“Away in the distant future
When backwards you turn your thoughts
Remember the Office of Mesker & Bro.
And its merry associates”
—T.A. Myers, Ben’s Bible, February 1, 1891
There is only one Bible with a capital B, though many disciplines and interests have their own versions of authoritative text that are the bibles of their respective fields, whatever they may be. Think “Betty Crocker’s Cookbook” or, more aptly for preservationists, Virginia McAlester’s “Field Guide to American Houses” (I implore you not to send me angry messages if you disagree with my examples; they’re just examples!). The Mesker Brothers had something similar. Referred to as Ben’s Bible—after Bernard “Ben” Mesker, who along with his brother Frank co-founded Mesker Brothers Iron Works—this massive and incredibly detailed accounting journal was maintained from 1887 until the late 1920s and contains financial records regarding every aspect of production, including marketing and labor costs, cost of raw goods and transportation, as well as gross sales and profits. In addition to its obvious record-keeping function the journal is scattered with various articles, economic prognoses, notes, and even advertisements of similar products from other companies, all meant to serve as inspiration and reference for continued improvement of product marketing, development and sales.
The hard-bound volume consists of over 1,100 ruled pages and most are packed with so much data—yet somehow remain very legible, itself an amazing feat in the pre-digital era—that I could easily devote an analytical blog post to each. Majority are devoted to single items such as cornices, skylights or army ranges, while others contain information about disparate and unrelated items, entered into the journal decades apart. But all are meticulously organized and inscribed, offering a clear view at Meskers’ efficiency in production as well as accounting methods. It’s impossible to choose just one example to illustrate the point but just one glance at the diagrams of train car-load shipments of steel door frames from 1912 (page 489 below) and you should be convinced that this book is nothing short of inspired divinity.
As amazing and detailed as Ben’s Bible is, it is merely a summary of the company’s activities. The book itself contains an index of additional journals, binders, ledgers, shelves, cabinet drawers, and safes that contained detailed information about each job or contract, only some of which are referenced in the book directly, and if so, usually just by contract or job number. Unfortunately, these additional and job-specific records have been destroyed, which means that we will never be able to fully resurrect the specific details of Mesker fronts sales or distribution.
In contrast to THE Bible or any other definitive handbook or primer, Ben’s Bible was maintained for internal reference only and as such has not been seen, read, or studied by very many people. This was not one of Mesker’s catalogs, copied in the thousands and distributed throughout America. It was and remains a one of a kind manuscript. Edition of one. Thanks to the generosity of the amazing David Mesker, now deceased Ben’s grandnephew, I’ve had the pleasure to see the book in person on more than one occasion and to look through the yellowed, oversized pages with unsurpassed reverence but limited comprehension of the breadth of its contents. During that time, I’ve copied or transcribed only a few notes and figures pertaining to the sales of facades, which were organized annually and by state; I quote these often when reporting on milestone Mesker identifications. Thankfully, David had the book digitized and forwarded me a copy of the scans, permitting a detailed study and continual reference throughout future research. Since David’s passing, the original resides in the collection of the National Building Arts Center in Sauget, Illinois.
Below is just a sampling of the more visually interesting pages—while illustrations are common, they are usually small and not as excessive as in the examples below—but be assured that the future references to this amazing book will be many. I swear it on Ben’s Bible.
All images courtesy of David Mesker (original at the National Building Arts Center, Sauget, Illinois).