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Columbus Businessman Revving Bronzed Baby Shoe Popularity

Flickr Creative Commons

Back in the 1930s, a Columbus kindergarten teacher had a dream. Violet Shinbach went door-to-door selling the idea of bronzed baby shoes. The idea was a hit with Americans coast-to-coast. The company she founded is still in business under the able leadership of her grandson, Robert Kaynes.

After college graduation, Bob Kaynes considered a career in banking.  But he says, "I interviewed with a few banks and it seemed boring and I saw an ad in the paper to sell pots and pans. "

Kaynes answered the ad but left in the middle of the interview to make a phone call.

"I called my father and I said, ‘Dad, talk me out of this! I don’t want to do this.’ And he said, ‘How would you like to sell baby shoe bronzing door-to-door?’ And I said, ‘No, seriously, Dad, talk me out of this.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m dead serious.’ And I started the next day selling baby shoe bronzing door-to-door."

That was in 1978.  Today Bob Kaynes runs American Bronzing Company, the oldest business of its kind in the U.S.  Located in a 40-thousand-sqaure-foot building on Alum Creek Drive, the company has bronzed more than 14 million baby shoes.

"We do Crocs, little ballet slippers, the basic Stride Rites and also little baby sneakers," says Kaynes on a visit to his factory.

Kaynes’ grandmother started the business in 1934.  He says Violet Shinbach was ‘way ahead of her time.’

"Back when she came up with the idea, women weren’t starting businesses.  It was right in the depths of the Depression and she saw some baby shoes that were painted and thought they look pretty but thought, ‘Gee, is there a better way to preserve them?’"

There was.  Kaynes says the bronzing process involves electro-plating with copper.

"The shoes go onto the racks.  Electricity goes down into the racks through the shoes and the combination of the electricity and the chemistry, copper accumulates on the shoes.  The longer they’re in there the thicker the copper.  And that’s what baby shoe bronzing is; it’s copper plating."

The most popular finishes are bright bronze which shines like a new penny and antique bronze which has a brushed copper finish. 

"When the shoes are done they’re brought over to this area, it’s called the mounting room," Kaynes explains. "And in the mounting area we will put felts on the bottoms of the shoes on the insides, then do final touch up, pack them and ship them."

Bronzing doesn’t stop with baby shoes. The company bronzes sports memorabilia from NFL helmets, to cleats, even a few major league baseball caps.

"There’s a New York Yankees ball cap that’s sent to us by the same people who sent us Derek Jeter’s cap that we bronzed and it was given to him as a retirement gift."

Kaynes says the company once bronzed a giant clove of garlic for a reputed Mafia boss.

"I didn’t know him, I didn’t meet him, I didn’t have anything to do… I was told, we want this done for this guy. And we plated this 8-inch garlic clove about 6 times and you could still smell it."

"With all the soldiers coming home now we're doing a lot of army boots and they look great. They are a great keepsake to let people remember how they served their country."

Kaynes thinks cleats make especially good keepsakes because, he says, they reflect the personality of the athlete.  Military boots are another popular item.

"With all the soldiers coming home now we’re doing a lot of army boots and they look great.  They are a great keepsake to let people remember how they served their country."

But, Kaynes says, baby shoes remain the backbone of the bronzing business. 

"Bronze baby shoes are like a trophy to the baby’s first steps.  By getting them bronzed and having them out on display, the mothers and fathers relive the moments of the baby’s first steps."

In its heyday, American Bronzing employed 100 people; now it operates with just 30.  The tradition is not as popular as in years past.  That’s something that Kaynes is trying to revive.  And it’s working, he says, thanks to the internet.  Now a whole new generation of parents send their baby shoes to Columbus to be bronzed.

"I love it," he says. "I love the business, I love talking to customers; I love seeing the customers’ faces after they’ve gotten what we send them.  We want to tug on the heart strings.  That’s what we’re selling.  We’re selling love."