Wednesday 29 September 2010


A nice little piece on keeping your shoes clean (Leisure Hour 1861). Warren's Blacking Warehouse, also mentioned in my recent graffiti piece for their guerilla advertising, was famously where Dickens, in his childhood, was obliged to work, putting together pots of blacking in a window, for the admiration of the viewing public - a source of shame which haunted him for the rest of his life (although some claim otherwise).


IT appears to have been customary to imbue shoes with an oily mixture before the time of Pliny, since it is stated by him, in the 15th book of his "Natural History," that Cato recommended the dregs of the olive (after the expression of the oil) to be used for anointing bridle-reins, leather thongs, and shoes, in order to render them supple. It must, however, be remarked, that a mixture somewhat similar to modern blacking is also described by the same author, in the 35th book. This mixture was used for ink, and it was composed of lampblack, gum, and vinegar, and only required, therefore, the addition of oil and honey to make it into a soluble blacking. This inference is rendered the more probable since the remains of leather, found in the Roman gravel-pit discovered in digging the foundation for the New Royal Exchange, appear to have been covered with a sort of blacking. They are thus described by Mr. Tite, the architect of that noble building, in his "Antiquities of the Royal Exchange :" "The fragments, in general, are of black leather; but there are some pieces which may possibly have been once of another colour. It is most probable that the upper surface was almost always shining and several instances may be noticed where it still retains a dull gloss, which appears usually to have protected that particular side."
    Modern blacking seems to have been originally composed chiefly of wax and tallow, and probably lampblack, and somewhat, similar, therefore, to harness-blacking. When and how the mixture now employed in this country was first discovered, have found impossible to decide ; but, according to a statement of Mr. W. C. Day, the recipe for its preparation was communicated to Mr. Richard Martin whilst he was travelling on the continent. Martin afterwards became associated with Mr. Charles Day, and in 1801 they commenced the manufacture of blacking. This firm has since acquired considerable celebrity, under the title of Day and Martin. Another important blacking manufactory was afterwards established by Mr. Robert Warren. Another was subsequently founded by Mr. Everett, who commenced business in King's Head Court, Holborn. All the parties connected in establishing these three firms acquired considerable fortunes. Each maker had, of course, proportions and methods of mixing peculiar to himself; but the chief materials, namely, a black colouring matter, and certain substances which acquire a gloss by friction, were the same in most cases. In England, they generally consist of bone-black, sugar, or molasses, sperm-oil, sulphuric acid, and strong vinegar. The bone-black, in the state of a very fine powder, and the sperm-oil, are first thoroughly incorporated ; the sugar or molasses, mixed with a small proportion of vinegar, is now added, and well stirred into the mass ; strong sulphuric acid is then gradually poured into the vessel. The mixture is then diluted with an additional quantity of vinegar. Paste blacking is now made in precisely the same way as liquid blacking, excepting that the last portion of vinegar is not added.
    Baron Liebig states that, in Germany, blacking is made in the following manner:—Powdered bone-black is mixed with half its weight of molasses, and one-eighth of its weight of olive-oil, to which are afterwards added one-eighth of its weight of muriatic acid and one-fourth of its weight of strong sulphuric acid. The whole is then mixed up with water to a sort of unctuous paste. To give some idea of the importance of this manufacture, it may be stated that on an average one hundred and fifty casks, containing a quantity of blacking equal to nine hundred dozen pint bottles, are sent out daily from one manufactory that of Day and Martin. The price of the stone-ware bottles for containing the blacking, varies with their size, the usual sizes costing 6s., 9s. and 12s. per gross, and the corks (bungs) costing 1s. 4d. per gross. There is also a large outlay for labels and sealing-wax.
    As one example of the means which have been employed to give notoriety to manufactured articles by means of advertisements, we copy the following from a number of the "Morning Advertiser" for 25th of November, 1807: it is an account of a burlesque company for making blacking. "Final Meeting of the Public Blacking Subscription Company, held at the 'Boot,' in Leather Lane, Anthony Varnish, Esq., in the chair, Sir John Blackwell, Knight, being indisposed. The chairman reported that Mr. Timothy Lightfoot, the treasurer, had brushed off with the old fund, and that the deputation who had waited on Mr. Fawcett (cunning Mr. Fawcett!) the proprietor of the Brilliant Fluid Blacking, at No. 76, Houndsditch, could not prevail on him to dispose of his right thereto in favour of this Company, although they had made him the, most liberal offers," etc. etc.
    The shoeblacks of the present day are only a re-appearance.  Some seventy or eighty years ago, shoeblacks were at the corner of almost every street, especially in great thoroughfares. As the pedestrians passed, the shoeblacks called out "Shoeblack, your honour! Black your shoes, sir!" They used an oleaginous, lustreless blacking. Some of them accommodated their patrons with an old pair of shoes to stand in, while they operated. Time came when their occupation was about to leave them. The first incursion against their business was by the makers of "patent cake-blacking," on sticks formed with a handle like a small battledore; they suffered a more fearful invasion from the makers of liquid blacking in bottles. Soon after this, Day and Martin commenced manufacturing their ne plus ultra of blacking, and private shoe-blacking became general, public shoeblacks rapidly disappeared, as became extinct for a time. The last shoeblack of "the old school" is said to have sat under the covered entrance of Red Lion Court, Fleet Street, in 1821.

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