Dove Block News & Notes

Mail Order Main Street By Kirin J. Makker

Mail Order Main Street: Metal Storefronts and the Development of Small Town America

Walking down the thoroughfares of Petaluma, California; Round Rock, Texas; Millers Falls, Massachusetts; and Madison, Indiana, one sees a collection of architectural elements: street lamps, railings around greenery, decorative cornices, lintels, doorways, and columns. Some of these items are not merely similar in scale and material; they are bona fide reproductions of one another. This is “Mail Order Main Street,” a place ordered out of catalogues starting in the 1870s, a place that was widely circulated as a desirable look for a contemporary bustling town. This place was fabricated in the nation’s cities, in foundries and factories and shipped over the country’s rail systems and waterways. Mail Order Main Street was not hand-crafted by local artisans or sold through local retailers. It was not designed by small town architects or master-builders. It was direct shipped by manufacturers to the customers who put them up, in most cases landlords or merchants.

The Dove block is a product of Mail Order Main Street. When the Dove family wanted to build a commercial building at the corner of two major thoroughfares in downtown Geneva, New York, the family ordered a set of steel and cast iron ornamental façade components from the H.Cheney foundry in Rochester, New York. The Dove block was built using the most fashionable and contemporary building and ornamental materials of the time, all possible because of Main Order Main Street.

The history of Mail Order Main Street shows the extent to which the processes of American capitalist expansion and urbanization occurred in rural areas, in all types of settlements, from 200-person villages to towns of 40,000. It is a story that shows the economic, social and cultural entanglement between the small town business owner, the city manufacturer, and, in many cases, international natural resource markets

Thus, although small town America was certainly geographically distant from city centers, it was not wholly separate from the mechanisms afoot there. We may think of the small town as detached and self-sufficient, but this was hardly the case. Main Street has always, from its very early building and planning origins, been a place with intimate ties—industrial, transportation, and cultural—to American cities. Mail Order Main Street reveals an expansive web, linking cities to towns through business trade, ever-expanding transportation, and communication lines. Ultimately, ideas were also shared—and those that shaped cities also shaped small towns.

Mail Order Main Street had its height between 1870-1930, during America’s “Second Industrial Revolution.” Bookended by the Civil War and the Great Depression, this period was one of America’s most economically productive times. The nation saw population numbers rise, migration patterns spread, and American manufacturing innovate, swell, and diversify. Transportation over rail and steamship grew exponentially. Major advances in industrial production spurred growth throughout the country. The building construction industry boomed during these decades, moving in stride with the rapid development of factory and frontier towns across the country.

Businesses that supported America’s increasing demand for new construction mutually benefited from these nationwide shifts in investment capital and innovation. One major area of maturation in the construction trade was building with metal materials that were welcome alternatives to stone, brick and wood. The process of putting up a stone commercial building required significant investment in money and human labor— from the expensive process of quarrying to carving and installing on site. Stone cornices in particular were not easy to make or install; they required large quarried pieces, skilled craftsmanship to carve, and complex civil engineering to place at the crest of a building. Stone ornamental pieces were particularly vulnerable to earthquake damage, something of increasing concern among settlers in California towns and cities. Brick buildings were often cheaper than stone if one was building remote from a quarry, but costs could still be prohibitive depending on availability of brickyards and masons. Wood was the least preferred building material for commercial structures because owners feared losing their investments through fire caused by business operations. Cornices, columns, lintels, and other architectural pieces made from various types of metals had a ready market among Americans eager to find cheaper, quicker, and easier ways to put up buildings. The building industry was moving toward prefabrication, even before the Civil War. In fact, the first metal façade building components to be developed and sold were made from galvanized sheet iron in the 1830s. By the 1850s, cornice breaks—the machines manned by one skilled worker which bent sheet metal into basic ornamental profiles of all styles —had improved and the niche market of cornice manufacturing took off. If the pieces were prefabricated, they were all the cheaper and easier to attain for customers.2

In the late 1880s, updated sheet-steel production and drop-press techniques made it possible to stamp larger pieces of material. Decorative panels of larger sizes could be created, introducing a new way to clad buildings. If stone or brick was too expensive, metal stamped ‘ashlar facades’ were an attractive alternative. These facades were particularly appealing to Americans who feared losing their structures to fire. Some insurance companies also encouraged commercial establishments to build in these new metal materials by offering special low rates for accident coverage. Although this was probably not intentional, these lower insurance bills functioned as an economic incentive to Americans open to adopting the new technology. Mr. H.C. Waston of Rockingham, North Carolina, made up the difference in the slightly higher cost of a metal façade because the local insurance company found his building less of a fire risk than if it had been constructed in wood.

Figure 5. Locations of foundries in 1890 identified by author. (Googlemaps.com.)

By the 1890s, there were hundreds of firms and foundries making metal building fronts and other components for regional and national markets. Anyone in any small town in any area of the country could tap into this quickly expanding network of vendors to source their building materials. Cities with ready access to raw metal, either because they were located near iron industry centers or along rail/waterway transportation routes, saw these businesses in particular flourish. Building trade literature, image collections of metal storefronts, surveys of trade catalog literature, and company archives indicate wide regional distribution of steel and iron architectural components from Rochester, NY; Buffalo; Ithaca, NY; Providence, Rhode Island; Cincinnati; Cleveland; Pittsburg,; Dubuque, Iowa; St. Paul, Minnesota; Wheeling, West Virginia; San Francisco; Seattle; Portland, Oregon; St. Louis, Missouri; and Evansville, Indiana (Figure 5).

If we accept this—that the American small town and Main Street USA—is a product of modernity, national and global trade, capitalization and ideas, we can destabilize its mythic identity and call into question its use as a paradigm in planning and design. We have long seen the language of small town American, either in the form of a visual vocabulary of neo-traditional design or in master plan document rhetoric, as a sort of magic formula for improved society, as if the small town has been separated from the production of cities and the forces of modernity and can therefore offer a way out of the ills caused by modern urbanization. Understanding that the processes of urbanization fostered aspects of Main Street, in a sense, encourages us to look at small town America as a place that can be contemporary. We might perhaps look at Main Street and not think “circa 1900 and antique Victorian” and instead think “innovative.” We might just select a lamp post whose aesthetics and engineering reflect technological advancement rather than something that looks like cast iron relic of the past.

Kirin J. Makker, Mail Order Main Street

1 Richard Lingeman, Small Town America: A Narrative History 1620-Present (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1980), 104-257. Also see John Reps, The Making of Urban America: A History of City Planning in the United States (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1965), 400-414. Phillip Scranton, Manufacturing Diversity: Production Systems, Market, and an American Consumer Society, 1870-1930,” Technology and Culture 35 (July 1994): 476-505. Pamela Simpson, Cheap, Quick & Easy: Imitative Architectural Mateirals, 1870-1930 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999), 5-6.

2 “Machinery for Shaping Sheet Metal,” The Manufacturer and Builder: A Practical Journal of Industrial Progress (Nov. 1, 1873), 246.

3 Geo. Mesker Testimonials Catalogue, 1905.

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