The History Of Shoe Polish



Note from the Editor: At Hackson and Sons, our aim is to educate our partners and consumers on shoe care.  Our shoe polish museum in Singapore exhibits various artefacts old and modern. Our knowledge may be wrong or limited, as the information written here were collected from various sources. We welcome readers to contribute pictures or information and credit will be mentioned. Oh yes, definitely no plagiarism!

For the longest time, mankind has used leather as a form of clothing and to make various items. We would have seen pictures of cavemen wearing animal skins or woolly boots. All these items were the most primitive form of leather. Over mankind’s evolution, attempts were made to preserve and care for leather to enhance the lifespan of the leather. 

Despite the efforts of mankind, it was only in the 19th century, that effective shoe care products were available. Before that there was only something called shoeblacking and its effects were very weak and rain would totally destroy it.  Shoeblacking consists of soot, sugar syrup, molasses and water and it comes only, in one colour. You guessed it. Black. Not to mentioned that it left terrible stains on everything which were difficult to get rid off.  

Shortly after, Germany and German speaking countries and the UK became especially good in developing shoe care products due to their advancement in technology. One of the forefathers of modern shoe care was Mr Alain Sutter, of Switzerland. He began the production of shoe care products in Oberhofen, in the canton of Thurgau during 1861. But his brand WOLY, recorded the founding date officially only in 1931.

Another pioneer would be Mr Philipp Adam Schneider, co-founder of the renowned Werner & Mertz company in Mainz. He created a shoe polish and patent it under the label, Erdal which had a frog on it in 1867. The ‘FROG’ was a huge catalyst in pushing the German shoe care industry to huge popularity during the late 1800s in Germany. Many brands like Kavalier, Nigrin, Lordix, Pilo and Trap-Trap emerged.

At the turn of the twentieth century, two brothers, Paul and Walter Salzbrot collaborated with Mr Karl Esslen from Berlin. Mr Esslen, had a viscous leather oil by the name of Collan Olia that he bought from Olsen, a Swedish company and which became a very famous German brand. This was in 1909 and the reason why this brand has a premium range ‘Since 1909’.  When the First World War started 5 years later, Count Zeppelin used this leather oil to waterproof and protect his mooring lines of his Zeppelins and literally ‘propel’ this German brand to dizzling heights of popularity.

Back in the UK and the UK influenced countries, brands like Wren's, Cobra, Cherry Blossom, Dales, Meltonian and many other more brands sprung up like young shoots after the storm but were either acquired or closed down in less than 40 years. Only few companies survived through mergers and acquisitions but some of their brands did not. 

One of the pioneers from the UK was Mr William Edward Wren, an Englishman from Merton Surrey. He started his business of making wax polishes in 1889 under the name of William Wren & Co’s Boot & Shoe Polish.

It was an appropriate business as Northampton was home to many fine shoe and boot makers, even till this very day. His brand would become a brand that was known for its quality and prestige and won its first award from the Leather Trades Exhibition three years later in 1892. In those days, the Leather Trades Exhibition held in the centre of Britain’s boot making industry Northampton was a very prestigious event and was of significant importance to the trade. William Wren & Co Ltd soon branched into other products like Floor & Furniture Polish, Metal Polish, Saddle & Harness Paste, Puwite Shoe Whitener as well as the reputed Lavendo Furniture Polish.

At its peak, Wren’s was appointed by His Majesty King George VI during his reign from 1936 to 1952 as the Polish & Dubbin of the Royal Regiment and during WWII, signifying the quality and prestige of the brand. 

Little is known of Mr Wren and what happened to him and his family but his company was acquired in 1938 by Chiswick Products Ltd and was in turn bought over by Reckitt & Colman Holdings Ltd.  The brand was swept into a mire of multiple mergers & acquisitions up to 1991 and the last failed attempt to revive the brand was to merge with Meltionian to form 'Meltonian Wren'. In the recent years, Wren's undergo a series of re-branding activities, to give us the Wren's we know now.   

In the U.S, it was pretty much the same as many brands closed down as well.  One of the survivors was Griffin, who was infamous for having scantily clad sexy ladies on their Griffin Microsheen Boot Stain Polish posters which made the viewer focused more on the ladies rather the shoes or the products. That campaign must have been really effective.

The greatest survivor of all, was KIWI shoe polish. KIWI shoe polish as we all know, was actually a tribute to the co-founder’s wife, Annie’s New Zealand roots. The brand was founded in Melbourne by William Ramsay, a second generation Scottish settler in Australia. KIWI shoe polish was only established in the UK by William’s father in 1912 after the phenomenal success in Australia and William, himself took over the running of the company a year later. Similar to many other brands, KIWI shoe polish had the help of the First World War when the allied armies bought 120,000 dozen of shoe polish for their troops.

In the Second World War, the shoe polish became a necessity for both the Allies and the AXIS Powers. After the war in Japan, shiny boots and shoes became an advantage to impress the Japanese ladies, which the American GIs with their suede shoes and dull brown colours found out, to their disadvantage. A tin of good quality shoe polish could even be worth several packets of cigarettes! 

So as we can see, the shoe polish industry has always been a complicated web of buying and selling brands. Not a single brand of shoe polish in the world now, can safely say they have not changed owners throughout their history. In 1906, KIWI was the biggest brands and 110 years later, it still remains the biggest brand in terms of volume. The only thing that has changed is that it is no longer a premium brand but rather seen as a mass market product.

KIWI shoe polish parent company SC Johnson acquired KIWI shoe polish  from Sara Lee together in 2011 but KIWI shoe polish is no longer produced in the country they originated from due to high labour costs in the UK. SC Johnson recently bought another German brand WOLY which as we mentioned, originated from Switzerland but was ironically made famous by its premium ‘Made in Germany’ quality since 1991.

At Hackson and Sons, we believed that all shoe care products would have achieve a certain level of quality but the effectiveness of the product depends a lot on the way of usage and also the climate of the geographical area that it is sold in. For example in Asia, some products whose formulation is heavy in beeswax,  the customers find that their shoe polishes leak easily. This is because the hot and humid weather melts the beeswax, a relatively inexpensive wax and has a low melting point. A common replacement would be the carnauba wax, which is twice as expensive as beeswax and manufacturers are always reluctant to make the switch and not charge a higher price for their products.

Hackson and Sons Ltd is proud to be able to play a minor part and join all the other reputable brands in expanding the industry. Although Wrens is no longer produced in the UK, we are at least able to continue with the fine tradition of producing it in Europe, adhering our products very closely to what Wren’s was famous for. 

Historical brand, prestigious legacy and premium quality. Wren’s is reborn.