The little catalog that could
Good things come in small packages. The cliche applies to many things but definitely to a diminutive, four-page supplemental insert to the 1903 catalog of George L. Mesker & Co. Both the catalog (46 pages) and the insert were recently auctioned off on Ebay. Fortunately, they were rescued from obscurity by friend and historian Dennis Au who in turn graciously shared scanned images of the insert’s four remarkable pages. (They are reproduced below while a PDF of the entire insert is available for download on the ‘Catalogs’ page.)
The 1903 catalog is not a rarity per se and several copies, including a digitized version, have been available for several years. The insert, however, is a first for Dennis and me and we’ve seen our share of Mesker-related ephemera. Printed in red ink and replete with renderings of facades that the company manufactured in 1902, along with customer testimonials and testaments to Mesker’s superior product and service, this tiny catalog is the oldest known collection of Mesker testimonials and a predecessor to the spectacularly overwhelming 1905 version. While renderings of completed facades weren’t entirely new to the company’s marketing repertoire, appearing in catalogs a year prior, the inclusion of glowing testimonials was a fresh tactic and one that must have worked well since in just two years it developed into a standalone comprehensive volume.
The testimonials from the insert are charming, if not a bit exaggerating. For example, Charles Murphy of Salem, Indiana, wrote that his building was “[…] by far the handsomest in Salem. In fact I never saw a store front anywhere that surpassed it in beauty, proportion and all other elements of fine modern architecture […].” Thanks partly to such high praise and in ironic contrast to the rarity suggested by Mr. Murphy, thousands of these very storefronts were distributed throughout the country. ‘Never’ turned into ‘quite often.’ ‘Anywhere’ became ‘everywhere.’
The projects themselves showcased the impressive geographic distribution and variety of façade designs ranging from a row of one-story storefronts of John Smith Hardware Co. in Waitsburg, Washington, to the gargantuan four-story Arnold Block on Michigan’s Mackinac Island, perhaps the largest Mesker façade ever completed. All but one of the projects—Cauyga Canning Works from Cayuga, Indiana—chosen for the insert remained relevant enough to be reproduced yet again in the 1905 testimonials catalog. Most likely Cayuga would have been included as well but the 1905 catalog limited projects from Indiana due to sheer number of fronts Mesker sold in the state.
And where are members of this distinguished Class of 1902 today? Sadly, most have been demolished for various reasons with the exception of the F.W. Freeman Building (Del Norte, CO), E.G. Brown Building (New Milford, CT), C.W. Murphy Building (Salem, IN), Arnold Block (Mackinac Island, MI), and the Coyner & Coiner Building (Berryville, VA). Hopefully, these soon to be 113-year olds can stick around for a bit longer.
As for the catalog insert, its survival is nothing short of miraculous. Unlike the buildings, which have a vital function, why would anyone see the need to hang on to these four pages for 112 years? I’m glad that someone did. The catalog, as a medium, is critical to understanding the significance of Mesker products and other pre-fabricated architectural components of the last 150 years and the little insert is an important milestone on that continuum. Perhaps there are other such gems still to be rediscovered.
While an image of the Freeman Building in Del Norte, Colorado, could not be located, the building is visible in Google Streetview. It stands on the northeast corner of Grand and Columbia Avenues.