My great grandfather, Giuseppe Antonio Defilippis, moved to America from Italy with hopes of achieving the American Dream. He was born in 1891 in a small hilltop village in northern Italy. In 1905 at the age of fourteen, he journeyed alone to Ellis Island to begin his new life in America. He married Maria Russo, a fellow Italian immigrant, in 1921. They would have seven children by 1937 and an eighth in 1947. Because he lacked a formal education and spoke English poorly, Giuseppe worked as a common bootblack on Wall Street. He traveled through the buildings shining the shoes of stock traders and corporate executives. This job allowed him to support his family as well as to learn about the world of finance and investments. He continued this job throughout the course of the depression and was able to feed and clothe his family through their most difficult times.
As a travelling bootblack, Giuseppe carried a shoe shine kit while he worked. Shoe shine kits of the era often contained brushes, rags, and polishes. These kits were made from repurposed milk bottle carriers or small wooden boxes and would display the price of the shine service as well as minor decoration to entice potential consumers. A shoe shine at the time of the crash was a cost ten cents and shines were often referred to as a “dime shine” or a “dime polish.” Giuseppe knocked on the doors of business men offering shoe shines. This practice would eventually lead to the formation of relationships with his clients.
When shining shoes, a brush is used to remove dirt and dust before the polish is applied and worked through to polish the boots. Because Giuseppe was self-employed, he continued to earn during the depression despite a definite decrease in profits. He ventured out of his home every day to find someone willing to purchase a shoe shine. Giuseppe made strong relationships with his clients because of his persistence and demeanor.
Despite the devastating financial effects of the Great Depression, the cost of a shoe shine increased in 1932 from ten cents to fifteen cents (Alexander). Although this rise seems inconsequential to a modern American, a rise in price of any amount would have been too much for most consumers of the era. It can be assumed that the price increase in 1932 was to compensate for the decrease in sales made by bootblacks. Business men that were able to afford the luxury of a shoeshine were those who were lucky enough to have kept their jobs or their fortunes. One of the corporations on Wall Street that Giuseppe frequented during these turbulent times was named International Business Machines, now known as IBM. During the depression, people that were employed at this corporation were able to continue to afford the cost of a shoeshine from Giuseppe and his shine kit because the company was earning and expanding. IBM was doing so well in fact that they were able to provide their employees with “group life insurance (1934), survivor benefits (1935) and paid vacations (1937)” (“Chronological History of IBM”).
As a result of IBM’s success as a whole, my great grandfather was able to continue to support his family by working hard and forming relationships with clients. He made such an impact on the corporation that when he retired in the 1950s, the president of IBM gifted him an inscribed perpetual motion clock that has been passed down in our family for three generations. [insert picture 2*] This clock is a symbol of the American Dream coming to fruition. My great grandfather started his life in America with nothing, but through persistence and hard work he became successful. By wielding his bootblack kit and putting in the necessary work, Giuseppe was able to not only just make enough money for his family to survive, but to thrive.
Alexander, Ron. “THE RISING COST OF A SHOESHINE.” New York Times, 20 Mar. 1981, www.nytimes.com/1981/03/21/style/the-rising-cost-of-a-shoeshine.html.
“Chronological History of IBM.” IBM – Archives – History of IBM – 1930 – United States, www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/history/decade_1930.html.