cheaper price, but the exact opposite. He wants double his money, and doesn’t care who knows.

Who knows if this actually worked, maybe the customers thought the attitude was funny, or appreciated his no-b.s. approach. Or his shines where just so good that he could take the “Soup Nazi” tactic. Either way it’s clear you needed to stick out to make it in the business.


I need a dolla!!!

Both the boxes are far from what one considers a traditional work of art. I mean, someone who can’t write the four-letter word shine in a straight line didn’t make these boxes for aesthetic purposes. These follow the tradition of folk art as everyday beauty from utility and need. These emerged in the 30′s and 40′s during the depression; when everything collapsed in a fell swoop and the world became much more dark. It’s an interesting parallel to the financial crisis of today; because instead of wining about their home foreclosing and how banks are to blame people back then actually got off their ass and did something. No job? Fine, we will go shine shoes; anything to get a buck. Although crudely painted, these boxes represent the optimism and struggle of an era. One says “no credit”, as if someone would actually get their shoe cleaned and be dirtbag enough to say, “hey I’ll pay you back tomorrow when I see you on the street (thanks though)!!”. One is in plain white writing, on pure black wood, and says “shin” (shine was too hard to fit apparently), and looks like the work of a kindergardener. It still has the amazing construction to hold together after all these years from one cheap piece of wood, and looks so out of place in today’s world.  They still can be admired today at Lift Trucks, and hey maybe those whining unemployed college kids will come in and get an inspiration.