COLUMBUS, Ohio - During the Depression, former kindergarten teacher Violet Shinbach canvassed Ohio neighbourhoods looking for yards with wading pools, tricycles and toys strewn about. She knew the young mothers who lived in those houses were prospective customers for her fledgling entrepreneurial enterprise: bronzing baby shoes.
Despite the hard times, the business took off and endured. By the early 1970s, the Bron-Shoe Co. in Columbus was bronzing 2,000 shoes a day and sending them all over the country.
Eventually the company struggled with ways to market the specialized service. Like many quaint traditions of earlier generations, preserving that first pair of tiny shoes in copper alloy as a forever keepsake fell out of favour.
But also as popular commodities sometimes do, bronzed baby shoes are making a comeback among a new generation of parents and grandparents, thanks in part to an aggressive social media marketing strategy.
"It's a visibility thing, and our visibility just went away," says CEO Robert Kaynes Jr., the 58-year-old grandson of the company's founder. "We pretty much lost a generation. I don't think it's because it went out of style. I think it's because it went out of sight. Nobody knew we were there."
Now known as the American Bronzing Co., it's the oldest and largest of the few companies still providing a service that many assumed had gone the way of record players and black-and-white TVs.
Just about anything solid can be bronzed. The company has plated baby pacifiers, track cleats, golf balls, dog collars, ballet slippers, cowboy boots, military drill-instructor hats, football helmets, even a pile of elephant dung for a man who wanted a souvenir of an African safari. Last year, they dipped a New York Yankees cap that was presented to retiring star Derek Jeter.
"We did a giant clove of garlic for a reputed Mafia boss," Kaynes recalls with a chuckle. "It was really cool. We plated it about seven times, and it still smelled."
But baby shoes of all modern-day styles remain the company's bread and butter: tiny colorful Nike sneakers, oxfords, sandals, Mary Janes, christening slippers, moccasins and Crocs. Thirty employees ship about 100 bronzed shoes a day. Prices start at $79.95 per pair.
Christine Whylings, a 34-year-old mom who lives in Audubon, New Jersey, recently sent off the first pairs of shoes worn by her sons, now ages 1 and 3. She's now pregnant with a girl and plans to preserve her daughter's first pair of kicks, too.
"I love having them," she says. "I'm kind of a sap anyway. Even though my kids are little, I worry about them growing up too fast. I cheered up when I saw them."
After relying on door-to-door sales then retail stores and direct mail, the company's business bottomed out by the late 1990s. Kaynes said online marketing has helped bring it back, especially being able to place ads prominently on the Facebook pages of moms with toddlers and other aggressive strategies to keep the ads visible. Shipments have surged 25 per cent in the past six months.
A company Facebook page with nearly 80,000 "likes" is stuffed with product pitches and photos of customers' cute little kids and grandkids.
"When you look at their posts, you start seeing ones that say 'I had my baby shoes bronzed 40 years ago. I didn't know (the company) was still around,'" says Jason Parks, a Columbus digital marketing consultant Kaynes hired last year. "That shows the brand recognition is out there."
Annie Mitchell, president of The Bronzery in Escondido, California, thinks better visibility, social media advertising and a better economy have contributed to a 25 per cent boost in her company's baby-shoe business since mid to late 2013.
"Mainly I think it's cyclical — what's old is new again," Mitchell said.
Georgeanne Berg, 64, of Trumbull, Connecticut, got the idea to bronze her twin grandchildren's christening shoes as Christmas ornaments last year, inspired by her own baby shoes that had been bronzed and mounted in the 1950s.
"It's like a throwback to my generation," Berg said. "It's so nice to keep the tradition, and these shoes are just special now, that my grandchildren will have forever."