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.