Saturday, January 03, 2009

downtown DC in the early 20's

As you can readily see, this photo shows the Grand Palace shoe shining parlor, a multi-service establishment where you could have your suit cleaned, your hat blocked, or your trousers let out at the waist. Located at 719 1/2 14th St. NW, it was on the block between G St and New York Ave, a short walk from the White House and executive office buildings. The image was captured sometime between 1921 and 1922 by a photographer working for the National Photo Company and is now found in the collections of the Prints and Photos Div of the Library of Congress (which see for a page on this company's photos).

Close up, you can see, as you'd expect that the shining is done by black men, then called "shoe shine boys" no matter what their age. These are uniformed as if hotel bellhops and this may be appropriate because, like bellhops, they depended on tips for their income. The good ones did their work with flair, working quickly and keeping up an appealing chatter while they did. They applied wax and buffed leather to a shine, then they brushed down their customers with small wisk brooms. All the while these customers conversed with their neighbors on either side, men they would know as friends, associates, or frequently-encountered friendly strangers.

This was a masculine world of cigars and sports papers, and, since it was summer, cooling sodas for some.

Men wore hats: fedoras in the cooler months, boaters in the warm ones. At any time a man wouldn't be seen outdoors without a hat.

Caps were for men who got paid by the hour or who earned a living by providing services to others, like the parlor's manager himself. Men of higher class wore caps only during leisure hours, notably while driving their autos or while out on the links.

It's hard to say what's shown in this detail.

Presumably lots of polishing rags for different colors of wax.

The concept of social class is a slippery one. If I remember correctly, back then a black man would be considered middle class if he were fortunate enough to earn a living as a boot black in a location such as the Grand Palace. Malcolm X, who worked as one in Boston, says something like this in his Autobiography. The cap-wearing manager might be considered low class because of immigrant origin, but he might also be considerably wealthier than many of his be-hatted customers (this one still in cool-weather mode).

You might think the rigidity of the time's class structure went unquestioned, but you'd be wrong. The time frame of this photo was a period of social turmoil, following upon the race riots of 1917-19 in East St. Louis, Houston, Chicago, and DC itself. Women were asserting and attaining rights and the masculine saloon culture was under siege. Sons and daughters of immigrants were beginning to use their numbers and growing prosperity to alter America's WASP culture irrevocably.

All in all, there's not much scope for nostalgia in this photo. I was going to say that at least it shows a pleasing lack of hurry. Men could afford to take a quarter hour out of their days to buff up their appearance and catch up with local gossip, but then, this privilege was limited to the men in the chairs, not to be shared by the "boys" or manager.

1 comment:

Catherine said...

I think that one detail shows boaters hanging from the wall; the dark bits look like the dark bands around the crowns, and lighter parts are the hats themselves.