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”.

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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]