youthful prodding of the bunions

In 1889 the New York Times published this article about shoe shining and steam.

The day has long since gone by when a man, to have his shoes made things of refulgent beauty, was forced to lean against a fence or balance himself on one foot and have a youth of tender years prod his bunions with a wellworn brush.

Now the shinee reposes in a luxurious armchair in a room cooled by revolving fans in summer and heated by a rotund whitewashed stove in winter while a man of mature years and good judgement coaxes his boots into ebony loveliness with an oiled cloth and a well kept brush.


The quality of the shine has wonderfully improved; the unaffected and funereal black polish that faded generally to a pale and mottled grey tint before the boot it covered had moved two blocks away has been succeeded by a glittering and attractive ebony lustre that lasts sometimes for two days.

image by Eric Kroll

It would seem as if in this line of trade “improvement could no further go” but an enterprising firm of coloured gentlemen in 6th Avenue went one better a few days ago when they flung to the winds in front of their parlour a sign reading “Shoes Shined by Steam While You Wait

In 1867, Sylvester Howard Roper was also harnessing the use of steam when he put together a boiler, a steam engine and a bicycle to form what he called a ‘motocycle’

Roper designed and built a wide range of products including sewing machines, guns, machine tools, furnaces, automatic fire escapes and eventually steam-powered carriages and bicycles. His steam-powered bike proved popular at exhibitions but his neighbors weren’t thrilled with the contraption due to it being noisy as well as smelly. The motocycle would often spook horses and tended to annoy those walking the streets. Roper was once arrested on one of his rides, but was released when no laws could be cited that he was breaking.

Roper’s last steam-powered bicycle included a one-gallon water reservoir and provided about 8 miles of travel on one filling. On test rides into town, Roper would remove the burning coals from the firebox and place them in a small covered bucket. This would keep steam from being generated and maintain the heat in the coals. When he was ready to leave, he would re-stoke the fire, get up steam, and return home.

The steam bicycle was perhaps never a practical means of transport. Problems of carrying enough water and fuel paled in comparison to the prospects of having a boiler, operating at nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit, between the rider’s legs.

Published in: on May 19, 2010 at 8:12 am  Comments (41)  
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41 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. ‘Problems of carrying enough water and fuel paled in comparison to the prospects of having a boiler, operating at nearly 300 degrees Fahrenheit, between the rider’s legs.’

    I could say so many filthy things right now… but I’m going to retrain myself.

    • Retrain or restrain?

      • It’s to late to retrain, I’ve come to far.

        Damn my typo.

  2. Sure got one helluva steamy penny-farthing there in addition to a fascinating saga. Meanwhile, the pony girl has very shiny hoofs.

    • I knew you’d like the pony girl

  3. How do you do it – another wonderful story plus pics. (Is that Brezhnev in the fetching turquoise underpants, by the way? I’d forgotten what a looker he was.)

    • Yes, that’s him. I think he fits this tale perfectly 🙂

    • Not underpants but corset.

  4. My bicycle is such a bore in comparison – and my shoes, scuffed and dull.

    • At least you’ve got a bicycle…..

  5. steam powered bicycle? nuclear is far cleaner… and doubles as a form of birth control.

    • By frying your ovaries?

  6. The very prospect of steam-powered machines between the legs brings a tear to the eye. It’s not often I’m proud to be an engineer, but this is one of those occasions.

    • Walk tall Kyk

      • why do you think i just got my motorcycle license? vrooom VROOOOOM!

  7. A: Must have been a slow news day to talk about shoe shiners

    B: You would think someone could reinvent the steam motorcycle for short trips.

    • A: the writer wanted to use ‘refulgent’ in his copy and this was the only way to get it in there

      B: There’s an opening you bearman

  8. sheshines Brezhnev and steam bikes, what wonderfully strange journeys your posts are!

    • They’re a reflection of my personality Jams – wonderfully strange 😉

  9. Thanks, NM. Now I have something to tell my Harley riding, history loving, biker inlaws. This is such an interesting piece of history told so well . . . I wonder if that steam bike is louder than the old Harleys?

    • Dan! I didn’t know you commented under another name

  10. I’m very proud of my shoes – I polish them every 3 years whether they need doing or not ……

  11. A boiler between the legs, eh? How hot does yours run?

    And regarding Brezhnev’s pic: “In Soviet Russia, phone answers you!”

  12. Pony play. Odd. But then again…I have some odd predilictions.

    • I don’t really get pony play either. But I did like Maggie Gyllenhall’s take on it in Secretary

  13. I’m sorry but i really think those are the oddest underpants i’ve ever seen!!! Although the colour is certainly lovely

    I wish i too had a cool bike like that…i would def ride it around naked but not with my legs to the side like that…i’d want to show prospective men that i can straddle ‘things’ like the best of em :p

    • Leave a little bit to the imagination Saby, it’s sexier that way

      • Agreed 🙂

  14. There’s definitely a shortage of bike riders like the one in the next-to-last picture.

    The only other time I’ve heard the word “refulgent”:

  15. Nobody gets to prod my bunions except my batman Onions and the memsahib

  16. I love the photo of the perfect boobs. (I like the pic of the girl on the bike as well).

    • Tannerleah – I’ve missed you, so glad to see you back here

    • Brezhnev has a nice rack, but i’m not sure i’d call them perfect…

  17. “refulgent” One of the best sounding words ever.

  18. I ride a penny farthing myself, but I tend to wear a helmet at the very least.

  19. Those lads at the 1889 New York Times sure had a way with words. You don’t see phrases like “refulgent beauty” in newspapers very often anymore. Never in fact. At least not around here.

    Hope you’re well Nursemyra!

    • All the better for seeing your cheery face Don xx

  20. And the business also was responsible for the greatest line in the greatest movie of all time. Goodfellas, “Now go get your fucking shinebox.”

  21. I’m gonna build me a motocycle, but I think I’ll wear clothes when I ride it. As for my bunions… no steam for me… sandpaper.

    • You sandpaper your bunions? What a man!

  22. Bike riding and onions? Interesting combination – – –

    Oops, BUNions – Must put on my glasses before reading the fine print!

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