by Jim Bulls
Shoe shiners have been around for quite a while. Ever king or noble required his expensive, handmade shoes or boots to have the perfect shine. Throughout the 19th century, shoeshine boys could be seen on most city streets. However with the industrial revolution, shoes were being turned out by the hundreds. Shoe polish was invented by the 1900s and shoe shining became a brand new trade.
Shoes were expensive, even those made in a factory. They needed to last so it was important to take care of them. It wasn’t long before shoeshine chairs could be found in barber shops, next to newspaper stands, train depots, hotel lobbies and business buildings in every major city.
Shaves, haircuts and shoe shines go hand in hand. If you have never experienced this “trifecta”, you are missing something ? something that needs to be on every man’s bucket list.
A shave by a barber is almost a lost art. You settle into the chair and the barber reclines you into the perfect position for shaving. A hot towel is taken from the steamer and wrapped around your face. The steam relaxes the skin, penetrates the pores and softens the whisker follicles. The heat also soothes the eyes and invites you to take a little cat nap to the sound of the barber slapping as straight edge to and fro against the razor strop, honing the razor to the sharpness of a surgical scalpel. Then the barber prepares the shaving soap to a creamy consistency, removes the towel, and applies the soap with a shaving brush. He begins shaving and at this point you are pretty much at his mercy, trusting his expertise not to nick you. No multi-blade safety razor here, but the single blade gives you the closest shave imaginable. The barber finishes with another hot towel, this time damp enough to wash off the excess lather and perhaps a little dirt from behind your ears.
The Hair Cut
Now the barber sets you up in the chair and adjusts the height in preparation for your hair cut. He wraps your neck with tissue to keep those nasty little hair clippings from getting under your shirt collar and then drapes a cape over your chest and lap, attaching it snuggly around the tissue so all the clippings will fall to the floor. He may or may not give you a shampoo first; if not he will dampen your hair. He uses his razor to help shape your hair style (known as the razor cut) and the use of the electric clippers is kept to a minimum. The razor is also used around the ears and to shape the hair on the back of the neck. Facial hair, such as mustache and sideburns are manicured to perfection while “ole men’s hair” that protrudes from the nose and ears is snipped away with scissors. One electric device that a barber does use, is strapped to the back of his hand causing the palm to vibrate as he massages the neck and shoulders. To finish up, an ample amount of talc is applied to the neck by a soft bristle brush, and then a gentle but firm slap of aftershave to the cheek and you are on your way. Unless, of course, you are lucky enough to have a shoe shine man in the barber shop.
The Shoe Shine
The shine man will help you up into the chair. You can now sit back and relax, read the morning newspaper or strike up a conversation with the shine man. Believe me, the shine man is a wealth of information. He keeps up on all the current events, sports, and is happy to share his opinion on just about any topic. Your treat has just begun.
He places your feet on the stanchions and begins to apply shoe cream with an applicator brush. He will use his hands to rub wax into the leather. This procedure is twofold, not only is he rejuvenating the shoe leather, but he is also massaging your tired old dogs. With a syncopated motion and a brush in each hand, the shine man brushes the excess wax from the shoe–sometimes the brush crosses your ankle which tickles. The grand finale is the musical rhythm of the shine rag popping to a song he may hum, whistle or even sing.
When you leave, the old Florsheims are looking new even if you have a piece of cardboard inside to keep pebbles from entering the hole in the sole. You have a song in your heart, a positive attitude and feel like a million dollars even if you only have two bits to your name. You have a good shine man, you will never need a psychiatrist.
Reedley Shoe Shine Men and the Sundowner Law
Reedley was blessed with two shoe repair shops, Mr. Hashimoto on 11th Street and Mr. Womack on G Street. In addition to repairing shoes, both of them would also give shoe shines. Then there were Victor Huerta’s two barber shops, one on G Street and one in, what we used to call, China Town. Both shops had shine chairs. When Victor moved to the coast, Roy took over the I Street shop and Angel took over the shop on G Street.
But my favorite shine man was Willie, a black man who had a shine chair at the Optimo Club (now a part of Nearly New) on G Street. Willie could talk to you about any subject, keeping an ongoing patter accompanied by the snap and pop of his shine rag. If he wasn’t talking, he was singing or whistling. He was a real professional.
Many people may not be aware that Reedley once had a law that made it illegal for blacks to remain in the city limits after 5:00 p.m. Willie lived in Dinuba. This law wasn’t expunged from the City ordinances until the 1960s.
With modern plastics and tennis shoes that don’t require polishing the shine man may soon be a thing of the past. Next time you are in an airport, make the time to utilize the services of a shine man. You won’t be sorry.
Check out the other parts in this series on Reedley Schools and other local and California history articles, including more Reedley history articles by Jim, be sure to check out our Hometown History section.