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

Demuth cover, circa 1870

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]


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]