The company was the nation's leader in bronzing baby shoes for nearly 85 years. But that wasn't all they bronzed.
Editor’s Note: It was announced this week that the American Bronzing Co., better known as Bron-Shoe, is closing. According to a statement issued by owner Bob Kaynes, the company on Alum Creek Drive was founded by his grandmother in 1934, and has bronzed more than 14 million items in that time, including being the country’s leader in the once immensely popular practice of bronzing baby shoes.
But, as you’ll see from this story I wrote 20 years ago, baby shoes were not all they bronzed.
Field Trip: A bronzed telephone receiver?
(This story originally appeared in the May 1998 edition of Columbus Monthly)
A few weeks ago, I was wandering aimlessly through a local thrift store when it caught my eye: a bronzed pack of cigarettes mounted on a walnut base. The pack was opened, and three smokes were poking their filter-tipped heads up, held fast by the metal coating. Beside the pack, on the wooden base, was an engraved metal plate that stated, “My last pack. 3-17-71.” It was exactly the kind of treasure that makes thrift stores so alluring.
Thinking the cigarette pack was unusual, I called the Bron-Shoe Company, knowing they’d been cranking out bronzed baby shoes in Columbus for years. Was this their work as well? I talked to an enthusiastic gentleman named Bob Kaynes, who told me that, yes, indeed, they bronze all sorts of things. “Why don’t you come on down and look around?” he said. So I did.
He says that his grandmother, Violet Shinbach, started the business in 1934. Since then, the company, located at the corner of Alum Creek Drive and Memory Lane (no lie), has been virtually the world’s sole provider of that truly American pop-culture rite of maternal passage: bronzed baby shoes.
Kaynes leads me through the 40,000-square-foot plant, past stacks and stacks of baby shoes, explaining that his company ships between 800 and 1,000 pairs of bronzed baby shoes a day all over the world. He tells me how pacifiers and baby bottles also are becoming popular mementos. The place is littered with Binkies dipped in bronze ($71.95), pewter ($84.95), silver ($1.95) or gold ($103.95).
Over the years, however, the business has expanded to more than just baby memorabilia. Weekend golfers, for instance, whose bank accounts match their egos, have bronzed their lucky tees ($43.95), golf balls ($48.95) and clubs ($129.95).
Apparently, employee awards are popular. There on a shelf is a bronzed stapler intended, perhaps, for some soon-to-be-disappointed administrative assistant. Kaynes says he’s seen other office products, such as calculators ($211) and telephone receivers ($113.95) with regularity.
Corporate America also has turned to the Bron-Shoe Company, too, as exemplified in General Electric’s gold light bulbs, Wendy’s gold spatulas and Victoria’s Secret’s bronzed nightshirt.
Celebrities, too, are regular customers, especially athletes. Football players Eric Dickerson, Johnny Unitas and Doug Williams had their shoes plated, as did baseball players Mickey Mantle and Brooks Robinson and NBA stars Julius Irving and Bob Lanier.
The operation is proudly low-tech. Most items are attached to hooks, hanging from rods suspended over long troughs. The rods are then lowered into the liquid metals that fill these troughs. “It’s a nonautomotive process, because every product that comes through here is unique,” says Kaynes.
After the tour, Kaynes produces a price list—eight pages, 350 items. It clearly illustrates how odd some folks can be. The logical (sports equipment, musical instruments, decorative pine cones) is virtually lost among the strange: cow chips, bronzed for $145; bedpans bronzed at $190; a rubber chicken, bronzed for $295.
Kaynes’ strangest request? “A lady sent us her husband’s remains,” he says. “His will said, ‘I want my remains cremated, put in my favorite cigar box and bronzed.’ “ Kaynes returned the package. While morally opposed to the request, he also says that if the box had leaked, the man’s ashes would have contaminated the costly chemical mix.
And then there are the animal parts. While actual tissue doesn’t take to electroplating well, other parts of various animals are waiting to be plated. Skulls seem to be popular: Visible are those that once belonged to a bear, a cow and an armadillo.
Then Kaynes mentions the raccoon penis bone. Yes, raccoon penis bones, bronzed for $68.95. I hadn’t seen it on the eight-page list of specialty items. That’s because raccoon penis bones are included on the sheet of commonly requested items. Silly me. “People send them to us all the time,” Kaynes says. “They put them on a necklace.” Why? Kaynes isn’t sure. He’s heard it’s some kind of love charm.
To each his own. It’s that motto that keeps Kaynes’ company going strong. “There’s a story behind every item that come in here,” he says. “I don’t know what it is, and I don’t ask. But everything that’s in here has meaning to someone. That’s what we do. We’re selling memories.”