"Greeks Own Shine Parlors; Boys Work Without Pay" article - Chicago Daily Tribune, March 24, 1907

Published in the Chicago Daily Tribune, March 24, 1907


By F. J. Sullivan

A majority of the Greek bootblacks who shine the shoes of thousands of Chicagoans in the downtown district are the poorest paid workers in the city.  In fact they do not receive a penny in wages, and have to rely on tips for clothes and what amusements they may get.  In each of the large shining parlors a dozen or more little Greeks, some not over 14 years of age, work for a year for no wages fulfilling the contract which exists between them and the proprietors.

The proprietors of the shining establishments pay for the steamer passage of the small Greek boys who wish to come to this country, and in exchange the parents of the boys sign contracts which bind the boys to the proprietors on this side of the water for a year.  The boys are put to work in the bootblack stands, and for a year they receive room and board free in exchange for their services in the shining parlor.

Boys Board with the Boss.

Some proprietors own two or more shops and employ not less than ten boys in each place.  They rent houses in the Greek settlement containing five or six rooms in each, and in these places the boys sleep, usually four to a room.  A large room is set aside for the dining hall and the boys line up every morning for their coffee and rolls, and another meal late in the evening after the shops are closed.  Their lunches are put up in packages, for they cannot get away from the shop for their midday meal.

The Greeks almost monopolize the shining business in Chicago.  They have formed a trust which has driven the bootblacks who used to run around the streets with shining boxes on their arms, out of business.  Now stands are made to attract the public and nearly every large office building has a shining parlor.  In summer electric fans overhead keep the customers cool, and in winter steam radiators keep them warm.  There must be profit in the business for the help usually is free and the materials used do not amount to much.  Rent and light are the main expenses, and these are large.

Big Business in the Loop

Two hundred and fifty to 800(?) shines in a day is what the average loop shining parlor will do, and on Saturday the number nearly doubles.  In summer the business is much better than in winter, for the warm weather, when evening walks are a pleasure, many people have their shoes shined every day.  In winter or in rainy weather the bootblacks have plenty of leisure time, but they don't worry, for they know they won't lose their jobs and are in no danger of having their wages reduced.

Most of the shining parlors are owned by partners.  Seldom is it that one individual will have the whole interest in a place.  Some queer combinations may be seen, such as an Irishman and Greek, German and Greek, or Frenchman and Greek, but the Greek is always there, for he is the man who gets the help.  Usually two Greeks are owners, and they are the most prosperous.

How the Trade Grows

The system of selling twenty-five shines for a dollar netted the originator a good sum of money and a hold on the trade before his competitors woke up to the fact.  Now the ticket system is in vogue everywhere, even in the smallest shops with only two chairs.  The man who was first in the field with punch tickets was first also with the special parlor for women.  In his place he partitioned off the back part of the store with drapings and did an enormous business shining women's shoes.

The majority of Greeks do not stay long in the shining business, but drift into other lines, fruit stores and restaurants, after they have made enough money in the shining business to give them a start.  The younger boys, when their contracts expire, work for a few years at the business and then either start a place of their own or go to work in fruit stores or restaurants, an increasing number of which are owned by Greeks in Chicago.

Fortune in Twenty-five Years.

There is more money made in the shoe shining business than people would imagine.  One man who was not a Greek started in business twenty-one years ago, and two years ago he was able to retire from active work and live on the interest of his money, which he made out of the shoe shining business.  He kept a dozen bootblacks busy all the time.  He used the best polish, had all the latest sporting papers for his customers to read, and built up a large trade.  The rent of his stand was enormous, but when he retired it was said he was worth at least $50,000.  He still leases the place and sublets it to a Greek, who holds about one-third the business.

Two prominent Chicago Greeks who now are mixed up in politics made their money in the shining business.  Both of them came to this country eight years ago, having their passage paid by a Greek proprietor of a shining parlor, and they worked for him for a year for their room and board to repay him for their transportation.  Three years after they arrived here they owned a place in the business section of the city.  Now they are proprietors of seven shops and employ nearly a hundred boys, and they are considered wealthy by their countrymen.  Their rent and light bills every month amount to over $300, and the 5 cent shines pay this and give them a good profit besides.