“Down on Main Street” – an interview with Kirin J. Makker


This interview was published in the Summer 2014 issue of the Pulteney Street Survey, the official magazine of Hobart and William Smith Colleges.  The Summer ’14 issue was devoted to the community, including pieces on the town of Geneva where the college resides.


“Down on Main Street:  An Interview with Kirin J. Makker”

by Andrew Wickenden HWS’09

During a yearlong fellowship at the Winterthur Museum and Library in Delaware, made possible by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Assistant Professor of Art and Architecture Kirin J. Makker is conducting research for her book project, The Myths of Main Street, which “analyzes how the current trope of Main Street USA (local, self-sufficient, close-knit, middle-class, homogenous) is challenged by a historical reality of networked, nationally-connected, diverse place.” The book is planned for publication in 2018.

An expert in the planning, history and evolution of small towns and rural areas, Makker is examining the developmental history of small town America during its building boom (1870-1930). The archives at Winterthur are providing much of the material she needs for several chapters of the book. She documents the progress of her research on a blog, mythsofmainstreet.wordpress.com, where she writes: “‘Main Street,’ whether in a town or city, symbolizes small business and everyday hard-working citizens. In a small town context, Main Street gains mythic ideals: it is non-corporate; it is imagined to be completely separate from urban society and its ills; it is believed to be solely guided by local people and ideas. Politicians and urban planners have attempted to recreate the small town American Main Street in revitalization building and suburbia. But professional planners are distracted by the myths of Main Street, dangerously basing policy and design decisions on nostalgia and artifice.”

Makker’s other book project, Village Improvement in America 1800-1930, is under contract with the Library of American Landscape History and is due out in early 2016. Makker also writes for the popular press, her most recent piece appeared in Dwell. Published in March 2014, the article profiles Amy and Brandon Phillips, owners of Miles & May Furniture Works headquartered at the Cracker Factory in Geneva, N.Y.

Q: Where did this idea of a nostalgic “Main Street” come from?

A: There are many answers to that question, so numerous that it’s impossible to identify just one source of nostalgic Main Street. In American and British planning, small towns have been a subject of study since the profession began in the late nineteenth century. People were fearful of dense industrial cities and larger villages, with their apparent self-sufficiency and easy access to the countryside fostered many theories about ideal places to live modeled on cities around 20-30,000 people. Ebenezer Howard’s 1902 concept of “garden cities” is probably the most well known example.

In popular culture, small towns have been narrative currency since their boom period in the 1880s; it’s often the case that ‘ideal’ versions of American concepts run parallel to the development of their inspiration. But to get back to your question, one way of looking at the source of nostalgic Main Street is to look at our recent history of small town preservation and the transformation of rural village economies from manufacturing and necessities-of-life small business to a set of shops purely about leisure and lifestyle. The source of this in the last quarter of a century is in the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s launch of their Main Street Program, started in 1977. The program was started specifically to educate and help direct local rejuvenation campaigns in communities of 5,000 to 38,000 people. The program’s pilot towns were remarkably successful – Galesburg, Ill., for example, saw a 95% increase in downtown occupancy.

By the early 1980s, the National Main Street Center had grown into a robust economic revival model for small town America based in coordinated public-private partnerships, adaptive re-use, incremental growth, and clever promotional programs. The whole program was about developing a “tourist” economy using historic building stock, renovating it into a coordinated set of leisure-based businesses. Since 1980, there have been hundreds of towns across the U.S. that have successfully worked with the National Main Street Center and the program is responsible for fostering more than $55 billion in reinvestment. In addition, their approach and economic model has been used by thousands of other towns, even if these places don’t join the Center. It’s become THE approach to reviving small town America.

This is all wonderful, but there are things we should be wary of. Their formula- looking backward to an ideal Main Street- also traffics in nostalgia. There’s a little too much “remember when…” going on in the marketing materials of many small towns eager for a tourist market. This can backfire in terms of using this type of marketing to draw new residents. The whole look of the nostalgic Main Street is generally about giving visitors a way to step back in time and out of reality. I’m not certain that this strategy is the best for giving a town a vibrant future, where a diverse cross-section of people might want to make their lives. If you want to draw young people to a town, is “antiquing” it the only strategy worth pursuing? Is a Main Street of ‘leisure’ and ‘lifestyle’ ultimately going to foster a rich community life? Sure, it works and it’s better than a dead downtown, but can’t we do better and evolve this model? That’s my concern.

There is also a romance we associate with the architecture of Main Street that’s not accurate to its history of development. We tend to view it as a relic of simpler past, when people made things by hand, there wasn’t fierce competition or a need to get the cheapest good, and everything in one’s midst was made locally. The truth is that the beauty and quick growth of Main Street, its frenzy of economic and physical development, occurred because people were clever and took advantage of the latest technologies and markets. There was nothing quaint and simple about life on Main Street in 1900. One might even have called it “cutting edge”-they didn’t want to stay small, they wanted to be big and prosperous, however and in whatever method they could.

Q: What happened to small towns in the bust (the Great Depression) that followed the small town boom?

A: As cities struggled, so did small towns. But the truth is, small towns had always been struggling as a type of urban economy because they were not large, and thus their economy was typically less diverse than that in a dense city. When a market shifts, there are always remains of the previous boom, relics of a former time. Small towns are, and have always been, in a process of overcoming the position of being remains, just as cities have, but at a much slower rate of redevelopment. In a way, one of the reasons that the small town is a site of nostalgia is because it has been affected by busts and then has been very slow to recuperate, if it does at all in one person’s lifetime.

Q: What about today-what’s the outlook for small towns? What causes today’s Main Streets to thrive?

A: Twenty years ago, if a resident wanted to gather some neighbors together to sponsor a public art project, they had to go to the public library and do hours of research in periodicals or newspapers to find information on how to run a competition, select an artist, develop a PR campaign, fund-raise, work with the city to implement, etc. Now, you just do an hour of searching on the Internet and you’re suddenly connected with all the resources you need to mount the project successfully. Five years ago, you would not have seen a small downtown shop raise more than $8,000 in a six-week fundraising campaign in order to set up space on their second floor for drinking coffee and browsing through retail. But this year, that’s exactly what occurred in Geneva [at Stomping Grounds].

Whereas suburbia used to be the ideal among the young workforce, it’s clearly not the one and only American dream out there these days. Many young workers are choosing to live in urban settings. Small towns are not densely urban, of course, but they are sometimes preferred to surburbia by these folks.

Geneva has been on the upswing because it has an enlarging and active group of residents, a critical mass of people really invested in making the downtown into a livable neighborhood. But it’s not just that social networking has gathered interested parties in small towns together around the issue of livability and civic engagement (which it of course has), but it’s also that the small town resident can become so much more informed about possibilities and all the know-how needed to make the changes they want to see. Honestly, the future is very bright for small town America.

Knowing your Place on Norman Rockwell’s Main Street

The Runaway, by Norman RockwellWho occupies the paintings of Norman Rockwell? What characteristics are imbued in the visual stories he tells?

Girl at the Mirror, by Norman RockwellBefore the ShotHoning in on a few of his most iconic works, we see the Rockwellian American. The Runaway, Girl at the Mirror, Before the Shot, Saying Grace, Breaking Home Ties, The Marriage License, and the blockbuster quad Four Freedoms, reveal a particular narrative about American life. Rockwell’s subjects are good citizens. Doctors take time with their patients. Policemen are just and kind. Tweens are not mean girls and their vanity is harmless. Little boys are not punks who throw rocks at windows. Adults smile and help each other out. Rockwell’s Americans are also pious. They go to church. They pray before a meal. They have family dinners. They hug each other. They enjoy a joke. They have modest aspirations. They know their place. They take care of each other. They are humble. They are honest. They are innocent. They’re not too big for their britches. They don’t abuse whatever power they have. They are moral. Their world is safe. They are honorable. They can take care of themselves. They get by happily. They don’t know suffering or poverty or the violence of crime. They don’t know the fear of racism or the humiliation of exclusion. The world is fair. The U.S. government is trustworthy. It was America in the 1940s, and 50s.   He didn’t paint war-wounded GIs fresh from the war, children born out of wedlock, mad men cheating on their wives, stock brokers cheating Americans. He painted the little guy prospering on Main Street.Saying Grace, by Norman Rockwell

Rockwellian Americans are not in big cities, on country estates, or in Levittown. They live in small cities and towns. They live amidst a simple democratic society on Main Street where, as President Obama recently put it, “everyone gets a fair share and a fair shot” at the American Dream. Commericial places are small and double as social spaces. Public places are intimate and communally-shared. Civic space is everywhere. Barbershops are where a men’s choral group practices. It’s perfectly okay to pray in a crowded café. The train station is where you say goodbye. The Breaking Home Ties, by Norman Rockwellsoda counter is where you are taken care of and looked after. The doctor’s office offers a glimpse of the tokens of higher education. A bedroom mirror shows you who you want to be rather than who you really are. The town office is where a marriage begins (rather than where one pays taxes).

The Marriage License

The Marriage License

The Four Freedoms

The Four Freedoms

These images and values may be considered outdated by many in post-9/11 world, in a time of global warming, the digital visualization revolution, and the entertainment imagery of such dark humor classics as Breaking Bad and Orange is the New Black. Yet, the visual rhetoric of Rockwell’s Main Street did not disappear with the end of the twentieth century. When the towers fell, the New York Times ran full-page advertisements for the newspaper using a series of five Norman Rockwell paintings. As scholar Francis Faschina put it, these adverts were “signifiers of revisionist cultural values, selective sentiment, familiar security, and particular visions of the nation-state.”[i] After the 2008 economic crash, President Obama reassured the country that he would work to improve life for the middle class American, for those on “Main Street, not Wall Street.”

Norman Rockwell’s version of American life thus remains resonant. It is a visual rhetoric that locates the ideal locale for American prosperity in the small town on Main Street. Prosperity, too, is strictly defined by Rockwell. Success is: kindness, honesty, piety, shared community, family, humility, freedom of speech, freedom from fear, freedom from want, freedom of spiritual expression. It is not greed. It is not abuse of power. It is the very opposite of monumental. Rockwell may have employed a “realist” painting-style, but he did not convey it in the scenes he carefully staged and depicted in delicate detail. Rockwell’s America was during its own time, and will always be, mythical.

It is widely understood that Rockwellian America is integral to the Main Street rhetoric. He was and remains Main Street’s predominant propagandist. Scholars have explored the phenomenon of re-use and deployment of Rockwellian America during times of national crisis. It is widely understood that “Main Street” is powerful rhetoric, used by those marketing products and ideas to a broad cross-section of the American public, whether business leaders, politicians, activists or urban planners.  Yet, Main Street’s “place-based visual rhetoric” as a device in popular culture—from advertising to political rhetoric—is largely understudied. How does a value system become one with a specific cultural landscape, the small town? How does an idealized vision of Main Street become a delivery vessel for hoped-for behavior in Americans? The power of Rockwellian American goes far beyond the boundaries of paint and canvas. The place of Rockwell’s vision of American life—Main Street and the small town—have become part of a material culture and design rhetoric, meant to conjure behavior, values, community life. It may be nostalgic, but it is employed as if it is timeless.

I’ve been working steadily on an essay about Rockwellian America by focusing in on the one painting he did of a town (rather than a painting in a town). This unique painting is Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas. It was the widescreen version of Rockwellian America. It’s panoramic-style revealed what lay beyond the edges of his more intimate narrative works. It was the whole street, not just one porch or street corner. It was the whole community, not just a couple of people. As mentioned, this in the only cohesive image of Main Street he published (over 4000+ illustrations!). In contrast to the bulk of his oevre, Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas features buildings, elm trees, and street lights as his characters, rather than people with animated facial expressions. This painting was the widescreen version of Rockwellian America. It’s panoramic-style revealed what lay beyond the edges of his other and more intimate narrative works. It was the whole street, not just one porch or street corner. As a rendition of the town where all his 300+ Saturday Evening Post covers took place, this painting pointed to one town as the setting of Rockwellian America. Suddenly, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the painter lived for the last twenty-five years of his life, was revealed to America as Rockwell’s inspirational source.

Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas

Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas

But the painting is unusual for Rockwell, the storyteller of American life in small towns. Rockwell typically staged his paintings with the people front and center. He produced rich and emotive narrative illustrations with a combination of sensitively rendered, sharpened, and finely detailed people accompanied by a selection of carefully staged props. “He was obsessed with faces and the human figure, and it would never have occurred to him, even as he sat in his studio surrounded by the majestic Berkshires, to paint a scene of mountains,” writes art historian Deborah Solomon.[ii]Rockwell was extraordinarily skilled at arranging a mise en scene with popular appeal (something not lost on one of his biggest fans, Steven Spielberg).[iii] Yet, people are not the subject of his painting of Stockbridge. Instead, buildings receive the most attentive detail.

Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas depicts a lively congenial and clean pedestrian marketplace of friendly strangers on a tiny commercial row. The architecture is highly crafted but modest. There is a decided absence of society’s social ills. The buildings, bright snow, and figure of a woman dragging a Christmas tree suggest New England. Picturesque elms, grandly lining the sidewalk patiently waiting for spring, suggest overall streetscape tidiness. The mid-century vehicles, already ten years old when the painting was finally published in 1967, lend an air of nostalgia, as does the warm glowing light from the shop windows. Beyond the buildings is an untarnished natural setting of hills with established and healthy forests. With this painting, Rockwell assured his audience that small town life was thriving where he lived.

However, Rockwell did more than paint buildings. He painted his town. The buildings are personally significant and, in a way, offer viewers a type of self-portrait. His first Stockbridge studio appears in the scene, precisely in the center of the painting. Instead of his figure in the window, however, we see a Christmas tree overlooking Main Street. His spot above Main Street assumed the position of the season’s “main” attraction. To the far left is the Old Corner House, the site of the first Norman Rockwell Museum. And at the far right, the viewer can just make out Rockwell’s home and second studio. Main Street is Rockwell. Christmas is Rockwell. Rockwell and the American small town are timelessly linked. [KJM]

Many thanks to Rosemary Krill at Winterthur Museum and Gardens for attentive editing on earlier drafts and helping me think through this work on Rockwell.


[i] Francis Frascina, “The New York Times, Norman Rockwell and the New Patriotism,” Journa of Visual Culture 2:99 (2003). DOI 10.1177/147041290300200108

[ii] Deborah Solomon, “America, Illustrated,” New York Tims, July 1, 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/07/04/arts/design/04rockwell.html?_r=0 (accessed January 15, 2013).

[iii] For an excellent discussion of Rockwell’s skill at scene arrangement with people and objects, see David Kamp, “Norman Rockwell’s American Dream,” Vanity Fair (November 2009).

Karal Ann Marling has written a book about Christmas imagery.  Part of her study includes a look at Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas.

When Good Morning America kicked off their whistle-stop tour during the 2008 presidential campaign, they chose Stockbridge as the departure locale. This woman was in the crowd. She is likely an employee of the Norman Rockwell Museum, just outside of town.

When Good Morning America kicked off their whistle-stop tour during the 2008 presidential campaign, they chose Stockbridge as the departure locale. This woman was in the crowd. She is likely an employee of the Norman Rockwell Museum, just outside of town.

Norman Rockwell in his studio with the Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas painting

Norman Rockwell in his studio with the Stockbridge Main Street at Christmas painting.  From the Norman Rockwell Museum archives.

Tracking Down the Goods sold on Main Street USA

Hoxie, Kansas ca.1900-1910 [photo courtesy of Sheridan County Historical Society, digitized by Flikr member whitewall buick]

What did they sell in these shops?  How and where did they get their goods?  Image of Main Street in Hoxie, Kansas ca.1900-1910.  [courtesy of Sheridan County Historical Society, digitized by Flikr member whitewall buick]  fun fact:  that storefront on the far left is a Mesker Bros. storefront, ordered out of a catalog and shipped from St. Louis.  [confirmation provided by Darius Bryjka]


In early April, I went to the University of Connecticut Archives and Special Collections to spend a couple of days sifting through the records of E. Ingraham Company Records. A major part of my research methodology involves following the trail of company goods right at the moment big capitalism really spread its wings. My hope is to track where a handful of companies sold their goods in order to describe a product’s national distribution, and hence its availability across small town America. I have found, and my research will argue, that one of the reasons that small town America is such a consistent idea in the nation’s cultural language is that the goods exchanged there had both local and national parameters. Some of this research has had to do with companies that literally produced small town America: the storefronts, the brick-making machinery, the lamps and posts. But other parts of the research is about the everyday objects that were sold in small towns, and how most of them during the period of small town America’s boom were not made locally or even regionally. The retailers were locals, but the items for sale on Main Street were typically sourced from manufactories or large distributors in cities. Again, Main Street is tied to the economy of very large cities and vice-versa.

For example, a $2 watch made by the E. Ingraham Company in 1898 was made in Bristol, Connecticut but was sold on several thousand Main Streets all across America in general stores or small jewelry shops. Ingraham was after the mass market that the very successful company Robert H. Ingersoll had been selling to. Ingersoll had shrewdly introduced a $1 pocket watch, the “Yankee,” in 1892, stumbling into an enormous mass market of working- and middle-class consumers interested in owning timepieces they could afford.  Most cheaper watches at the time were in the range of $4 to $6.

Robert H. Ingersoll’s Mail Order Bargain House catalog, 1898 [Winterthur Library]

Although Ingraham couldn’t make a quality watch for that little (the Ingersoll watches, not surprisingly, were cheap but not known for quality), the did start making a $2 watch by 1900 and these sold quite well, judging by how long they produced this watch (until the 1950s). Yet, when I dug around the Ingraham Company archives at UConn, I had some trouble finding records to support their efforts to take a share of the Ingersoll Yankee’s market.

As I said, I set out to spend all my time on the Ingraham Clock Co. archive. However, it turned out that what I was really hoping to find within my time period (1870-1930, Main Street’s ‘boom period,’ so to speak), wasn’t so easy to cull. I had set out to identify names and locations of retailers who ordered Ingraham watches for their shops on Main Streets in towns all over the country. Or possibly find advertising by the company that included testimonials from retailers in small towns. I have found these types of testimonials for Elgin watches of the period, so I was hopeful. However, most of the Ingraham Company’s order records at UConn’s Archives and Special Collections show sales to large distributors in cities. In addition, most of the records in the collection were from the 1940s and 50s (just the luck of what records survived, unfortunately). I did find contract letters with Sears from the 1930s, in which the mega-retailer agreed to uniquely market Ingraham watches in their stores and catalogs. But I needed letters with Sears or Montgomery Ward from around 1905 or more information about the distributors who bought $2 watches in large volume and then re-sold them in small batches to shop owners in the nation’s towns. That information may or may not be available in any archives, so in the end, the Ingraham $2 pocket watch story might not make it into the book.

Contract letter from Sears to Ingraham Co. [UConn Archives and Special Collections]

Contract letter from Sears to Ingraham Co. [UConn Archives and Special Collections]

 However, as typically happens for me, as soon as I turn my attention away from one enticing collection, I find myself in the midst of a host of material that suits some other aspect of the book research. (Nothing, I tell you, NOTHING beats the fun of serendipity in the archives!)

Ad for Dicksinson's Witch Hazel, manufactured in Middletown, Durham, Guilford, Higganam, Essex, CT between 1875 and 1950s. [Archives and Special Collections UConn]

Ad for Dicksinson’s Witch Hazel, manufactured in Middletown, Durham, Guilford, Higganam, Essex, CT between 1875 and 1950s. [Archives and Special Collections UConn]

What did I find? A glorious collection of ephemera and sales records for the E.E. Dickinson Witch Hazel Company of Essex, Connecticut. One of the chapters I’m writing is on the variety of goods and services related to a townsperson’s health, all of which they could get on Main Street. There was quite a bit of overlap between what was a “good”, a “service” and also a ways to participate in community life in the many shops and offices in downtown small town America between 1870-1930. For example, one might go to the town druggist to purchase a prescription from a local doctor, a box of candy, or sit at the soda fountain and gab with friends over a strawberry fizz. Barber and beauty shops were where one got one’s haircut or styled, but also where one socialized with a gendered group of residents. Doctors were where one received diagnoses and health recommendations, but also where one might purchase a drug remedy (many physicians made their own drugs during the early part of my period of study). I’m interested in looking at how Americans living in small towns attended to their health needs because understanding healthcare history before drug and health insurance, medical malpractice, and managed care may be valuable for understanding our contemporary struggles with the industry. Or at the very least, this history offers an interesting comparison to the practices and standards the current day.

The story of Dickinson’s Witch Hazel fits right into this chapter because it was a factory-produced astringent that became an everyday remedy for minor ills. It was sold all over the country in drugstores and used extensively in small town doctor’s offices. And this time, I found records that show national distribution. For example, during the mid-1920s there were many letters between Dickinson executives and the Druggist Supply Corporation (DSC). The DSC was made up of retailers across America, many of which were located in small towns (Fresno, CA; Peoria, IL; Ottumwa, IA; Burlington, IA; Fort Wayne, IN; Rock Island, IL among many others). By working with that organization, Dickinson assured that they would get their product into those shop owners’ hands.

Letter from Middleton Drug Store thanking Dickinson Co. for marketing booklets [E.E. Dickinson Co. Records, Archives and Special Collections, UConn.]

Letter from Middleton Drug Store thanking Dickinson Co. for marketing booklets [E.E. Dickinson Co. Records, Archives and Special Collections, UConn.]

There were also several large company scrapbooks with hundreds of ads, letters from happy vendors, testimonials, and the like. For example, there was a letter from the owner of a drug store in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He was thanking the Dickinson Company for sending him a set of booklets to give out to his customers with their purchase of a bottle of Witch Hazel. With his letter of thanks, he included a clipping from the local newspaper called “The Enterprise” which he produced, something common in small town America where businesses were typically very diverse.  The clipping documents his announcement of the Witch Hazel booklet’s availability. He also noted that he gave a bunch of the booklets to a teacher at a nearby rural school for their students.  This letter offers a wonderfully grounded example of how Main Street used to work–how, as I said earlier, it functioned locally, but drew on a national set of goods and marketing materials.  Shop owners were an active part of the process of embedding national goods with a sense of local purpose and circulation.  This drug store owner was part savvy entrepreneur, but also an educator, having handed over a bunch of the booklets to a rural school just outside of his town.

Marketing booklet distributed to drug stores across America in 1920s [Archives and Special Collections UConn]

Marketing booklet distributed to drug stores across America in 1920s [Archives and Special Collections UConn]

I could go on and on, but you’ll have to wait for the book. Overall, my visit to the Archives and Special Collections UConn was a success, both in terms of clarifying the role of Ingraham in the book and adding to my health-related goods and services chapter. [KJM]

Note: This visit to UConn’s Archives and Special Collections was funded by a 2014 Strochlitz Travel Grant. Travel Grants are awarded bi-annually to scholars and students to support their travel to and research in UConn’s Archives and Special Collections. Fellows are required to submit a blog entry to UConn on the work done at the Collections within six-weeks of their visit. Part of the above report also draws on materials at Winterthur Library, where Dr. Makker is also being supported by a 2013-14 National Endowment for the Humanities residential fellowship. A version of this essay also appears on the UConn Archives and Special Collections Blog.

The team at UConn has uploaded digitized versions of several Ingraham catalogs from the early 20th century.  A catalog from 1918-19 can be see here an archive.org.

Dickinson Witch Hazel still exists!  The company is now a subsidiary of Dickinson Brands.  Their slogan is “The leading name in witch hazel.”

For some fun reading about the use and production of witch hazel by humans, see November 2012 in The Atlantic “The Mysterious Past and Present of Witch Hazel”.

No. 53 on Main Street

I was at the Delaware Antiques Show a few weekends back and happened upon a 7’ tall carved wood “Indian Chief” (using the parlance of its time).  This guy was a beauty:  fully intact with no signs of damage with subdued bits of colored paint hinting at his glory days out in front of some cigar store on, you guessed it, Main Street.  He was selling for $80,000.  (I decided not to buy it…for obvious reasons.)

Hoosick, NY.  Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Hoosick, NY. Courtesy of the Boston Public Library, Leslie Jones Collection.

Although I hadn’t anticipated it, Mr. 80K Chief was just the beginning of several days in the Winterthur library and archives researching mass-produced statuary and emblems that began to furnish the commercial districts of American towns, both large and small, during the last decades of the nineteenth century.  Although various emblems including eagles, giant tools or notions, and Indian Chiefs have been around since the 1600s to signal to consumers that a shop was ready for customers, the mass production of these items escalated after the Civil War.  As with most of the material on this blog, there is too much to say on the topic of emblems on Main Street (you’ll have to buy the book), but there’s one story I compiled that’s just snappy enough to lay down here.

And so here we go…

At the Museum of Arts and Sciences in Daytona Beach, Florida is a carved wood statue of an Native American figure, on loan to them from the Smithsonian.  It’s likely on loan to this Florida museum because at some point in the last 25 years, the Smithsonian decided that it was a Seminole.  The date of the piece isn’t certain, but it is believed to be from around 1885-90 and it’s attributed to Samuel A. Robb.  I’m convinced this date is wrong, however, because of the fascinating story to follow.

Robb was what was called a “house carver” at Wm. Demuth & Co., a firm that specialized in cigar store trade figures and other emblems during the 1870s-1890s.  Although Demuth mostly produced fancy pipes and show figures like the cigar store Indians, other businesses sold all kinds of emblems: various types of Indians, ladies of liberty, eagles on balls, lions with mortars (I’m still not sure what that’s about…), locks, and other things.  They livened up Main Street with decoration and fantasy and a bit of civic art.

Demuth cover, circa 1870 from http://tobaccopipeartistory.blogspot.com/2012/04/columbus-pipe.html

Demuth cover, circa 1870
from tobaccopipeartistory.blogspot.com

Finding that wood statuary was on the costlier side to produce (hand carving was no quick task), not to mention highly susceptible to splitting and weathering from rain, Demuth sought another media for his wares:  cast zinc.  Around 1869 Demuth began working with a New York foundry that specialized in zinc work by the name of M.J. Seelig & Co. to have molds done of Robb’s Native American figure.  These molds then were used to cast bunches of zinc figures.  The 1872 Demuth catalog identifies the statue as “Indian Chief No. 53.”  Demuth exhibited these at both the Philadelphia Centennial Expo and the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair.  They were a hit!  Here is one that still has some of his paint, auctioned off in 2002 for $17,500.  Another Demuth No. 53 was sold off at Murphy’s Auction house in 2011 as part of a large lot of objects that had belonged to a cigar museum in Tampa, Florida.

circa 1870s zinc Demuth figure

circa 1870s zinc Demuth figure

No. 53 wasn’t only available through Demuth, however.  Demuth’s casts largely went to cigar store owners before the mid-1890s, but just before and after 1900, when having a big Native American statue in front of your smoke shop had become unfashionable, No. 53 became a public monument.  Many  were sold to towns across the nation through J.W. Fiske and J.L. Mott, other New York companies that specialized in fountains and other iron work and zinc statuary.  A little internet digging and book research reveals a host of Indian Chief No.53s dotted around the country, at cross-roads and in public parks, many of which are (or were, some are no longer around) located in small towns:   Kankakee, IL; Muscatine, IA; Ishpeming, MI; Brandywine, DE; Barberton, OH; Sharpsburg, PA; Point Richmond, CA; Fargo ND; Akron OH; Tilton, NH; Calhoung, GA; Mount Kisco, NY; Lodi, Ohio; Mingo, WV; Forest Glen, MD; and Schenectady, NY.  In all, there are 25 known to have existed or still existing.

Mingo, WV statue

Mingo, WV statue

Of course, he’s generally not called “No. 53” in these locales.  The People of the towns have, through local lore, given him other names including “Lawrence the Indian” (Schenectady, NY) and “Hiawatha” (Forest Glen, MD).  He’s been identified as a

Schenectady, NY statue, photo from flickr member sebastien.barre

Schenectady, NY statue, photo from flickr member sebastien.barre

Mohawk, an Iroquois, a Mascoutin, and a member of other tribes—typically informed by where a copy ended up.  The one in Tilton, New Hampshire is named Squantum, named after a Pawtuxet man who served as interpreter, guide, and instructor to the Plymouth Pilgrims.

No. 53s also occasionally identify J.W. Fiske or J.L. Mott as the “artist” because the only names on the statues are often the vendor’s marks.  These townspeople would, I’m guessing, be a little sad to know that Lawrence was ordered out of a catalog and not hand-crafted in some sculptor’s workshop.  But I would caution against such disappointment at the mass-produced origins of their civic sculpture.  There’s a wonderful and heroic story in small town America’s reach, through the nation’s rail system, from their little public parks to the great island of Manhattan, sourcing statues and fountains to adorn their public spaces.

No. 53 is public art for Main Street America.  These companies offered budding towns and ambitious civic groups access to an assortment of decorative material to spruce up their public gathering spots, adorn their sidewalks, and demonstrate their awareness of national movements in civic and municipal art.  And it’s also important to remember that although the objects may have been ordered from catalogues, their role in the communities in which they reside is personal, folkloric, and rich in local memory.  They are not just named, but cleaned, occasionally decorated, fundraised for, photographed and written about.  They are civic art because they engage the civic aspect of town life.  No. 53 may live all over the U.S.A. in his copied form, but he also lives locally.  And that’s what makes him such a fantastic micro-historical figure in the story of the small town American Main Street.[KJM]

To learn more about zinc sculpture in America, see Carol Grissom’s excellent book on the subject.

To learn about cigar store and show figures statuary, see Artists in Wood by Frederick Fried.

To learn more about Demuth and lots and lots about the artistry of antique smoking paraphernalia, see


1893 Mott catalogue.  The Boy with the leaking book is also a common feature in American town public spaces.

1893 Mott catalogue. The Boy with the leaking book is also a common feature in American town public spaces.  [catalog in the collection at Winterthur  Library and Archive, DE]

“Occupying” Main Street in the Jim Crow South

One of the broadly held myths of Main Street has to do with it being a place that serves everyone.  Need a hammer?  Get yours at the hardware store at the corner of Main and 2nd Street!  Want to get a haircut?  Go to the barbershop just down from the corer of Main and the Methodist Church. You might want to stop by their church bazaar at the same time and pick up a few tasty home baked goods.  Need a small business loan?  Go to the national bank on South Main Street.  You can get everything you need right here:  consumer goods, beauty services, church service, a beer or a meal, entertainment, bank loans, education, health care, funeral services, telegraph service, a telephone booth, and the U.S. Mail.  In addition, there are other things less easily defined that people get on Main Street; they get conversation, society, and communal membership.

But have you ever wondered how Main Street worked for African Americans during the Jim Crow era?  This is the sort of thing that keeps me up at night.  What a puzzle!  Not intrigued?  Consider:

1)  Small town American Main Streets boomed between the end of the Civil War and the Great Depression.
2)  Laws restricting African American use of public and private facilities—from restaurants to water fountains to barber shops—were on the books of states and local municipalities between roughly 1880-1965.

There’s an overlap in these time periods—which means that our “idea” of the thriving Main Street as the place where all Americans can get whatever they need cannot possibly be accurate.  How did African Americas in the Jim Crow south get loans from Main Street banks to buy farms and houses, or start businesses?  How did they gain access to schools or other educational civic institutions such as libraries or reading rooms?  How did they get insurance to care for the sick and bury their dead?  How did they tap into the social life and community of Main Street?

To get a sense of the cross section of Jim Crow laws and how they complicated access to Main Street amenities, I’m pasting below a sampling of state statutes, taken from the National Park Service’s website:

Libraries: Any white person of such county may use the county free library under the rules and regulations prescribed by the commissioners court and may be entitled to all the privileges thereof. Said court shall make proper provision for the negroes of said county to be served through a separate branch or branches of the county free library, which shall be administered by [a] custodian of the negro race under the supervision of the county librarian. Texas
Wine and Beer: All persons licensed to conduct the business of selling beer or wine…shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room at any time. Georgia
Barbers: No colored barber shall serve as a barber [to] white women or girls. Georgia
Burial: The officer in charge shall not bury, or allow to be buried, any colored persons upon ground set apart or used for the burial of white persons. Georgia
Restaurants: All persons licensed to conduct a restaurant, shall serve either white people exclusively or colored people exclusively and shall not sell to the two races within the same room or serve the two races anywhere under the same license. Georgia
Restaurants: It shall be unlawful to conduct a restaurant or other place for the serving of food in the city, at which white and colored people are served in the same room, unless such white and colored persons are effectually separated by a solid partition extending from the floor upward to a distance of seven feet or higher, and unless a separate entrance from the street is provided for each compartment. Alabama
Pool and Billiard Rooms: It shall be unlawful for a negro and white person to play together or in company with each other at any game of pool or billiards. Alabama
Theaters: Every person…operating…any public hall, theatre, opera house, motion picture show or any place of public entertainment or public assemblage which is attended by both white and colored persons, shall separate the white race and the colored race and shall set apart and designate…certain seats therein to be occupied by white persons and a portion thereof , or certain seats therein, to be occupied by colored persons. Virginia
Telephone Booths: The Corporation Commission is hereby vested with power and authority to require telephone companies…to maintain separate booths for white and colored patrons when there is a demand for such separate booths. That the Corporation Commission shall determine the necessity for said separate booths only upon complaint of the people in the town and vicinity to be served after due hearing as now provided by law in other complaints filed with the Corporation Commission. Oklahoma

And these are only the laws on the books; what’s above is not what was casually practiced by white landlords, business owners, folks on the street.  This period was a terrible time for black people in America.  Thus while small town building boomed between 1870-1930, African American life was at its “nadir,” as historian Rayford Logan has termed the post-reconstruction period.  On all fronts—political, social, educational and economic, black people suffered.  Main Street had written and unwritten codes reinforcing segregation and exclusion, all in support of white supremacy.  Funny thing was, these codes were about reinforcing separation and preventing interracial activity that might have implied equality.  But while pro-Jim Crow whites worried about integration, this was not the primary concern for blacks.  What they wanted was access to the facilities and services Jim Crow separated them from.  As Ruby Cobb Smith, a black Texan put it in a 1927 speech to her community, “If I cannot go to the white man’s church, I must create a church.   If I cannot read books out of his library I must in some way get one of my own.  If I cannot clerk in his stores it is my job to get one of my own.”  As consumers, producers, and sellers, blacks wanted what Main Street offered.

My research into the question of how African Americans accessed the amenities of small town America during Jim Crow has yielded complex answers.  There were alternative constructed spaces, such as negro business districts and organizations that helped to support them such as the Negro Business League, started by Booker T. Washington in 1900 (smack the middle of Main Street’s development period and roughly 20 years into Jim Crow).  There were all-black towns, such as Mound Bayou, Mississippi, founded in 1887.  And finally, there were general “uplift” member-based organizations that offered a variety of financial, health, and educational services and community life to the rural and scattered black farmer in the south.  I’m going to finish this blog post by giving a little history of the Farmers Improvement Society (FIS), founded by R.L. Smith in 1885.

FIS ConstByLaws.RLSmithPhoto

R.L. Smith argued that even though black citizens were emancipated after the Civil War, they were still in a state of “economic slavery,” largely because they lived in debt and almost purely on credit. In fact, #1 in the group’s Declaration of Purposes is “To abolish the credit system completely, or as much as lies in our power.”

graphic from RITUAL.1925small

Graphic from inside the FIS booklet RITUAL (1925)

But as you can see from the graphic on the left, the FIS was aiming for a comprehensive approach to providing the resources and services of self-help.  Thinking back to what mythic Main Street symbolizes in terms of its amenities and open-access, it is, in a kind of collective imaginary way, a place of personal opportunity and self-help or uplift.  Main Street offers everything you need to better your situation, from that hammer to a hair trim to banking.

#2 in the FIS Declaration of Purposes is education about agriculture and good farming practice.  #3 is buying bulk supplies cooperatively, even if folks have to travel to a city to make the purchases (a sort of Cosco or Ikea run, 1895-style), so as not to live on credit at the local general store.

#4 is aiding each other in sickness and death (disability and death benefits were a major benefit of FIS membership, providing relief to the families who lost heads of household).

FIS insurance certificate

FIS Insurance Policy Certificate, 1904

And finally, #5, is encouraging members to buy homes and if they own homes, to beautify them and their surroundings: “repair our highways and keep them in order; to plant suitable shade trees and shrubbery; and in general to bring up our home life to the highest American standard compatible with our incomes.”

Yes, folks, Robert Lloyd Smith required members to promise to invest in the aesthetics of their homes and landscapes.  To Smith, cash-based living, economy, agricultural science, death benefits, and home beautification were all part of a magical formula for lifting folks up out of a rough, if not economically desperate, situation.  To an architect like me, this is a fantastic sentiment.  Let’s approach these problems from several vantage points:  economic thrift and resourcefulness, education, and pride of place.

Smith established the first Farmers Improvement Society chapter in a tiny segregated town in East Texas named Oakland in December 1890.  There were roughly 200 black citizens at that time and nearly all of them became involved with the organization.  Within ten years, the black section of Oakland was considered the most progressive negro community in Texas.

Smith went on to start 1000 branches of the Farmers Improvement Society across Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.  The group’s overall membership was over 20,000 by 1910.  Over the next decade, the FIS established a bank in Waco as well as an agricultural college for black youth in Ladonia, Texas.  There are many other details that I don’t have the space here to get into, but suffice to say that this organization was innovative, resourceful, and highly progressive.

What’s interesting to me is that the FIS operated primarily “off” Main Street.  They didn’t start their work by building a bank or their own Oakland general store (granted, these projects would have been tremendously difficult to manage, but bear with me while I make my point).  “You said a hammer’s whatcha need?  Don’t go to the hardware store on Main Street! They’ll put you in a mound of debt, plus, you’ll have to wait until all the white folks have been waited on. They might not even have what you want by the time you’re waited on! We’re making a run to the big city in a few weeks and we’ll get one for you cheap.”  The FIS relied on the basic structure of a social group, and worked primarily through thoughtful discussion and coordinated activities such as planting trees or whitewashing their homes, pooling cash to buy supplies in bulk, and assembling enough dues to offer life-insurance.  The bricks and mortar FIS bank came decades later.

2Bridge Street.FISbank.Waco.TX.circa1910.fromSmithCobbArchive.TexasCollection

Farmers Improvement Society Bank (central building) on Bridge Street, Waco, Texas, c. 1915. Incidentally, Bridge Street was the original “Main Street” of Waco until this period when all the white businesses moved southwest, to the other side of the courthouse square on Austin Ave. Waco effectively had two Main Streets in the early twentieth century: Austin Ave (white) and Bridge St. (black). Today, the FIS bank building and other black-owned businesses of Bridge St. are underneath the Waco Convention Center and Hilton, products (?) of urban renewal.

In my other blog entries I have talked about how Main Street was not divorced from modernity and national economic development when it boomed.  Small town America, contrary to a popular myth, was a place of cutting edge ideas, innovation, and reform.  The story of the FIS, although a narrative about a scattered society, amounted to an alternative form of Main Street, a “decentered” and “fragmented” space of community that was skillfully and ingeniously accessed by disenfranchised rural African Americans in Texas, Oklahoma, and Arkansas during Jim Crow. It was Main Street life but without Main Street!  It existed virtually and operated as an organized network of people exchanging ideas through membership documents (such as their monthly newspaper The Helping Hand), chapter events, and regional encampments where several chapters met together over a long weekend.  In a sense, the FIS operated like a virtual civic group.  Thus, the FIS’s version of Main Street was as dissipated and as scattered as their membership, challenging anyone interested in the typology of Main Street and small town America to look further than our widely-held belief that bricks and mortar equals livable communities.  Community and amenities can be scattered and, in certain situations, must be in order to get people what they need, because, quite frankly, not everyone can “occupy” Main Street.  [KJM]

Helping Hand

All images courtesy of Texas Collection, Baylor University.

Post Script:  Last March while all my students were on the beach in Florida for Spring Break, I travelled to Waco, Texas to use the Texas Collection archives at Baylor University to do research on the Farmers Improvement Society.  I was funded by a research grant at the Texas Collection, the Wardlaw Fellowship Fund, and I am grateful to that family and the Collection for their generous support.

Convocation Poster

Encampment Poster

Reality Check: Main Street was not Made on Main Street

“Made in America” is getting a lot of online traffic these days.  I, for one, love perusing what’s on the Made Collection’s site to see all the gorgeous wonderful things that are handcrafted in the great U.S. of A.  And as a designer, I get a personal thrill from seeing how different American companies are engaged in aesthetics, how good design has become “cool.” (hallelulia!!!)

This preoccupation with the “hand-made” is something linked to nostalgia and general romance for pre-modern times.  In the case of Made Collection, there’s an obvious effort to show us how the goods for sale are not only made here, but made with care and attention—not unlike the old days when standards were higher and the process of production slower.  One infers from surfing around Made Collection’s site that everything featured was not only made in the States but also not mass-produced in factories.  This stuff was made by hand.

I think a similar assumption exists about the buildings of Main Street when its imagery is thrown around.  At least, I always assumed that small town structures were made locally, by carpenters and craftsmen living in the town where the building went up.  What do I mean?  Well, basically, when I saw this:

Jeffers Building, Main Street, Ouray, CO (photo by Darius Bryjka)

Jeffers Building, Main Street, Ouray, CO (photo by Darius Bryjka)

I imagined this sort of scene just ’round the corner:

But actually, these storefronts were made in places like this:

Asa & Snyder Architectural Iron Works, Richmond, VA

Asa & Snyder Architectural Iron Works, Richmond, VA

“Huh?” (You say).

Really!  You may be as surprised as I was to learn that many of the storefronts of common parlance, the visual imagery of Main Street USA, are metal (rather than hand-planed wood or carved stone).  And not only that.  They were most likely ordered out of catalogs or magazine advertisements from factories, produced as components, loaded on trains or flatboats, and shipped to various small town sites.  Only then did local folk get involved in building Main Street, and it was more of an assembly process at that.  Check these out:

from an 1892 George Mesker Co. catalog

from an 1892 George Mesker Co. catalog

from 1898 Mesker Brothers catalog --- Cornice anyone???

from 1898 Mesker Brothers catalog — Cornice anyone???

The Mesker Brothers and their brother George Mesker (yes, it’s confusing—there were two companies), together sold tens of thousands of storefront components to small town folks putting up buildings.  In 1898, if you had $126.70 and lived anywhere along a rail line, you could put up the front below on the left:

1898 George Mesker & Co.

(That’s roughly $3500 in 2013 dollars.)

When towns were booming during the 1890s and into the first two decades of the twentieth century, settlers needed to build quickly and cheaply.  Metal storefronts cost around 1/3 of what a stone building cost.  Townspeople also often had to build in remote locations, places that might be far from quarries, skilled stone carvers, brickyards, etc.  Although wood was used in building, it was risky:  one didn’t want one’s building to go up in smoke from a negligent tenant.

There was a whole niche market, in fact, of building materials for this population.  (If you are interested in learning more about the development of pressed-tin ceilings, for example, I highly recommend taking a look at Patricia Simpson’s book Cheap, Quick and Easy:  Imitative Architectural Materials.  It’s a great read.)  The $126.70 storefront pictured above is from and 1898 Mesker Brothers catalog.

Darius Bryjka maintains a very smart and fun blog about Mesker fronts that you can find here.  Partly because of Darius and partly because the Meskers were so successful selling their fronts to the small town builder, the Meskers have gained prominence in the history of nineteenth century metal storefronts (Okay, maybe Darius isn’t responsible for the prominence of Meskers in the history of vernacular architecture, but — and he of course humbly protests this claim — but his blog is still really really great and he was the original force behind the ongoing project “Got Mesker?“).

But even beyond the Meskers, there were hundreds of other companies and foundries offering metal building components.  And it’s this regional distribution that I personally find fascinating.  While the Meskers sold nationally, there were other companies that manufactured storefront components as side jobs for regional markets.  For example, Union Iron Works in San Francisco, which mostly produced steam engines, got its first big revenue stream through the selling of architectural iron castings made from fire-ruined safes, hinges, stoves and sheet iron bought on the cheap.  Salvaged iron purchased for ¾ of cent per pound was refabricated into a host of building ornaments for structures going up in outlying areas, turning a tidy profit at 20 cents per pound.  Not too long ago, I found some storefront components by Union Iron Works on some buildings in downtown Petaluma, CA.

That a storefront in Petaluma, CA was assembled with building components from San Francisco, and made from recycled steel to boot, demonstrates how complex the production of Main Street really was.  It’s a reality check, to be sure.  These Union Iron Works storefronts in Petaluma were not made by Mr. Jones, local carpenter, with wood chopped down from his neighbor’s woodlot and hand-made with skills passed down from his grandfather.   Okay, it’s not romance, but hey!  It’s just as beautiful and wondrous a story!  There were people thinking outside the box here!  Being industrious and clever!  Making America with innovative business practices and new technologies!

One of the myths of Main Street is that it was Local.  I think because small town America is steeped in ideals, it’s difficult to be precise about what “local” meant.  In today’s Main Street/Wall Street dialog, local suggests small business operations, local industry and labor.

I had always assumed that the storefronts of small town America were built with mostly local materials and labor; i.e. they were hand-crafted.  Taking a peak into the archives of metal storefront trade literature, however, shows us a different tale that helps dispel the myth of local Main Street.  A storefront going up in Petaluma helped an innovative business practice occur in San Francisco.  Petaluma fueled a city’s economy, a regional economy, and played a role in the U.S.’s import of iron ore.  Main Street was local in many ways, but it was made through its relationship to national and global markets as well.[KJM]

pop quiz!

That’s right, a pop-quiz.

In lectures on my book research, I have occasionally started my talks with a blank slide that says “pop quiz” (I stole this brilliant idea from a colleague of mine when I was teaching at Smith College, in Northampton, MA and I have shamelessly employed it on many an occasion.  I don’t care who you are or if you’re 75 or 18, if someone standing at the front of the room says “pop quiz!” you find yourself uncontrollably attentive).

So here we go.

Question #1:  Where are we?

(by the way, you can relax, there is only one question on this pop quiz)

Slide1Typically everyone is quiet at first and I have to egg them on.  “Are we in one town or two or four? Are we in real towns or at Disney World? Are we in the South or Northeast?  Are we looking at towns that were built in the 19th century or 20th century?”

After a fair amount of guessing from folks, I throw up the next slide.

Slide2And (hopefully) my point is made:  Main Street has a “visual vocabulary” that spans every region of the United States.  This is just what small town America looks like!  It’s got highly ornamented two- and three-story buildings.  There are clean sidewalks with awnings to walk under.  The road is nicely graded.  There are streetlamps, the occasional park bench, trash receptacles, and maybe a finial here and there.  There are leafy street trees.

Then I tell them that all these pictures were taken in the 1990s or thereabouts.  If we look at pictures of small towns from the late 1800s, we might see something different:


Whoaa.  Where’s all the quaint prettiness?  Maybe we don’t know that much about Main Street.

My research looks at how Main Street happened — how it was physically built, assembled, styled, re-organized, and cleaned-up.  Digging around in archives has convinced me that we don’t know very much about the developmental history of Main Street, that we tend to accept some givens:  it was locally made, (“no corporate Wall Streeters on Main Street!”), conservative (“Why change?  It’s always worked!  We don’t need crazy new ideas from those city folk fussing with our way of life!”), and autonomous (“We look after our own! No outside influence here!”).   Along the way, Main Street, the physical place, became an archetype of American values.  Main Street is a physical place, but it’s also a community ethos.

So what?  What’s the big deal you ask?  (and more to the point, why am I digging around in archives about the developmental history of small town America?)

Well, in my profession (that’s architecture and urban planning), this Main Street imagery reigns a bit unquestioned in design proposals and policies.  And well, I have a problem with what feels too much like blind faith in a nostalgic idea about small town life.  I think we planners need to get more informed about what we’re referencing in our proposals — we have tended to recreate small town America in suburbia, as if the community ethos we associate with Main Street will magically grow from the ornamented buildings and streetscaping.

Hold on a minute! (you say)  You think planners are vacuous automatons, employing small town imagery without realizing that they are recreating a place from the past?

No. Of course not.  I’m a planner too, you know.  And I personally LOVE ye olde small town Main Streets.  I just think that the small town has more to offer contemporary planning and design than superficial imagery.

I believe that if we know a fuller story about what made the place we so admire and idolize, we will actually see that we can’t accept it at face value — that we will observe Main Street, the archetype, with a keener understanding of how complex a place it is and in our understanding of its complexity, see it as a place to learn from but not mimic.  We will see that Main Street was made because it was open to unconventional and innovative approaches to social governance, municipal planning, the importing and exporting of ideas.  It developed with the cities during America’s great period of urbanization, not independently of it.  Main Street occurred in concert with Wall Street. [KJM]