Monday, December 26, 2016

Detroit Tobacco Industry Once Known as the Tampa of the North

The following is a guest post researched and written by Mark Lawrence Gade, a Michigan State University graduate and Detroit history enthusiast and docent.



Only four years after becoming a state, the tobacco industry in Michigan got its start when George Miller became the first tobacconist in the city of Detroit in 1841. By the 1850s--with the help of New York's Erie Canal--many Germans migrated to Detroit. These Germans enjoyed smoking and knew how to produce excellent cigars; soon they dominated the city's industry.

Raw material was nearby in Southwestern Ontario. The Canadians produced a high-quality tobacco crop in sandy and silt-loam soil. With tobacco so close at hand, demand for Detroit's quality wrapped cigars turned a cottage industry into an early form of mass production employing thousands of workers throughout the Detroit area.

Long before Henry Ford's assembly-line, the cigar industry deconstructed the rolling of cigars into specialized tasks. Each worker performed one part of the process, so few people had the skill to make a whole cigar. Baskets or crates of cigars were moved from station to station down long tables. The process was efficient and Detroit cigars became known for their consistent quality.  


Then came the American Civil War and the soldier's high demand for tobacco products. To the Yankee or Rebel soldier, tobacco represented the convenience and consolation of home. The hand-rolled cigarette was still an item of luxury, but the cigar represented victory, and the pipe comfort and solace. Soldiers North and South often relaxed by chomping on rich, gooey plugs of chewing tobacco or by smoking delicate clay pipes before, during, and after battles. Much of this tobacco was processed and packaged in Detroit.


Sixteenth governor of the State of Michigan (1873-1877) John Judson Bagley moved to Detroit in 1847. In his early twenties, he started his working career as a humble apprentice in a small chewing tobacco shop. After seven years, he bought the business and renamed it Mayflower Tobacco Company turning his company into an industry leader. Bagley manufactured a rectangular form of chewing tobacco in a tin with a friction-fitted lid that became an industry standard. Bagley made a fortune and helped make Detroit a leader in the manufacture of tobacco products.

At the turn of the twentieth-century, the tobacco industry employed many young women--mostly Polish immigrants. In 1913, the ten largest Detroit tobacco companies employed 302 men and 3,896 women, making the cigar industry the largest employer of women in the city. The process of hand rolling cigars was labor intensive and involved some skill. Too tight and the cigar would not draw properly, too loose and the cigar fell apart. Although women were not organized into labor unions, they were able to make $25 to $40 a week. That was a good wage a hundred years ago.


A cigar company sit-down strike.
On June 26, 1916, Detroit's San Telmo Company signed a contract with its unionized male cigar makers giving them a significant pay increase. The women wanted equal pay for equal work. Three days later, women at the Lilies Cigar Company walked off the job. Soon there were strikes shutting down all the major Detroit cigar producers. Through their united action, women workers achieved some of their demands.

The center of the tobacco industry remained in the North until the 1920s. When Prohibition went into effect with the passage of the nineteenth amendment in 1920, the major marketplace for cigars--saloons and hotel bars--were closed and the social patterns of America were shaken.

Patent office drawing of automatic cigarette making machine.
But the writing was on the wall for Detroit's cigar and tobacco industry. The invention of the automatic cigarette rolling machine in 1881 reduced demand for cigars and other tobacco products. James Albert Bonsack's machine was patented and installed throughout many Southern states causing a shift in the tobacco industry away from the North. Inexpensive mass-produced cigarettes were all the rage in the fast approaching twentieth century. Detroit's ambition shifted too--towards the automobile business which would revolutionize the new century.

In 1966, the last cigar manufacturer in Detroit--Schwartz-Wemmer-Gilbert--closed its doors. Detroit was once home to thirty-eight tobacco companies.

Another German dominated industry in Detroit was the brewing of beer. Here is the story of the Strohs family: http://fornology.blogspot.com/2015/02/detroits-strohs-brewing-company-with.html

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Merry Christmas History From The Ford Rotunda


Over a period of twenty-seven years, the Ford Rotunda hosted over 16.5 million visitors. In the 1950's, it was the fifth most popular tourist attraction in the United States. 

The building was ten stories tall. Its steel and aluminum framework was covered with Indiana Limestone to match the Ford Motor Company's Administration Building across Schaefer Road. The building resembled four gear wheels stacked in decreasing size from the top to bottom.

It was originally built for the Chicago World's Fair and opened to the public on May 14, 1934. After the fair was over, the building was reconstructed on a site in Dearborn, Michigan and used as Ford's World Headquarters for a brief time. The building was closed to the public during World War Two and used as a tech center for military training.  



The Ford Rotunda was reopened on June 16th, 1953 to celebrate Ford Motor Company's fiftieth year in business. It was used as an exhibition center displaying all the recent models of Ford automobiles. In addition to a Test Drive Track ride which circled the building, other exhibits were The City of Tomorrow, The Hall of Science, and something called The Drama of Transportation.

Fifty-one years ago on November 9, 1962, the roof was being waterproofed with hot tar in preparation for the annual Christmas Fantasy exhibition. The roof caught fire and within an hour, the building had burned down. The nine year long holiday tradition came to an end. 


Those of us from the Detroit area who grew up when the Rotunda was in its heyday, namely we Baby Boomers, sadly remember the passing of this great Christmas tradition.


For a video presentation of the Ford Rotunda from the Dearborn Historical Society, view this link: http://vimeo.com/46364168

For more detailed history of the Ford Rotunda, consult this link: http://automotivemileposts.com/autobrevity/fordrotunda.html

Monday, December 12, 2016

Ypsilanti's Hutchinson House Built with S&H Green Stamp Fortune

In 1896, Thomas A. Sperry and Shelley Byron Hutchinson went into the S&H Green Stamp business together. The New York Times business section described this newly formed company "the first independent trading stamp company to distribute stamps and books to merchants."

Not much is known about Mr. Sperry. He was an Easterner. His home was destroyed by fire in 1912, with damages estimated to be $150,000. He was an avid art collector and a number of valuable paintings went up in flames. A year later, Sperry contracted ptomaine poisoning on a return ocean cruise from Europe. When he returned to the United States, he was so ill he couldn't travel to his home in Cranford, New Jersey. He was forty-nine years old when he died.

Sperry's brother, William Miller Sperry, inherited his brother's business interests and gained control of the company. In 1921, Shelley Hutchinson sued the estate of Thomas A. Sperry alleging that Sperry defrauded him of his full share of dividends to the tune of $5,000,000. Secret funds were diverted from company funds to Sperry. Hutchinson won the suit. The founders' family successors sold the franchise in 1981.


Much more in known about Shelley Hutchinson. His grandparents were among the first settlers in Ypsilanti, Michigan, still little more than a frontier outpost. Shelley's father Stephen Hutchinson married Loretta Jaycox on November 26, 1862. Shelley was born two years later in a log cabin in Superior Township on October 19, 1864. From 1874 until 1894, the Hutchinsons lived in a four room wood frame house at 509 N. River Street, across the street from the Champlain mansion. As a kid, he attended the Union School through the eighth grade--a typical education for a nineteenth-century boy.

Shelley was ambitious and intelligent. While working at a family shoe business with his father and brother in Battle Creek, Michigan, in the 1880s, he conjured up the idea for a trading stamp business he could promote to merchants as a customer retention program. On a small scale, the idea was promising, so a regional headquarters was established in Jackson, Michigan, chosen for its central location between the state's eastern and western borders.

Three years later, Hutchinson met Sperry in New York--an Easterner with money and business connections. Soon after they went into business, stamp redemption centers sprung up in many of Michigan's major cities. With early success, the promotion was expanded eventually growing into a nationwide coast-to-coast business concern. Sperry and Hutchinson made money hand over fist.

Shelley Hutchinson met Clara Unsinger, who was a stenographer in the company. Clara was the granddaughter of an Ypsilanti deacon. They were married on April 27, 1894. By the turn of the century, Hutchinson had amassed enough money to build his dream house. He considered building in New York, but his father urged him to build in Ypsilanti to be reunited with family and friends.

Feeling a boyhood affinity for the area, Hutchinson decided to build his thirty-room Richardsonian Revival mansion across the street from where he grew up--the site of the deteriorating Champlain mansion on the corner of North River and East Forest streets. Construction began in 1902 and was completed in 1904. Hutchinson called his mansion Casa Loma--Spanish for house on the hill. The site was believed to be Ypsilanti's highest point--on the east side anyway. He moved in with his wife, three children, parents, and brothers and sisters.

See the link below for more views of the house.

Building his mansion on Ypsilanti's east side was a social mistake for the wealthy millionaire. The Huron River was the town's dividing line. The east side was the working class neighborhood, and the west side was primarily for the wealthy and social elite. Hutchinson was never accepted into Ypsilanti high society because he was "new money" and shunned the "old money" denizens. He and his wife Clara rode around town in a fine phaeton carriage with matching horses. The newly rich pair wore only the finest clothes, and the "Stamp King" wore a silk top hat. During the height of his success, Hutchinson bought diamonds by the pocketful from Tiffany's in New York.

In an early undated Ypsilanti Daily Press article, the reporter wrote a "rags to riches" story about Hutchinson. Quoting merchant A.A. Bedell, "Hutchinson was always immaculate in dress, dark haired and handsome. One day, he stood in (my shoe store in Depot Town) and a shaft of light struck his diamonds, a glittering array. He had half-caret diamonds in each cuff link and wore two diamond rings, one of three carets and one between seven and eight. His shirt stud had a three and a half-caret stone." People said when Hutchinson walked in the sunshine, he sparkled.

But the domestic situation at Casa Loma was less than stellar. The Detroit News reported on July 3, 1906, that Mrs. Hutchinson deserted "the mansion on the hill" in anger taking her three children with her to live with neighbors across the street at 629 N. River Street. Clara had had it with her Hutchinson inlaws and complained to the reporter that she was forced from her home penniless--except for some diamonds she left with. Hutchinson's father and sister publically claimed they wished Clara would return to manage the place. As for her husband, Shelley retreated and went south for his health. The domestic situation was intolerable for him too.

As the story goes, Shelley had been gravely ill and entrusted his wife with his diamonds. Upon recoverery, he asked for them back. Clara refused saying he gave them to her. She hid the diamonds away, but while she was sleeping one night, her husband found her hiding place. Shelley locked the diamonds in a tin box and placed them in his roll-top desk in his locked home office. Two could play at that game. Clara took her husband's key and unlocked the office door. After a brief search, she found the tin box and opened it with a can opener. Then she left the mansion taking her children.

The Ypsilanti Daily Press reported on January 14, 1910, that a divorce was granted giving Clara custody of the three children, $9,000 cash paid out over five years, and her husband's diamonds. She sold the largest one to a neighbor and the rest to a diamond broker in Detroit. In 1912, Hutchinson's mansion was sold at public auction to the Ypsilanti Savings Bank to satisfy an unpaid mortgage and back taxes. The home is now used for a commercial property and houses several businesses.

In an Ypsilanti Press interview in 1955, the ninety-one-year-old Hutchinson was living in New York. He was quoted as saying, "Some of the people (in Ypsilanti) were jealous of me because of the big house, but they had no reason to be. I was good to everybody." Shelley Hutchinson returned to Ypsilanti one last time time in 1961 for burial in a family plot at Highland Cemetery--several blocks north of his mansion. He was ninety-seven.


Most people in Ypsilanti are familiar with the outside of the Hutchinson House but have never seen the interior. Check out this link to see just how extravagant it is. https://www.flickr.com/photos/sjb4photos/sets/72157622572604360/

For more detailed information about the Hutchinson family, read Janice Anschuetz's article "River Street Neighbor's Gossip and the Hutchinson Marriage," which appeared in the Ypsilanti Historical Society's September 27, 2010, newsletter Ypsilanti Gleanings. http://ypsigleanings.aadl.org/ypsigleanings/37044

Monday, December 5, 2016

S&H Green Stamps--Emblem of a Bygone Age



Sperry and Hutchinson Company were the originators of S&H Green Stamps, as much an American cultural icon as anything. The company began offering redemption stamps to American retailers in 1896. Stores bought the stamps and offered them as bonuses based on the dollar amount of the purchase. S&H Green Stamps was the earliest retail customer loyalty program selling and distributing stamps and books to merchants. With a unidirectional cash flow, this shoppers' incentive made its originators multi-millionaires.

Stamps were issued in denominations of 1, 10, and 50 points. Stamp pages were perforated with glue on the reverse side to mount in twenty-four page collector booklets. Each booklet contained 1,200 points. Reward gifts were based on the number of filled books required to obtain the object. Green Stamps had no real cash value.

S&H Green Stamps could be obtained at supermarkets, department stores, and gas stations. Completed booklets could be redeemed at one of 800 distribution centers located around the country. Most popular in the early 1960s, S&H boasted that its reward catalog was the largest publication in the United States. They issued three times more stamps than the United States Postal Service.

Economic recessions in the 1970s reduced sales and decreased the value of the rewards. Shoppers began to see the stamps as not worth the trouble, and stores started to drop out of the program. In 1981, the founders' successors sold the business.

Green Stamps entered the realm of pop art iconography when Andy Warhol used a three step silkscreen process to print a 23"x22.75" canvas in 1962. Three years later, he used offset lithography to print the classic green stamp images on forty-nine 7'x7' panels to act as wallpaper within a gallery exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in Philadelphia. A single panel recently sold at auction for $6,250.


S&H Green Stamp founders Thomas Sperry and Shelly Byron Hutchinson are the subject of my next post. Hutchinson was from Ypsilanti, Michigan, and became the town's richest self-made man.

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