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  • Writer's pictureAisha

How to Polish Shoes (the Edwardian way!)

Hello darlings!

I'm a big fan of trawling through vintage how-to guides and housewife periodicals to find out ways that our ancestors used to care for things. If you're trying to live a more sustainable life in the modern chaos, these tutorials from a time when things had to last so much longer, can be really helpful.

And, if you're anything like me, can be a good jumping off point if you have absolutely no idea where to start; a lot of these techniques aren't taught in schools or passed down through generations any more.

To kick this off then, I'm going to do a quick tutorial on how I polish my leather shoes. This may seem an easy task, but as someone with absolutely no knowledge on how to do this it's daunting! For these tutorials I'm definitely going by the no stupid questions only stupid answers rule.

I purchased real leather shoes a couple of years ago and not only does regular polishing extend the life of the shoes, it also breathes a new lease of life into those looking a little tatty and worn. Essentially: a polish gives you a brand new pair of shoes!

The Edwardian Way

I'm drawing advice from two sources, but in my tutorials I'm using modern supplies (I will make up my own shoe blacking one day, and let you join in the process!).

The first is The Bachelor Girl's Guide to Everything, first published in 1916 (my version is a reprint from 2008), written by Agnes M. Miall.

In the section 'Cleaning Boots and Shoes', Mrs Miall mentions how easy it can be to spend way too much on boot cleaning supplies, but 'everything required for both black and brown footwear may be bought for ninepence or less.' All you need is 'a brush for applying the blacking, a tin of blacking or polish, and a black velvet polishing pad.' She also recommends purchasing the same set of supplies for brown shoes and keeping them separate so you don't accidentally use the wrong brush on the wrong pair of shoes.

The velvet pads 'can be made at home of old bits of velvet stuffed with rags, or bought at a Penny Bazaar'- I definitely want to made one of these!

For country girls doing 'much walking over bad roads', you need 'a tiny sponge and a bit of pointed firewood' for removing mud. First, leave the boots to dry 'in a warm room (but not near a fire) to dry' for as long as twenty-four hours in winter before they're ready to be cleaned. You should never use a knife as 'sooner or later it is sure to slip and cut the leather.' Dampen the little sponge and use it to remove the last of the mud; 'it is ruin to footwear to put on polish over mud.'

Then 'dip the brush into the blacking and rub it all over the boot, not forgetting the heel.' Polish 'vigorously' with the velvet pad until 'a good shine appears all over.'

If the boots aren't muddy they don't need the sponge and stick treatment, but if they 'are very dusty, as often happens in summer, begin by wiping them over with a duster.'

And, for brown shoes, 'an economical substitute... is the inside of a banana skin, rubbed all over the leather and then polished.'

For the making of polish, my second source is How to Make and How to Mend, originally published in 1900 (mine is a reprint from 1915), written by 'an amateur mechanic'.

There are four recipes for making shoe blacking:

(1) Melt together over a slow fire 4 oz. mutton suet, 1 oz. beeswax, 1 oz. sweet oil, 1 dr. sugar candy and 1 dr. gum-arabic; when melted add 1/2 oz. turpentine, and lampblack to suit. Pour into a mould to cool.

(2) Mix 3 oz. ivory black with 1 tablespoonful sweet oil; squeeze in 1/2 lemon, and add 2 oz. brown sugar and 1 pt. vinegar; then add 1 oz. sulphuric acid and 1 oz. hydrochloric acid.

(3) Mix slowly 2 oz. ivory black and 1 1/2 oz. brown sugar in 1 tablespoonful sweet oil; then add 1/2 pt. beer.

(4) Add a piece of tallow the size of a walnut to 1 tablespoonful of hot flour paste; then add 4 oz. moist sugar, and mix with 1 qt. warm water and a little gum-arabic.

Polishing Shoes Tutorial


My lovely leather shoes are looking a little worn- they could do with a polish!

[Optional] Remove laces.

You don't have to do this, but as I haven't cleaned these shoes for a long time I'm going to do a thorough job.

Wipe down with a damp cloth.

Remove any traces of dirt and debris; if your shoes are especially muddy you may need more than just a cloth.

Apply shoe polish.

Take a rag (I'm using an old sock) and swipe it in the polish.

Rub the shoe all over, re-applying more polish as and when you need it. You can do a couple of coats if you think it needs it- I found I really needed to massage it into the creases on the vamp of the shoe in order for it to take.

At this point, the colour of the shoe should be much more intense, but dull.

Rub polish in.

To really ingrain the polish in the shoe, use a small, relatively soft brush and buff the shoe all over.

Slightly shinier, but we could use some more shine to make these tappers look brand new. That's where the polishing comes in!

Polish up!

I still need to make a velvet pad, so I'm using a modern built-for-purpose shoe shiner.

Keep rubbing until they look brand new!


For comparison, here's some before and after pics (before on left, after on right).

So next time your shoes are looking a little worn, just remember that polishing is always an option! Give your kicks a new lease of life!


Will any of you try giving your shoes a polish? And are there any other tutorials you would like- remember, no stupid questions!

I also wanted to mention that finding shoe polish supplies like this nowadays can be tricky as there's little demand- if anyone knows of any shops, regional or online, where they can recommend buying shoe polishing supplies please share in the comments! Also, any search terms that may be useful would not go amiss.

Until next time,

Aisha x

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