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Ralph Gardner Jr: What Do You Do With Bronze Booties?

Four pair of bronze booties belonging to the writer and his brothers
Ralph Gardner Jr.

It’s been said that we’re in the midst of the greatest transfer of wealth in history, from one generation to the next. In our family that inheritance includes bronze booties. When my mother passed away in 2019 we moved over sixty boxes of stuff to a storage locker upstate. I’m finally down to unpacking the final few boxes and I was well aware that one of them included bronze booties. And not just mine. Also those worn and then metal-coated belonging to my three younger brothers.

The disposition of the contents of all those boxes roughly fell into three categories. There was stuff you were definitely going to keep, such as antiques. Stuff that was going straight to the town dump. And stuff that was a toss-up. And by toss-up I mean that my family voted thumbs down but that I, suffering from a sentimental streak and the suspicion, perhaps peculiar to writers, that everything contributes to a story yet untold, refused to part with.

Bronze booties don’t fall neatly into any of those categories even though I’m certain there are those, particularly members of my immediate family, who feel strongly otherwise. When I contacted my youngest brother James about his pair of booties his reaction was unencouraging without being abusive. “Yeesh,” he responded via email. “Why don’t you keep all four, you have the space.”

I cc’d my sister-in-law on my email to my brother Peter, knowing Victoire had strong feelings about posterity, warehousing items for their four children. But Victoire was similarly unenthusiastic. “Nah,” she reacted. “Thank you anyway. Maybe you should try listing it on eBay, you never know.”

I’d already looked into that. Not because I believed there were collectors out there who would bid up our family’s bronzes the way Dorothy’s ruby slippers from the Wizard of Oz spark bidding wars whenever they come up for auction; but because bronze might be worth something, the way thieves strip copper pipes off buildings.

But no. Bronze apparently doesn’t spark the same greed as gold or platinum. Other people’s bronze booties were going on eBay for twenty-five bucks – hardly worth the effort to match them to a buyer.

However, further research revealed that if you want your own baby’s booties bronzed these days the job doesn’t come cheap. Over a couple of hundred dollars depending on how elaborate you want to get. My mother had a weakness for grandeur so ours were turned into desk sets. They were mounted on metal bases with a ballpoint pen in a holder. I wished she’d turned them into bookends, a popular bootie option. I can always use bookends.

For those who are unfamiliar with the process of bronzing booties as I was, frankly having given them zero thought until I became their keeper, it started in the 1930’s when Violet Shinbach, saw a market for these mementos and started what became the American Bronzing Company. It fired thousands or maybe millions of booties (in any case a lot of booties) employing a magical process that involved electroplating a thick layer of copper and tin onto baby shoes. The company closed in 2017, modern parents apparently less passionate about preserving their baby’s footwear than the previous generations were.

By the way, I was suspicious of our bronzes, suspecting whoever manufactured them substituted generic booties for ours, assuming my mother wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. But on closer inspection, I see that there are subtle differences between mine and those of my brothers in terms of size and style. These seem to be the real things in which we took our first steps.

So what to do with them? My brother Johnny passed away in 1987 and, poring through all those boxes, I’ve felt a responsibility to his memory to preserve things like his report cards, children’s drawings, letters from camp, etc. His bronze booties fall into a companion category. Have I ever gone through the mental exercise of asking “What would Johnny do?” regarding the disposition of his baby shoes? No. And I’m not presumptuous enough to believe I know what his answer would be, except gently mocking me because that’s the way he was.

His reaction probably wouldn’t have been dissimilar to that of my other brothers or, come to think of it, ninety-eight percent of humanity. Indeed, I wish parents, my mother in particular, had thought of the burden she was placing on future generations when she blithely bronzed our baby shoes. I can’t imagine it sounded like a good idea even back in the Fifties and Sixties. Did she really think that once we became captains of industry in our corner offices, whenever we reached for a pen it would come from a holder mounted to our baby shoes?

Yet bronze booties possess the veneer of permanence. I suppose that’s the point. It’s the parental equivalent of trapping a prehistoric insect in amber. Perhaps my mother felt that bronzing our baby shoes was a way of preserving all the love she felt for us. Put like that, there’s no way I can possibly throw them out.

So I’ll probably do what I do with everything else I can’t decide what to do with. I’ll put them on a remote shelf in the basement and leave it to the next generation to dispose of. Perhaps by then bronze will have appreciated in value.

Ralph Gardner, Jr. is a journalist who divides his time between New York City and Columbia County. More of his work can be found at ralphgardner.com

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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