Hoffco Shoe Polish is still made in Milwaukee’s Third Ward. The company’s white polish remains its most famous product. (Private Collection)

The Story Behind This Can of Hoffco Shoe Polish

Harri and Herta Hoffman escaped the Nazis in Germany, and made a name for themselves in Milwaukee in both business and philanthropy.

Harri Hoffman was 28 years old when he was one of 30,000 Jews arrested by the Nazis during Kristallnacht, “the night of the broken glass,” in November 1938. He was on a train bound for a concentration camp when he feigned illness and managed to get kicked off at one of the stops. With the help of his brother, Hoffman and his fiancé, Herta, were able to flee the country for Milwaukee, where a family friend ran a tannery and offered Harri a job.

Oddly enough, it was the death of a rhinoceros that led Hoffman to the business that made his name in Milwaukee. After the animal died at the County Zoo, a man brought the hide to Hoffman to be tanned. As a gesture of thanks, the man gave Hoffman a jar of white shoe polish he had made. Herta used the polish on her daughter’s baby shoes and found it to be so high quality that she began making it in the family kitchen and selling it as a polish for white shoes.

In 1962, the Hoffmans moved the operation out of the kitchen, purchasing an old factory building in the decaying Third Ward neighborhood. They built their businesses into a worldwide leader, with their trademark white polish the choice product for keeping the luster on white nurses’ shoes.

Harri was a generous contributor to the local Jewish community and continued to run the company until his death at age 88 in 1999. Lorraine Hoffman, whose baby shoes received the first coats of Hoffco Brand polish, returned to the city to run the company after Harri’s passing. She continued his support of local Jewish causes and kept up the company’s Third Ward factory as the once-forgotten neighborhood developed into one of the most fashionable in the city. Lorraine served as president of the firm until she passed away in July 2017.

This canister contained a four ounce bottle of Hoffco’s famous polish, on which the company offered a money back guarantee to any customer who was less than completely satisfied. It dates to the 1950s.

Antique Milwaukee is a new web Milwaukee Magazine web series that takes a closer look at objects and curiosities from around town that have a story to tell. We’ll reveal a piece of Milwaukee’s history through a new artifact in each installment.