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.