This week, the Past Present is focussing on a form of employment – a service industry in fact – which was once common in Sydney, but which has all but died out. Once shoe shiners were a common sight in Sydney, as shown in the postcard above of Park Street. The postcard is dated to circa 1915 and shows a row of shoe shiners ready for custom. The area of Park Street shown is uncertain, but is probably in the vicinity of Town Hall and the Queen Victoria Building.
Shoe shining has a surprising history, with shoe polish not really available as a purchasable product until after 1906. Before this, shoe polish was often homemade, using tallow, lanolin or beeswax as a base, and often adding lampblack to provide a colour to the shine. People very rarely shone their own shoes though and gradually a business arose around providing a service to people who wanted a high sheen to their shoes. By the mid 19th century shoe shine boys (not always children, but often adult men) were operating in city streets, particularly around areas of high pedestrian movement (such as stations and public buildings). Using a basic form of shoe polish, a brush and polishing cloth, these boys would set up on the street and provide a shine to the shoes of those passing by, in return for a small fee. In the postcard you can also see many of the shoe shine boxes which were favoured by shoe shiners as they provided the customer a place to rest his foot while the shine was taking place, but also provided storage for the polish and other products needed to produce it.