The History of Bootblacking

Thanks and credit goes to Karlheinz, European Bootblack 2019 for researching much of this history, with additions by Alistair LeatherHiraeth, European Bootblack 2020.

Paris In the 1830s, mid regency period, in the ever-growing metropolis of Paris the streets were literally flowing over with excrements. So crafty city dwellers made a living of hiring out portable wooden bridges to people to cross the mess in the street (“passe paye”) and, while at it, offered services of cleaning up those who were unfortunate enough to have stepped into something. These went by the name of “decrotteurs”.  “Une crotte” is a turd. Yep, “de-poopers”.

This word evolved to mean “bootblack” over time and still exists in some french speaking countries, while the French cleaned up their language and go with “cireur des botte” now. And speaking of “cleaning up, once Paris got sewers, those formerly hauling wooden bridges over the flow of poop changed their job description to just cleaning and waxing shoes, which were now made predominantly of leather. And violá, the street bootblack was born!

So here’s the first Daguerreotype “Boulevard du Temple“, Paris. Taken by Louis Daguerre in 1838, it is simultaneously the first picture made with light and the first picture of a bootblack!

In Britain, Beau Brummel started a trend on his return from Paris, for having clean shiny shoes. He was considered an iconic figure in 19th century Regency England and for many years the arbiter of men’s fashion. The streets of London were as equally full of muck and mud as those of Paris at the time, and so started the bootblack brigades of London. These were organised groups or brigades of boys who had pitches, and beats to work on, and because they were organised, they were looked on favourably by the police.  There were also people who operated outside the brigades, unlicensed, both children and adults, and were independent shoe shiners, or as they came to be known, bootblacks.  The bootblack was a stalwart of London street life for a couple of centuries, only really becoming less seen in the latter part of the 20th Century.  Train stations and airports still have bootblacks with pitches available in those locations.   

In America, Bootblacking became something that could be accessed in barber shops.  In the 1850s goldrush times, barbers, hotel receptions, and gambling houses were places that bootblacks worked.  There were many French immigrants who worked as bootblacks, as it was something that was a part of parisian life, and when they got to America, they brought it over.  So it seems it’s all the fault of the French. We have them to thank for the spread of bootblacking out into Europe and into America. 

In fetish terms, we have very little documented. I’m fairly certain that there must have been folks doing domestic bootblacking and getting fetishy tingly feels without anyone really noticing. No-one took the trouble to write it down, though, until this lady, Hannah Cullwick 1833 – 1909.

Hannah is the first instance of a documented boot and leather fetish that we can refer to, A middle class educated woman, she worked as a servant for Arthur Munby whom she married in 1873, Wikipedia calls theirs “an unconventional partnership, with bizarre role-playing as documented in both their diaries” – finally, some well documented boot fetishism!

Hannah and Arthur had a lot going on, but to stick to the topic – She had a particular interest in boots, allegedly cleaning hundreds each year, sometimes by licking them. She once told Munby that she could tell where her “Master” had been by how his boots tasted. Read her diary and their letters to each other, just google the name and “boots” and you’ll be as convinced as I am that she’s our pioneer bootblack. A woman. In London. A good hundred years before the American Leather/Motorcycle clubs started! I’m a bit proud of her.

So, we know that leather as a fetish and a lifestyle happened after WWII and was in part due to the rise of gay biker gangs both across Europe and in America.  And that became what we know of today, as Leather. So it’s really not surprising that with all these great leather uniforms and boots, that bootblacking became something that was taken on by the Leather community, in order to be able to care for the boots and the gear.  And in terms of Power Exchange relationships, what better way to provide service for your Dominant than to clean his or her leathers?  Is it any wonder that in a hyper sexual fetish lifestyle, it became a sexy service-orientated form of play too?  Think back to Hannah Cullwick. She was doing it 100 years earlier. 

So when did the first bootblack competition take place?  In August 25th 1953 in Morganton, North Carolina, they held a bootblack, or a shoe shine competition. There was a stiff competition in barber shops around the town as to who offered the most skilled and entertaining bootblacking experience. So they held a lighthearted competition to decide who the best bootblack in the town was.

And so to our modern Leather history – The first International Mr Bootblack competition was held in 1993.  It was at first a non-gendered competition and both men and women were allowed to compete. In 1998 it became International Mr Bootblack, and a separate competition for women was held at International Ms Leather.  Since 1999 competitors for IMBB have been restricted to persons over the age of 21 who can provide a valid government-issued form of identification that identifies them as male. Winners of the International Mr Bootblack competition since it’s inception are listed below.

Date WinnerSponsor/Preliminary TitleCity/State
1993David MorganDC EagleWashington, DC
1994William Shields, Jr.Chicago Eagle, & Hellfire ClubChicago, Illinois
1995Tim CousinsDC Eagle
1996Todd NelsonThe CuffSeattle, Washington
1997DrillerSF Eagle, & Daddy’s BarSan Francisco, California
1998Matthew DuncanCentaur MCWashington DC
1999Robert EhrlichDC EagleWashington DC
2000David HawksCentaur MCWashington DC
2001paksenCentaur MCWashington DC
2002Michael LanziniThe LureNew York, NY
2003Richie ChameroyDaddy’s Bar & Powerhouse BarSan Francisco, California
2004Alan TunstallThe Barracks Bar & Avatar ClubLos Angeles, California
2005BooBooGLLA & Laws LeatherCleveland, Ohio
2006Benjamin PalmerPumpJack Pub & PriapeVancouver, Canada
2007SpotGreat Lakes Leather AllianceLansing, Michigan
2008BootdogAlameda County Leather CorpsOakland, California
2009McGToronto Bootblack 2009, MLTCToronto, Canada
2010Tim StarkeyBoston RamrodBoston, Massachusetts
2011Jim DeuderLeathermen NYC, Eagle NYCNew York City, NY
2012Nick ElliotOregon State Bootblack 2011Portland, Oregon
2013Sammy SKloverOregon State Bootblack 2012Portland, Oregon
2014ScoutEros SF, & SF EagleOakland, California
2015Bamm-BammInternational Leatherboy 2012San Francisco, California
2016Erick JosephAlaska State BootblackAnchorage, Alaska
2017Ryan ‘Pawlish’ Independent Candidate Cincinnati, Ohio
2018Lucky RebelMr Oregon State Leather 2016Portland, Oregon
2019Kriszly De HondMr Puppy EU 2015Zaandam, Netherlands
2020Contest CancelledCovid 19 Pandemic stops play!

And in Europe, we have the first Bootblack competition held at Darklands in Antwerp, sponsored by MSC Belgium in 2019, The competition in Europe is only 2 years old! We have some catching up to do…

DateWinnerSponsorCountry
2019Karlheinz EdelGermany
2020Alistair LeatherHiraethUK KRueL Leather FamilyUK
2021Competition cancelledAlistair will hold the title until 2022