Griffin Manufacturing Co., New York

      

The Griffin Manufacturing Company, makers of shoe polish, was started by Anthony (Tony) Aste in the mid 1880’s. Nick-named the “King of Bootblacks,” he turned a single shoe shine stand into the world’s largest maker of shoe polish. Also a well known thoroughbred race horse owner, his story was summarized in his December 8, 1954 obituary printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

Anthony L. Aste, 88, of 29 Prospect Park West, who rose from roving boot black to millionaire and president of the Griffin Manufacturing Company, makers of Griffin shoe polish, died after a heart attack in Long Island College Hospital, where he had been under treatment for the past two and one-half years.

In 1885 Mr. Aste rented space in the produce exchange building in Manhattan and installed the first high chairs for shoe shining. He branched out into other buildings in the financial district.

He hired a chemist to develop a superior polish for his stands. The polish was so successful that it was bottled and sold to other bootblacks. From that beginning he formed the Griffin Company, which for many years has been at 410 Willoughby Avenue.

In the late 1890’s he began racing horses and recently received a plaque from the Belmont Park track citing him as the oldest living racer of horses in America. He counted as one of the most memorable days in his life the occasion in 1901 when he sold a horse which cost him $4,300 to William C. Whitney, the millionaire, for $50,000 at the Sheepshead Bay track.

Born in Manhattan’s lower East Side, he lived in Brooklyn for over 50 Years.

The obituary mentioned that Aste opened a shoe shine stand in the Produce Exchange Building which was located at the foot of Broadway in lower Manhattan. At the time, it was the custom to have shoes shined by someone on the street while you stood on one foot and then the other, so this was a relatively new concept.

He paid $660 a year to operate the stand, or “throne” as it was known back then, at the Produce Exchange. A photograph of a large and extremely crowded main hall of the exchange taken in 1886 confirms that Aste had made a shrewd investment.

 

Neither Aste or the Griffin Manufacturing Company were mentioned in the NYC directories until the mid-1890’s. Aste was first listed in 1896 as a blacking maker located at 82 Cortlandt Street and the Griffin Manufacturing Company ( Anthony L. Aste, proprietor) first appeared in 1900 at the same location. Sometime in 1907 or 1908 they moved to 69 Murray Street and around 1914, the company incorporated in New York State. Both the 1914 and 1919 NYC Copartnership and Corporation Directories listed Antony and his son Robert as the company’s president and secretary respectively.

The business remained listed at 69 Murray Street until the early 1930’s when they bought a building on Willoughby Avenue in Brooklyn. The purchase was announced in the December 31, 1933 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

The factory at 410 to 424 Willoughby Ave. has been sold for the Ahlecy Corporation to the Griffin Shoe Polish Company for its new plant.

By the 1930’s their products were sold under a wide range of trade names including: “Griffin Allwite,” “Griffin Kidine,” “Griffin Lotion Cream,” “Griffin Sterling” and “Griffin A,B,C.”

  

Apparently his formula was so good that a competitor, the Two-in-One Shinola Bixby Corporation  was actually convicted of stealing it. According to a March 31, 1936 article in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle:

The formula for shoe polish that made a millionaire of Anthony Aste, who began life as a roving boot black, was stolen by the Two-in-One Shinola Bixby Corporation with the aid of Dr. Raymond Warburton, a chemist formerly employed by Aste, Justice James C. Cropsey ruled today in Equity Term of Supreme Court. He gave an injunction in favor of the Griffin Manufacturing Company, Aste’s corporation, and said the defendants must pay damages which may amount to $250,000.

Evidence before Justice Cropsey showed that for a long time the defendant concern tried to obtain the secret of the high quality of Aste’s invention. They made hundreds of analyses and tried to buy up the Aste concern and consolidate all the shoe polish manufacturers.

Failing to do that, it was charged that they hired Dr. Warburton, who had been employed by Aste as confidential chemist from 1916 to 1919 and knew all the secrets.

“Upon payment of $1,000 they obtained from him both the plaintiff’s process and formula.” said Justice Cropsey in his decision. The attempt by the corporate defendant to prove that it did not obtain plaintiff’s process from the former employee is clearly shown to be untrue.

The pastes and polishes were not the only interests of the company. According to an article in the August 24, 1922 issue of “Printer’s Ink,” Griffin owned patents to a number of shoe-shine related appurtenances and designs as well.

They own the patents on the rubber tipped shoe rest that makes it easier for the customer to keep his foot steady under the shining cloth of the operator. Another feature looking to the comfort of the patron has been the armchairs with a bit of space between them allowing the use of both arm rests for comfort. Another patented design is the half step at one side that makes it easier for women to reach the chairs without danger of damage to skirts and with greater comfort and less embarrassment.

All told, this enabled Griffin to supply everything that was needed in the trade under one concern, increasing their appeal to the operators of parlors and stands, as well as individual bootblacks. The firm even provided assistance in locating new stands to prospective owners. Aste summed up this business approach himself in the “Printer’s Ink’ article:

In a visit with Mr. Aste where he was supervising the opening of a new parlor he laid special stress on these service features and the real quality of the polish manufactured by the concern. He felt a pride in the accomplishment of his plans and did not hesitate to say that any stand that would install his features and use his materials correctly would make a success, provided the location was right.

The company was still listed on Willoughby Avenue in the 1955 Brooklyn Telephone Directory, but by 1959 I can no longer find them. Sadly, the Willoughby Avenue location is now a parking lot for Home Depot.

It appears that the business (or at least the name?) was purchased in 2013 and is now called the Griffin Shoe Care Company, located in Crystal Lake, Illinois. So, if you want, you can still buy Griffin Shoe Polish today!

The history of the business between the late 1950’s and 2013 is not clear.

The bottle I found is a small (2 to 3 oz.) machine made bottle probably made in the 1920’s, prior to their move to Willoughby Avenue. It has the name “Griffin” and a picture of a griffen, the company’s trademark, embossed on the base. The griffin was an antique monster with the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.

According to a Counsular Report to the House Of Representatives dated 1901, the company registered and was using the trademark in the United States for several years. This dates its use back to the late 1890’s. The Report went on to say that they did not have rights to the trademark on products shipped to Germany.

 

S. M. Bixby

The S. M. stands for Samuel Merrill Bixby. His company, S M Bixby & Co., started in 1860 and was in business for over 60 years. They manufactured ink and glue items but their main product was shoe blacking and polish.

The  February 7, 1920 issue of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle featured S. M. Bixby & Co. in a series called “The Wonders of Brooklyn.” Much of the information it contains is the product of an interview with Theo W Rich, manager of Bixby’s export department at the time.

It was back in the year 1860 that Samuel M Bixby began to make shoe polish in the basement of his shoe store on 8th Ave., in old New York. At that time the people of the United States were mostly dependent on foreign-made shoe blackings, which were imported in large quantities. One that was quite popular was applied with a flat stick – one end embedded in the cork – and then rubbed furiously with a heavy brush to obtain a shine. The directions on another, a crumbly cake-like substance, urged our ancestors to “take a piece the size of a pea” with no hint of whether they had reference to petit-pois or marrow fats , and no distinction between sizes 3 1/2 B and 9 shoes. Were the members of the present generation compelled to use such stuff, after a taste of the niceties  of modern invention, the air would become blue with piratical execration.

The founder of our industry was bent upon improvement and uplift. The spontaneous popularity achieved by his product made his shoe business an affair of minor importance, and he forthwith engaged exclusively in the manufacture of shoe polishes in modest quarters at the corner of Washington and Dey Streets. After more than twenty-five years of steady increase in the business, a removal was made to a large factory building on Baxter Street near Canal where the output assumed such proportions that another removal became necessary.

It was then that the citizens of Brooklyn beckoned kindly, and we negotiated the purchase of this building, formerly a shoe factory, together with a large area of unimproved property adjoining it at the rear. This was in 1910.

The NYC directories confirm much of this story.

  • Between 1863 and 1865 Samuel M Bixby was listed at 475 Eighth Avenue with the occupation “shoes”
  • From 1867 up through 1886 the S.M. Bixby & Co. was listed with the classification of blacking. The address over this period was listed as either 74 Dey or 173 Washington (corner of Washington and Dey).
  • Between 1886 and 1888 their address changed to 194 Hester (corner of Baxter) and the business was listed there through 1910.

Kings Handbook of New York City, published in 1892, included a section on S.M. Bixby & Co which included a photograph and description of the Hestor Street operation.

The particular articles by which S.M. Bixby & Co. have won their reputation are “Three Bee” Blacking and “Royal Polish” the former a paste blacking for men’s boots and the latter a liquid dressing, for restoring the color and gloss to ladies’ and children’s shoes. The building in which these goods are manufactured is an imposing six-story structure, supplied with machinery and appliances necessary for the business, and is the largest one in existence devoted exclusively to the manufacture of shoe-blacking. It is located at 194 and 196 Hester Street, adjacent to the busiest part of Broadway, and one block from Canal and Centre Streets. The salesroom and offices of the company occupy a portion of the second floor, while the shipping department and stockrooms are on the main floor. The remainder of the space in this immense building is divided into various departments, where the compounding and putting up of the blacking is done. In all departments the manufacture is an interesting one, and furnishes employment to upwards of 150 hands. It is not alone the excellence of their blackings and dressings and the convenient and perfect form of putting them up, that have given S.M. Bixby & Co. the leading position they occupy today in their especial line, but their persistent and novel methods of making the merits of the goods known, and a display of an unflinching determination to be always abreast of the times.

Sometime around 1910/1911, the company moved to the Brooklyn factory which was located on 2nd Avenue at 45th and 46th Streets. In addition, they also utilized portions of two buildings in Bush Terminal for storage purposes. The Brooklyn Daily Eagle feature described the Brooklyn plant this way:

Equipped with electrical power, well-arranged mixing utensils and a labyrinth of labor-saving machinery, this plant has hummed its daily note of inspiration to its army of contented workers during the ten years that have elapsed since the Bixby organization made Brooklyn its home. The operation of the various mechanical departments make interesting moving pictures to which must be added the swish of steaming kettles, the rumble of the presses that stamp out the tin boxes, and the never ceasing jingle and rattle of glass bottles in which “Jet Oil” and “Royal Polish” for black shoes, “AA Brown for brown shoes and “Shu-Wite” canvas shoe cleaner are filled. Imagine , if you will, the filling of these bottles by an expert operator, whose cleverness enables her to pick up empty ones and remove those that have been filled at the rate of 34 to 36 per minute and meanwhile tell her coworkers of the fun she had at a dance the night before.

Samuel Bixby was the president of the company up until his death on March 11, 1912. His cousins, Samuel A. Bixby and Willard G. Bixby continued to run the company after his death. Both are listed as president at various times between 1912 and 1920.

Bixby was an innovative marketer and as far as I can tell, one of the first to create what we might call today a “rewards” or “incentive” program.” The program was described in the November 28, 1894 issue of the “Boot and Shoe Recorder”

A couple of years ago S.M. Bixby & Co., published a neat little book of “Home Songs” which at once became popular, for it contained a number of prime old favorites which our mothers used to sing. The plan was to send this book to any person who would send to them a label from a box or bottle of their blacking or dressing, and six cents. As an advertising scheme it was a most pronounced success, and numbers two, three and four followed. Each contained sixty-two pages, words and music of such songs as were worth singing, and societies, glee clubs and families sought and used them. Edition after edition has been printed since that time. The firm made special arrangements with shoe dealers who handled “Royal Polish,” “Three Bee Blacking,” and “Santinola” which enabled them to sell much more by offering these books as premiums, furnishing them with sample of the “Home Songs.”

In 1920 or 1921, the F.F. Dalley Corporation gained control of S.M. Bixby & Company. According to the September 23, 1922 issue of the American Investor:

The F.F. Dalley Corp’n was incorporated March 23, 1920, under the laws of New Hampshire, and began business Jan. 1, 1921. Through ownership of capital stock, this Corporation controls F.F. Daley Company, Inc., S.M. Bixby & Co., Shinola Company, Munroe Novelty Co., Thermokept Corporation, F.F. Dalley Co. of Canada, Ltd., and Morris Howard Realty Company.

At the time, the F.F.Dalley Company, S.M Bixby & Co., and the Shinola Co. were the largest shoe polish manufacturers in the United States. Later, in the late 1920’s or early 1930’s, the names Bixby and Shinola  resurfaced as the “2 in 1 Shinola-Bixby Corporation.”

The last individual listing that I can find for S.M.Bixby & Co. is in the 1924 directory at the 2nd Avenue location in Brooklyn.

As far as I can tell, none of the Bixby buildings located in Manhattan still exist today. The former Washington Street/Dey Street intersection is now located within the new World Trade Center complex and no longer exists. The Brooklyn location on 2nd Avenue may still exist as 201 46th Street. It’s a five-story manufacturing building built in 1900.

I’ve found three different types of Bixby bottles over the years. One is their uniquely shaped bottle with a March 6, 1883 patent date embossed on the front and Bixby, with an oversized “X” embossed on the base.

 

Developed for liquid blacking and called “Bixby’s New Bottle and Combination Stopper for Sponge Blacking,” the reasoning behind its design was explained in an advertising card for Bixby’s “Royal Polish.”

The bottle has a broad base and will not upset easily; the mouth has a wide projecting flange, and an air chamber below to prevent the overflow of the liquid in taking out and putting in the sponge, which perfectly insures cleanliness.

The second is shaped like a rectangular medicine but with rounded sides and the third is a cone ink with Bixby embossed on the base. All are mouth blown.