Paper Ephemera: Windows into the Schwamb Mill’s Work Culture

Seventh in an occasional series of Schwamb Shares

During the course of a tour of the Old Schwamb Mill objects such as tools, machines and historical artifacts are the main attraction. A less evident, parallel display of paper items affixed to the Mill’s walls also deserves our attention.

visitors with eagle eyes can spot political cartoons, advertisements, pin-ups, and safety reminders that are a window into various aspects of the Charles Schwamb and Son’s day-to-day work culture. These vintage items are easy to overlook because in many instances they are faded, torn and only faintly legible. These mementos take the form of newspaper clippings, business cards, package labels and the like, illustrating the interests of the Schwamb mill’s late nineteenth to mid twentieth century male workforce. Tangible reminders of beer, women, sports and politics speak to after work pastimes.

The paper ephemera set forth below are a small sampling of the Old Schwamb Mill’s rich inventory of paper items.

James Roosevelt Political Cartoon

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s oldest son James Roosevelt (1907-1991) provided key support, literally and figuratively, to his polio-afflicted father. James served as an aide who helped FDR walk short distances and stand up to make speeches at political rallies. James was his father’s point person in Massachusetts during the 1932 presidential campaign, a state that FDR won easily in part because of his son’s connections with alumni from the Groton School and Harvard University as well as his friendship with the powerful financier Joseph P. Kennedy.

James also held numerous influential government positions during FDR’s second term which lead to charges of nepotism in the opposition media of the day, complete with unflattering depictions of James in newspaper political cartoons like the one that is affixed to an old shipping department wall in the Old Schwamb Mill.

The (illegible-Boston?) Herald political cartoon of November 1937 takes James Roosevelt to task for the recent growth of his power and influence within the President’s immediate circle.  The cartoon depicts the 30-year-old James as a school boy in plaid knickers and clunky oversize shoes opening a door and peering into a room—possibly the White House’s Oval Office. Above the satirical drawing is the heading “James’ New Job.” Under the illustration a caption reads, “Paw theres some big shot out here — want me to handle ’em?”

James Roosevelt
Roosevelt as a Marine Corps lieutenant colonel in
World War II

James Roosevelt was considered among his father’s most important counselors. Indeed Time magazine suggested he might be considered “Assistant President of the United States.” In this capacity he was charged with coordinating eighteen federal agencies. After FDR’s reelection to a second term in 1936, the President was emboldened to bring his oldest son into his administration in a more official role. On  July 1, 1937, he was appointed Secretary to the President. In this capacity he was charged with coordinating eighteen federal agencies in October 1937.

Whether a Schwamb family member or a worker glued the cartoon to the wall is not known, but the thrust of this political satire is in line with the Schwambs’ skepticism for New Deal programs such as National Recovery Act. Regulation of small businesses from Washington was new in the 1930s. National corporations had more clout as production and pricing goals were drawn up, leaving Main Street businesses scrambling to keep up with rules and paperwork unknown just a few years before. Many businesses that had successfully accommodated state safety and labor laws now faced new ones from Washington. The Schwamb corporation’s Depression-era annual meeting notes that none but “chiselers” could expect to get ahead under such regulation.

Other clippings and cartoons looking askance at the New Deal and the Roosevelts adorn walls on the Mill’s second floor, in addition to the Warren Harding banner / dust screen featured in an earlier Schwamb Share.

Adams Express Label

Pasted on to the north wall of the space now used as a prep room for Mill receptions is a small rectangular label advertising Adams Express of New York City. The Schwamb ledgers show that they sometimes used the services of this company to deliver picture frames and mouldings to far-flung customers during the early twentieth century. The simple, straightforward lettering and bold font evident in the advertisement is of vintage graphic design interest. The advertisement locates the company at 684 Broadway in Manhattan.

The Adams Express Company was founded in 1854 as a freight and cargo transport business. The beginning of the company is rooted in the initiative of Alvin Adams who began carrying letters, small packages and valuables for patrons between New York City and Worcester, Mass. He rapidly expanded his delivery routes to points as far away as Philadelphia and southern cities. By 1850, he was shipping packages by rail and stagecoach to St. Louis.

The company even aided the anti-slavery cause during the years preceding the Civil War. Adams Express was used by abolitionist groups in the 1840s to deliver anti-slavery newspapers from northern publishers to southern states. In 1849, a Richmond, Virginia, slave named nick-named Henry Box Brown shipped himself north to Philadelphia and freedom via Adams Express. In 1855, the company was reorganized as the Adams Express Company.

The company’s antebellum employment of Allan Pinkerton to solve its robbery problems paved the way for the separate and noted Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Along with the other express shipping companies, Adams Express’s shipping interests were forcibly merged by President Woodrow Wilson into the American Railway Express Company which later became the Railway Express Agency. Since 1929, Adams Express has operated as a closed-end fund, (NYSE: ADX), located in Baltimore, Maryland. Effective March 31, 2015, the company changed its name to Adams Diversified Equity Fund in recognition of the fact that its express activities had long ended; it continues to operate as a closed-end fund traded on the New York Stock Exchange under its previous symbol.

Highland Spring Brewery Advertisement

Glued to a wall near the northeast corner of the former shipping department on the Mill’s second floor (now part of the art galleries) is a newspaper ad advertising Highland Spring Ale. The ad is typical of the varied Highland Brewery ads of the mid-1890s.

The ad has a long rectangular orientation with a line drawing illustration depicting a stout and jolly bartender or tapster turning a substantial keg’s spigot to fill a tall mug with ale. Above the bartender and keg bold black letters proclaim “Ale that is Ale. Highland Spring” Below the illustration is Highland’s usual advertising directive: “Ask Your Tapster For It.” A partially legible stanza of a poem can be seen (available in full from the Historical Boston Globe online):

When I’m perplexed, worn out and vexed,
And earthly joys seen few,
I take a glass of STERLING ALE,
And so, my friend, should you.
Then haunting care, and dark despair,
Like phantoms flee away,
And peace and comfort come to me
When fades the light of day.

Set forth at the bottom of the label is the brewery’s name: Rueter & Co., Incorporated. Highland Spring Brewery Fine Ales and Porter Exclusively, BOSTON, MASS.

The question remains did one of the Schwamb workers clip this newspaper ad and fix it to the wall in anticipation of after work “down time”?

In the 1800’s, Boston was known as a mecca of beer in America, boasting scores of breweries and crafted beers throughout the booming industrial age — even more so with the advent of commercially produced ice (used in the process of making lager beer) and the steam engine (helpful in nearly every aspect of running a brewery). The Highland Spring Brewery was one of 22 breweries built between 1870 and 1890 in Boston, with most of these enterprises located in the Mission Hill and Jamaica Plain neighborhoods.

In 1867, Henry A. Reuter and John R. Alley, brewers from Germany and Ireland, opened the Highland Spring Brewery. By 1872 it was the largest brewery in the United States that produced only ale and porter. In 1876, Reuter and Alley’s ale won a coveted gold medal at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition. The Highland Spring Brewery is known to be one of the first breweries to add refrigeration machinery to its plant. In 1885, Reuter and Alley split, leaving Reuter to carry on the ale and porter business. The Highland Springs Brewery closed in 1919 with the advent of prohibition. The former Highland Spring Brewery plant is partially intact on Terrace Street in the Mission Hill section of Roxbury.

Pin-up Girls

Schwamb workers probably affixed images of mid -20th century pinup girls — both real and fanciful — to several walls on the second floor. Sedate by today’s anything-goes standards, several examples of pin-ups clipped from newspapers reside in second floor spaces. For example, to the right of the frame show room’s window are newspaper clippings that probably date to the mid-1940s to early 1950s. The more intact of the clippings depict bathing suit clad beauties splashing around in shallow water while a second clipping exhibits an evening gown-clad Esther Williams (1921-2013).

Esther Jane Williams was an American competitive swimmer and actress. Unable to compete in the 1940 Summer Olympics because of the outbreak of World War II, she joined Billy Rose’s Aquacade in New York City. While in the city, she spent five months swimming alongside Olympic gold medal winner and Tarzan star Johnny Weissmuller. The powers that be in Hollywood took note of Williams’s performances at the Acquacade, and soon she won roles in Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer movies. During the 1940s and 1950s, her chemistry with Van Johnson played out through five films, and during that period she was famous for her “aquamusicals.” The Mill’s Esther Williams newspaper clipping shows her in a “swim-tested one-piece” above a one word caption lead-in: CURVACEOUS.

Disappointing might be the caption for the remnants of a ca. early 1960s, 8 ½ x 11 inch watercolor illustration that apparently was torn from the pages of a Playboy magazine. While a woman’s face and mane of blond hair is mostly in evidence all that remains of the lower part of the page is a poem which reads: “The girl with gloves has many loves/ She’s the perfect New York Baby/To every man in the month (torn away)/She never says no, just maybe.”

The illustration was one of hundreds created for Playboy magazine between 1959 and 1974 by the Peruvian artist and illustrator Joaquin Alberto Vargas y Chávez who moved to the United States in 1916 after studying art in Europe. In New York City he was hired as an artist for the Ziegfield Follies and in Los Angeles as an artist for Hollywood studios. During the 1940s and 1950s he worked for Esquire where he created iconic World War II era pin-ups that became known as Vargas Girls. While at Esquire, he met Hugh Hefner who worked for the magazine and who would later hire him to keep churning out Vargas Girls for Playboy. Vargas came out of retirement in 1979 to create album covers for the Cars and Bernadette Peters. Vargas was a respected illustrator whose work is in the collections of American art museums.

Safety Reminder

If you are familiar with the Mill’s front staircase that ascends from the shop floor to the second floor art galleries you will undoubtedly recall the single-minded care that is needed to traverse it because of the height of the risers and the need for a strong grip on the ancient wooden handrail. Overstating the need to take care on the Schwamb stairs is an 8 ½ x 11 inch safety reminder located to the right of the French doors that open into the frame show room.

This safety reminder illustrates both the incorrect and correct approaches to navigating the stairs. Issued by the Liberty Mutual Insurance Company – possibly during the 1950s (judging by its Mid Century Modern design), the imagery is intentionally amusing with workers depicted in a series of mid falls with the following names: Swan Dive, Flying Dutchman, Cart Wheel and Tailspin. To the right of the vertical column illustrating how not to use the stairs is a single dominant image of a worker walking upright, successfully descending the staircase with a hand firmly gripping the stair rail.

As a young man in the 1920s, Elmer Schwamb himself slipped on the Mill’s old staircase (a fact captured in an accident report). Happily, our construction of a much more user friendly staircase in 2015 linking the first floor visitors center with the second floor exhibit spaces has given the original staircase a secondary role.

Edward W. Gordon, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.

The Mill’s paper ephemera were first written about by Andy Metzger “Inside the Mill, Years Past, Jotted Down,” Arlington Advocate, August 6, 2009.

This period of museum closures due to the COVID-19 is a challenge for non-profits like the Old Schwamb Mill. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated at this time. We look forward to reopening soon!

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