Newsletter Steven Ferry

The Modern Butlers’ Journal, February 2018, The Wisdom of Butlers Past

The Wisdom from Butlers Past

by Steven Ferry
IIMB Chairman Steven Ferry

The next most important element in the butler’s world two centuries ago, was polishing shoes apparently. Having the right tools was paramount, “without which no credit will be gained by the operator, whatever labour he may lavish on his work.” Having witnessed the motley collection of misused tools in the possession of some butlers, I would have to agree.

What were the tools they used in those days? A wooden knife made by the butler, to scrape off mud—mud presenting a bigger challenge two centuries ago than today; a stiff brush to remove any remaining mud and dust—the same as today; and blacking: an early form of shoe polish that at that time was normally a liquid mix of beeswax, oil, soda ash, black coloring, molasses, and tallow—animal fat—but which the author provides a recipe for in the appendix, making it out of brown sugar, cold beer, and sweet oil! He also mentions “copperas” elsewhere, which is a coloring agent and perhaps how the black is introduced. For sure, his recipe as given does not add up to blacking! He cautions to apply the blacking thinly and polish it off before it dries, or the shoes will appear brown. The blacking spoiled if exposed to air, meaning the tops of the bottles had to be corked after use.
When cleaning ladies’ shoes, the butler had to ensure his hands were clean, or risk spoiling the shoe linings. And what polish did he use? Milk or similar, with a small amount of blacking for the sole edges (or today’s heel-and-edge stick), applied with separate sponges.

The appendices offer advice on how to make and apply mix that renders shoes waterproof; how to prevent snow water from penetrating shoe/boot leather; and how to make the polishes to clean boot tops brown, or white—the latter including skimmed milk, lavender, and lemon juice—and he cautions against using brick dust…implying the use of brick dust in the application of some shoe polish, whereas it does have a use for cleaning other (mainly metallic) materials, such as knives (more of which in later MBJ issues),

While dubbin (wax, oil, and tallow) had been in use for centuries to moisten shoes (no shine achievable), at the time this book was written, butlers were using their own concoctions to protect and shine shoes in keeping with the fashions that had demanded shined shoes for the better part of a century. A few years later, the commercial manufacture of shoe polishes started to appear in the UK, the US, and New Zealand (Kiwi).


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