It began with a phone call from a teacher, as so many Montessori Services research and development adventures do. She asked if we knew of a wholly non-toxic alternative to the commercial shoe polish teachers had been using in their activity sets for years. Jane Campbell and Krissy Beoka (the Montessori Services merchandising team) already had an inkling of what finding an all-natural shoe polish might hold... but their duty was clear.
The pair had completed a similar quest to replace the cake glass polish used in Montessori classrooms nationwide a couple of years ago. After the manufacturer discontinued production on this Practical Life mainstay, they scouted high and low for another source. Two years later, that treasure hunt closed with a phone call from an enterprising Montessori teacher (with a chemistry background). She had gained permission from the original manufacturer to make the polish for Montessori schools; Nilsa wondered if we could help make the polish available nationwide...? Soon after, the Glass Polishing Tablets began flying off the shelves and into classrooms again.
When buyer Krissy Beoka started the quest for an all-natural shoe polish, the first thing she learned was that natural shoe polish was going to be just as hard to find as natural glass polish. "I found a company in Canada with a polish made in Italy, " she said, "There was another possibility from a German company."
Feedback from the children who tried it was less than enthusiastic. Beoka said, "They said it was sticky. And the truth is, they didn't like the odor." Cost was the last straw. Jane Campbell, founder and owner, wanted any teacher to be able to afford it. Back to the drawing board.
Then, several recipes for leather conditioner and cleaner were spotted in the book Clean & Green: The Complete Guide to Nontoxic and Environmentally Safe Housekeeping. In the fine old Montessori tradition of teacher-made classroom materials, recipes seemed a good alternative to ready-made shoe polish - provided they worked.
"First, we wanted to make sure that any teacher anywhere would have an easy time tracking down the ingredients. What we can find in Northern California might be different than what someone can find in, say, Idaho, " reported Krissy, who lives in Boise, "So, I went to an ordinary health food store out of the telephone book in Boise..."
Lemon oil? Check. Natural beeswax? Check. Lanolin? Check. Surely "food-grade linseed oil" would not be so easy... but there it was. On her next trip to California, an excited Beoka drove out to California with a shopping bag from Name of Market in Boise in the passenger seat and one question on her mind: who would be willing to sacrifice six pairs of leather shoes - a pair for testing each recipe?
Jane Campbell's Santa Rosa kitchen was soon transformed into a makeshift manufactory, with ingredients and containers for six recipes laid out and ready. Krissy and Jane found the polishes easy to mix up; cleaning up after the beeswax polish recipe proved the biggest challenge.
Krissy recalls, "The recipe called for beeswax and flax seed oil to be melted together. The beeswax melted really nicely but we learned it starts cooling as soon as you pour it. We had to keep reheating it and scraping it out of the pan. Then it would stick to the spoon or stick to the measuring cup."
With the polishes (and the clean-up) done, Jane and Krissy faced the biggest challenge of any shoe polishing activity - finding shoes. Jane volunteered her own but six pairs were out of the question. They had to use a different polish on each of six shoes, yielding three neatly (but unevenly) polished pairs.
"That row of shoes reminded me of when I was in the classroom, " Jane remembered, "Some kids still wore leather shoes but more children were wearing sneakers, so often times I'd let them polish one of my shoes. There I'd be walking around in the classroom with one shoe off and one shoe on or one shoe polished and one shoe not."
Krissy added, "Of course, the beeswax recipe turned out to be everyone's favorite - it has such a nice consistency and a pleasant, neutral odor. We chose four recipes for the shoe polishing kit, including the beeswax polish. It's a really nice shoe polish." (Recipe is reprinted below.) Jane added, "It's a conditioner, too, so it's good for the leather."
The book publisher gave permission to reprint. Months of research and development had yielded an all-natural shoe polish option which, though not ready-made, seemed accessible to the average teacher.
By June, as Krissy casually strolled the farmers' market in Moscow, Idaho, she wasn't even thinking about shoe polish. Then she saw a neat table covered with assorted soaps, bottles, and jars. Among them, a small jar labeled "leather conditioner."
Krissy reports, "There was this woman selling all-natural soaps and polishes for the home; she's been making soaps with all-natural ingredients up in Washington state for years and years. So I held up the leather conditioner and asked, "Will this work on shoes?" and she said, "Absolutely!" I couldn't believe our good luck!"
While plans for the polish recipes moved forward, two teachers tested the ready-made leather conditioner. "They said it was absolutely fabulous, " noted Krissy, "It feels nice rubbing it in and it smells fantastic." Jane added, "There are only four ingredients: beeswax, carnauba wax, lavender oil, and lanolin."
Because Montessori teachers have long valued natural formulas for their classrooms, and because we listen to Montessori teachers, Montessori Services began seeking polish alternatives well before the green bandwagon started rolling. At last, with the help of caring teachers, we've been able to complete a long-time goal of converting all our polishes to environmentally sound formulas. We're happy to be of service!
Preparation tips: Beeswax is flammable. Melt it like chocolate, in a double boiler (never over direct flame). It's messy. Jane suggests re-using the same designated water pot, melting pot (or tin can) and spoon, rather than using your cookware and trying to clean it. Plan on reheating the beeswax; if you mix in a heat-proof measuring cup, the cup itself can be placed in the water bath to reheat the wax (without transferring wax back to the melting pot). This smooth, sweet-smelling shoe polish is worth the effort!
Beeswax And Oil Polish
2 tablespoons beeswax
1 cup food-grade linseed oil (may also be called "flax seed oil")
Combine ingredients in a saucepan and heat slowly until the beeswax has melted. Pour the mixture into a heat-resistant bowl and let cool. Once the wax has solidified, it will be like thin Vaseline. Rub the wax onto the leather, polishing with a soft 100% cotton cloth as you go. © 1994; Ceres Press. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
Once children have mastered the process for polishing a leather shoe, consider branching out and creating variations that allow children to apply their skills in the real world. The process for leather belts, wallets, and handbags will be almost identical to that for shoes. One teacher we know keeps a leather jacket to polish! Sneakers can be brushed free of dirt and grass. Rubber rain boots can be brushed, wiped, and dried (even buffed!). What other footwear walks through your classroom door? With a little creativity, you can create a polishing extension to match!
A Primary Montessori classroom without polishing activities would be as dull as tarnished silver! At a time when teachers are stretching every budget dollar, Krissy and Jane (the Montessori Services merchandising team) have been hard at work looking for ways to help teachers re-stock their polishing activities (or even add new ones) affordably.
Keep an eye on this email newsletter and the Polishing category; the new polishing sets will be ready to order online soon (although they will not be shown in the catalog until May 2010). Newsletter subscribers will be the first to know when the new sets become available online.
—Originally Published 2009