Embossed scroll G

151 W. Broadway, Sparta, Illinois, with a full iron front by Mesker Brothers Iron Works, St. Louis, Missouri. Between the upper story windows and the cornice lies a continuous scroll pattern referred to by Mesker as “embossed scroll G.”

Many of the ornament motifs that were used by Mesker Brothers Iron Works for their metal facades are very distinctive, instantly betraying their maker without the need of any other identifying marks. Others are less obviously original and more typical of the era and work of other manufacturers. However, no matter how common they may appear, their origins are anything but, as in the case of a pattern referred to as “embossed scroll G.”

A recently reexamined artifact—thanks to friend, historian and fellow Mesker-connoisseur Dennis Au—suggests yet another French influence on Mesker ornamentation (seashell from Amboise and fish panels are the others that we’ve explored previously, though the ubiquitous fleur-de-lis should not go unmentioned). At some unknown date in late 19th century, Mesker Brothers Iron Works were in possession of a circa 1875 catalog of stamped metal ornamentation by a Parisian manufacturer E. Coutelier. Titled “Ornements Estampes & Repousses,” the 241-page album is replete with the company’s fashionable ornamentation executed in zinc, copper, sheet metal and lead. Mesker Brothers stamped the bottom of each page with the company name—for reasons unknown but likely just to indicate ownership of the catalog—but more importantly annotated certain designs that they clearly liked. One of them, on plate 63, was Cheneaux (or molding) No. 934, depicting a continuous plantlike scroll. Mesker’s note read: “Should have die for this scroll 8” wide, 12” wide, 18” wide.” Whether it means that they should already have the die or that they should have it made, is unclear.

Cover of Ornements, Estampes & Repousses, a circa 1875 catalog of embossed sheet-metal designs by E. Coutelier of Paris, France. The catalog was in the possession of Mesker Brothers Iron Works and served as inspiration for some of their designs. Collection of Dennis Au (original at the Missouri History Museum).
Plate 63 of Ornements Estampes & Repousses, depicting molding designs. No. 934 and No. 1154 were annotated by Mesker Brothers Iron Works. Collection of Dennis Au (original at the Missouri History Museum).
Comparison of Cheneaux No. 934 by E. Coutelier of Paris, France (top) and embossed scroll G by Mesker Brothers Iron Works, St. Louis, Missouri (bottom; as it appears at 20 E. Depot in Chesterfield, Illinois). Mesker simplified and mirrored the French pattern.

Ultimately, Mesker Brothers turned Cheneaux No. 934 into a horizontal cornice molding named “new embossed G” or “embossed scroll G,” the letter G being Mesker’s internal naming designation as indicated in the company’s surviving accounting records. Mesker’s adaptation of the scroll was cleaner and less fussy from its French antecedent, achieved with a single, and therefore less expensive, embossing. While this was a new G, it didn’t supplant the “old”—the very popular design was not an embossed piece but rather had a continuous row of applied zinc rosettes and continued to be made along with the new scroll G. (To confuse matters further, the records also include information on the “embossed big G” which was 28 ½” tall and featured a completely different embossed pattern; it was also used for ceilings.) This nomenclature was unimportant to anyone outside of Mesker Brothers Iron Works and was maintained internally for inventory tracking and accounting purposes, although it may also have been tied to the façade erection instructions that were provided with every front; the letters were painted onto the back side of the metal at the factory.

According to said accounting records, or Ben’s Bible, the 24-inch tall cornice panel began as a flat 30-inch sheet of galvanized metal and took its final form after a series of crimping, setting dies, embossing, pricking (transferring the pattern onto the metal), and performing 9 bends. Each of these labor operations were meticulously tracked for length of time, along with the material costs to determine the final expense of manufacturing the panels. The first embossed scroll G panels were stamped in 1900 on a No. 4 Double Crank “Bliss” press (made by E.W. Bliss Company of New York) in an edition of 116 10-foot panels or 1,160 linear feet. Another 250 panels were completed by the end of the year. Between 1900 and 1912, Mesker produced a total of 4,041 panel sheets, equaling 40,410 linear feet. That’s enough for over 1,800 cornices or iron fronts of typical Main Street building width.

105 S. First St., Clarksville, Missouri. Embossed scroll G panels above the storefront. Image courtesy of the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office.
Detailed financial records regarding production of the new embossed G from 1900 to 1912. From Ben’s Bible, page 668. Image courtesy of David Mesker (original at the National Building Arts Center, Sauget, Illinois).

Scroll G was always a very popular Mesker façade piece. The year 1906 saw a peak of 600 sheets/6,000 linear feet of scroll G production, while in the company’s 1910 catalog, 19 of 54 façade designs depicted utilized the motif. The panel’s unbroken, gently undulating quality and prominent placement between the windows and the main cornice, provided an important transition between the vertical emphasis of the former and the horizontality of the latter. And as long as customers liked it, Mesker could keep stamping it.

In more recent news, the pattern has been reproduced and may be available for restoration or new installation purposes. In the early 2000s, W.F. Norman Corporation of Nevada, Missouri, had made a die for the scroll and reproduced damaged or missing pieces for a 1903 bank building in Clarksville, Missouri. While the pattern itself was faithfully reproduced, the width of the sheet-metal panel is much smaller than the 10-foot original which results in more vertical seams across the façade. It is perhaps the only way to distinguish the new from the old. Although not part of the stock inventory, anyone interested in reproduction pieces of the scroll—as well as one of the seashell patterns, which too was reproduced for the same building—can reference the project at 102-106 S. Second Street in Clarksville when contacting W.F. Norman. When they do, however, they probably shouldn’t ask for a “scroll G.” Chances are no one will understand that sort of early 1900s Mesker shoptalk.

Scroll panel G at the Plumas County Museum, salvaged from the Steel Front Store at 519 Main Street in Quincy, California. Image courtesy of Roger Waguespack.
102-106 S. Second St., Clarksville, Missouri. The Mesker Brothers cornice of this 1903 bank building was reproduced by W.F. Norman of Nevada, Missouri. Dies were made for stamping the scroll G panels as well as the seashell motif (or the “No. 12 New Bracket & Shell Cornice” as referred to in Ben’s Bible) above. Image courtesy of the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office.
Closer view of the “embossed scroll G” and “No. 12 New Bracket & Shell Cornice” patterns reproduced by W.F. Norman. Distinguishable only from up close is the smaller width and resulting repeating seams between the reproduction panels as compared to the 10-foot Mesker-made originals. Image courtesy of the Illinois State Historic Preservation Office.

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