1897-1912: Evolution of a Shoe Shine Parlor

Sepia Saturday 587 and the Genealogy Blog Party. Thirteenth in a photo blog series on my maternal Italian ancestors from Gloversville, Fulton Co., N.Y.

The previous post chronicled the 1906-1917 Gloversville, N.Y., shoe shine careers of Michael and Vincenzo “Jimmy” Del Negro — the brothers of my maternal Italian second great-grandmother Antoinette (Del Negro) Curcio.

Tools of the shoeshine trade. Photo: Pixabay

I wondered what more I could learn about the Del Negro brothers’ various work locations, which were listed in the Gloversville-Johnstown Business Directories. So I turned once more to Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps for the next phase of their story.

Evolution of a shoe shine parlor

Michael Del Negro moved to Gloversville, N.Y., in the late 1800s — buying property in 1896 from his sister and her husband Antonio Curcio and moving in with the Curcio family by 1900.

By 1909, he was the proprietor of Mike’s Shoe Shining Parlor at 12 N. Main Street — with a commercial listing under Boot Blacking in the Gloversville-Johnstown City Directory.[1]Gloversville, New York, City Directory, 1909, p. 385. Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line accessed 9 Aug. 2021]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011. Which made me wonder: what was the evolution of his shoe shining parlor?

In 1897, a Cigar Store operated at 12 N. Fulton St in Gloversville, N.Y., a small yellow wedge labeled Cigars on the lower left of this map. By 1909, Michael Del Negro operated Mike’s Shoe Shining Parlor from that location. What was the evolution of his parlor? Source: Library of Congress/Sanborn Map

The detail above — from an 1897 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Gloversville — shows that when Uncle Mike arrived in town, a cigar store operated at 12 N. Fulton St., the future premises his shoeshine parlor.

The tiny building labeled “Cigars” was a one-story, wedge-shaped wooden structure (yellow on the map) with a slate/tin roof in a long line of stores near the Kasson Opera House.

Uncle Mike builds his career

On the 1902 Sanborn map of Gloversville, the 12 N. Main St. building still housed a cigar store. However, on the 1907 map (see detail below) “Shoe Shining” was added to “Cigars” at that location — the same address Uncle Mike gave as his place of employment in the 1906 Gloversville-Johnstown Business Directory. The “x” indicates the tiny building then had a shingle roof.

In 1907, 12 N. Main St. offered Shoe Shining and Cigars as shown in this detail from the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Gloversville, N.Y. Michael Del Negro gave this as his work address in a 1906 city directory. Image: Library of Congress/Sanborn Maps

A shoe parlor of his own

Fast forward another five years and the cigar store is gone. The 1912 Sanborn map of Gloversville shows “Boot Black” as the sole business operating from 12 N. Main Street (below) — the address listed as Mike’s Shoe Shining Parlor in the 1909 Gloversville-Johnstown Business Directory.

By 1912, 12 N. Main St. was exclusively a Boot Black parlor as shown in this detail from the Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Gloversville, N.Y. Michael Del Negro listed “Mike’s Shoe Shining Parlor” at this address in a 1909 city directory. Image: Library of Congress/Sanborn Map

Not only that, but the neighborhood had improved. A fireproof bank with a clock dome had been constructed at the corner of E. Fulton St. and N. Main St., two doors down from Uncle Mike’s parlor — which undoubtedly added some foot traffic to his shop. And the shoe shine parlor had a black dot, indicating a composite roof.

Alas, the building that housed Uncle Mike’s shoe shine parlor at 12 N. Main St. has not survived — but many of the surrounding buildings have. In the next post, we’ll take a look at the once bustling Gloversville neighborhood that made shoe shining a successful career — including for Uncle Jimmy, who shined shoes at various other locations.

Up next: Modern and vintage photos of the Del Negro brothers’ workplaces. Meanwhile, please visit the blogs of this week’s other Sepia Saturday participants. Then visit the September 2021 Genealogy Blog Party: What You Learned to check out the skills genealogy bloggers have shared.

© 2021 Molly Charboneau. All rights reserved.

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1 Gloversville, New York, City Directory, 1909, p. 385. Ancestry.com. U.S., City Directories, 1822-1995 [database on-line accessed 9 Aug. 2021]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.

11 thoughts on “1897-1912: Evolution of a Shoe Shine Parlor”

  1. I didn’t want for digitization. I was using the maps well before that. I love the information about the buildings and how you can track changes over time. What a great series you are putting together.

    1. Thanks, Kathy. My paternal Welsh great-grandfather lived in umpteen places in Baltimore. I can’t wait to write about him again and use the Sanborn maps.

  2. The Sanborn maps once again! I HAVE GOT TO GET ON BOARD WITH THESE! Thanks for posting the use of Sanborn maps with all your stories, and I don’t think you’re going overboard at all; they show what a fantastic research tool these are, and what you can do with them! 😉

    1. Yes, you must. I don’t know why I waited so long…maybe because they weren’t digitized earlier on. But now that they’re on the Library of Congress website, it’s much easier to work with them. There’s also a clipping tool for isolating the map details of interest.

  3. Another fascinating episode for your series. The location of Uncle Mike’s shop suggests a good eye for business especially when adding cigar sales to the shoe shine service. For some reason this past year YouTube’s algorithm decided to offer me shoe shinning videos produced by high-end boot and shoe shops. It involves more than just a wipe and brush, and I’ve watched several of these skilled craftsman restore shoes to an amazing gleam.

    1. Thanks for the tip about the shoe shine videos. Perhaps I can find one to use in a future blog post. We still have many parlors in NYC and they do an amazing job of restoring even the most worn and dusty shoes and boots.

  4. The only shoe shiners I ever remember were in train depots in rather large cities. I didn’t go that many places on trains, so I was always aware of these fine gentlemen getting their shoes shined, often by Black boys or men. I’m glad to know of the tradition of your ancestors business.

    1. While the South had a huge African-American working class, the North’s blue collar workers tended to be immigrants — at least before the Great Migration. In both cases, shining shoes and boots appears to have been a good trade to get started in at a young age and to expand from upon reaching adulthood.

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