The Old Man of the Mountain Frames

Twelfth in an occasional series of Schwamb Shares.

The Clinton W. Schwamb Company, like its predecessor Charles Schwamb and Son, manufactured frames for retailers such as frame shops, furniture stores, and galleries. One of the Schwambs’ strengths was making specialty items to the exact specifications of their customers. On a tour in 2011, Wayne Schwamb, who worked with his father Elmer at the Mill in the 1950s and 1960s, pointed to one such item: the Old Man of the Mountain frame.

Schwamb Mill’s sample of Old Man of the Mountain frame with detail, pattern, and wholesale pricing information in pencil. This shows the frame from the reverse side (OSM collection)

The profile of the Old Man can be seen on either side of this panel frame with oval site. From his father Elmer and grandfather Clinton, Wayne Schwamb understood this to be an item for the New Hampshire tourist trade. He tells us that since his grandfather’s time, the family frequently went to the White Mountains. We have Clinton Schwamb’s Appalachian Mountain Club trail guide from 1918 in the archives.

Appalachian Mountain Club guide, signed by Clinton W. Schwamb, and trail maps of the White Mountains, 1916-1917 (OSM archives)

The Old Man of the Mountain frames were made for the Shorey Studio, a business run by Guy L. Shorey  (1881-1961) in Gorham, New Hampshire. Shorey was a pioneering photographer of the White Mountains, capturing images from the trails and peaks, as well as panoramas of the ranges. As a working photographer, he also documented life in New Hampshire in the early twentieth century.

An excellent exhibit on Guy Shorey can be viewed online at the Museum of the White Mountains, Plymouth State University.

The Shorey Studio included the Gorham shop and a Tea Room in Randolph, New Hampshire. Guy Shorey’s brother ran a similar shop in Lancaster, New Hampshire. The shops sold postcards and prints of Shorey’s work. Framed Shorey prints can be found in antique stores and on various online re-sale and auction sites, usually with the characteristic green-and-white Shorey Studio label on the back.

Starting in 1913, the Shorey Studio regularly purchased oak moulding from the Schwambs, in a variety of widths, from 3 inches to less than an inch, as well as ovals. In 1919, a new item appears in the Schwamb’s order book:

Order for two-piece frame set in the order books of the Clinton W. Schwamb Company (OSM archives)

Translating this from the order book shorthand:

106 gum wood ovals, 3/8” thick, with a site (front opening) 2-5/8 inches wide by 3-7/8 inches tall, and a rabbet (reverse side opening for the print to go in) 2-7/8 inches wide by 4-1/8 inches tall.

105 gum wood blocks, 4-1/2 inches wide by 2-1/8 inches tall, 7/16 inches thick, with a cut inset along the bottom and a moulded profile around the front edge.

Here is an example of the block in the Schwamb’s collection of patterns (with the customer name and the completion date of a later order).

Schwamb Mill sample of wood block used for Shorey Studio’s two-piece Old Man of the Mounatin frame set, 1925. The Schwambs saved sample patterns of customer work, usually recording the customer name and order date.

And from a recent online sale, here is an image of the completed item from the Shorey Studio:

Picture of a two-piece Old man of the Mountain frame set by the Shorey Studio (from item sold in 2019 on Antiques Navigator)

From 1919 to 1932, the Shorey Studio purchased at least 1,700 of this frame set from the Schwambs, then finished the set with Guy Shorey’s photograph of the Old Man of the Mountain and a quote about the Old Man by Daniel Webster:

Men hang out their signs indicative of their respective trades; shoe makers hang out a gigantic shoe; jewelers a monster watch, and the dentist hangs out a gold tooth; but up in the Mountains of New Hampshire, God Almighty has hung out a sign to show that there He makes men.

The Shorey Studio remained a customer of the Schwamb mill until at least the 1940s. At some point, the Schwambs began producing the panel frame with an oval site and profiles of the Old Man of the Mountain on either side. The dimensions of the oval site and rabbet, and the width of the panel, are exactly those of the earlier gum oval two-piece product.

Here is one of these frames as finished by the Shorey Studio:

Old Man of the Mountain panel frame as finished by the Shorey Studio. (Photo from Guy Shorey: Among the White Hills, curated by Dr. Peter Crane, Museum of the White Mountains, Plymouth State University. Permission from Peter Crane, Curator, Gladys Brooks Memorial Library, Mount Washington Observatory, New Hampshire

We have no correspondence between Guy Shorey and the Schwambs. We expect they met at some point because one order gives delivery instructions as “self” – suggesting that either a Schwamb delivered the samples on a trip to New Hampshire or a representative of the Shorey Studio picked them up while in the Boston area. It would be interesting to know if the panel frame with matching Old Man profiles is a design by Guy Shorey or something suggested by the Schwambs.

From Wayne Schwamb, we know of his father and grandfather’s love for the White Mountains. In 1901, Clinton Schwamb, in his early twenties, travelled to Chicago and Denver for a three-week visit to his cousins in those cities. His travel journal often reflects his sense of belonging in New England – “give me the Old Bay State every time.” Perhaps in Guy Shorey, an entrepreneur about Clinton’s age, who built a business and promoted the White Mountains as a destination, he found both a customer and a kindred spirit.

Thanks to Wayne Schwamb for sharing his family’s history and artifacts, and to Peter Crane for permission to show the completed Shorey Studio panel frame. Readers interested in Guy Shorey as a photographer and entrepreneur can visit the online exhibit Guy Shorey: Among the White Hills, curated by Dr. Peter Crane, Museum of the White Mountains, Plymouth State University. Also of interest is the book Among the White Hills: The Life and Times of Guy L. Shorey by Guy A. Gosselin and Susan B. Hawkins, with Foreward by Bradford Washburn. Peter E. Randall, Publisher.

Dermot Whittaker, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.

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!

Edward Schwamb and the Crescent Zouave Fife and Drum Corps

Eleventh in an occasional series of Schwamb Shares.

Today’s Schwamb Shares entry travels outside the mill building to explore some of the cultural life in the small emerging Crescent Hill neighborhood, a section of today’s Arlington Heights established in 1872, several blocks west of the Charles Schwamb mill. A vibrant mix of artisans, recent immigrants, and Boston professionals settled into the new suburban homes off Lowell Street in the evolving Crescent Hill neighborhood. Churches, community halls and a train station brought people—including many Schwamb family members—together there for work, worship services, plays, and music.

After their early joint venture from 1853 to 1862, the three Arlington-based Schwamb brothers—Jacob, Charles, and Theodore—operated independent mills that were nearly contiguous along Mill Brook, offering aid and support to each other. Certainly, the Schwamb Brothers helped one another with their business ventures; after all, the Mill Brook literally connected the mills, a watery metaphor for familial cooperation. After the brook’s waters turned the eighteen-foot diameter waterwheel at the Charles Schwamb mill, it traveled in a channel to the Theodore Schwamb establishment and then downstream to Jacob Schwamb’s smaller mill. So, too, the families grew up mere blocks apart, close to each other and to the burgeoning village center of Arlington Heights.

Above, a somewhat fanciful picture of Arlington Heights in 1884, showing the Charles Schwamb mill (18) and the Theodore Schwamb mill (22). By this time, Jacob Schwamb’s sons William and Edward had a workshop closer to Grove Street on what is now Massachusetts Avenue.

Miss the music at the Old Schwamb Mill? Me too. Listening to Irish fiddles, classical violins or country swing in the honeyed light of the old moulding machine space is a nearly transcendent experience. Music and the Mill seem a heavenly fit.

In fact, for decades, keyboard instruments (including a beautiful piano) were stored away at the Mill. The piano had been given to Carl William Schwamb by Arlington’s First Baptist Church in gratitude for his many acts of musical kindness to the congregation. Whether Carl brought it to the Mill or it made its way there after he and his wife had passed away in not known. It is said that Carl William, the son of Schwamb Mill founder, Charles, much preferred music to milling, although he dutifully joined the family firm in 1875.

The Charles Schwamb Mill was only one, initially the most prosperous, of three Schwamb mills in Arlington in the 1870’s, and Carl William was only one of several musically talented Schwamb cousins. Several second and third generation Schwamb cousins excelled at music. While Carl William played church organ and wrote music curriculum for the Arlington public schools, Peter Schwamb, the MIT-professor son of Theodore, conducted the Follen Church choir, and Eliza Schwamb, Jacob’s youngest daughter, taught piano her entire life.

But none of the younger Schwambs combined entrepreneurial and musical talent as well as Edward, the youngest son of the eldest Schwamb brother Jacob, who managed and led a smashingly successful marching band, the Crescent Zouaves.

The Arlington Heights Crescent Zouave Fife and Drum Corps began in February 1906, nurtured into existence through the efforts of Liverpool native Jac Tucker, a vaudevillian actor. Mrs. Tucker, aka Eva Williams, was known as “the Duse of the varieties,” providing some acting chops to compliment Tucker’s comedic skills in their joint act. Frequently on the bill — they shared the program with W.C. Fields at one Boston performance — at Keith Theaters in Boston and in New York. (Keith’s prided itself on showcasing “high-class vaudeville” like the Williams & Tucker act.)

Keith’s Theater, opposite the Boston Common, 1906. Library of Congress image
Keith’s Theater, located on Washington Street in the Theatre District, 1906. The Keith Theatre is now called the Boston Opera House and was recently restored to its original glory. (Library of Congress image)

The Tuckers lived with Mrs. Tucker’s mother and her sister and husband, the Bushees, who were also show biz folk. They all shared a home on Crescent Hill’s Montague Street next to their house painter, carpenter, and lawyer neighbors.

Tucker Home, 21 Montague Street, Crescent Hill neighborhood, Arlington Heights. Photo by Al Stevens.
Tucker Home, 21 Montague Street, Crescent Hill neighborhood, Arlington Heights. Photo by Al Stevens.

Tucker proposed a marching band to the boys of his Crescent Hill neighborhood, taught them how to fife, and soon instituted regular practices at Union Hall (the top floor of Arlington Coal and Lumber which also housed the community’s library reading room). Shortly thereafter, Edward Schwamb inherited the leadership role, aided by his nephew Walter Schwamb, and was at the helm for the group’s superb inaugural grand performance in the June 1, 1907, parade celebrating Arlington’s centenary.

Buoyed by the rave reviews (and a special $25 prize from the 1907 parade committee), the Crescent Zouaves acquired proper uniforms featuring short jackets, baggy trousers with a sash and a fez-styled hat completed the look.

Crescent Zouves of Arlington, Mass. Edward Schwamb is in the row second from the back, on the right; Walter, his nephew, is in the middle of the third row. OSM Archives image.

The Zouaves’ costume honored Civil War Zouave-uniforms of special units in turn based on guerilla-style North African Berber fighters. The military of many countries adopted the Zouave look as did drill teams, bands and Victorian fashion leaders.

Painting, “Zouave in fight” by Aleksander Raczyński (1822–1889), ca. 1858

Photograph, Willie Bagley, 4 years old, dressed as Zouave drummer boy, 1864. Library of Congress

The 1907 parade was a grand affair and was lavishly documented. Charles Parker, the estimable founder and editor of The Advocate, the town’s newspaper, wrote a town history, Arlington Past and Present; the parade committee published a special booklet, Town of Arlington, One Hundredth Anniversary, for this occasion; and professional photographers liberally documented the parade participants.

This image shows marchers passing through downtown Arlington with the gaily decorated venerable “Eureka” fire engine, the pride of the Arlington Fire Department. More parade images at Digital Commonwealth, Arlington Historical Photograph Collection, c. 1885 – 1992

Most of Arlington’s male notables served on the various committees which organized and oversaw the celebration events, and several Schwambs were involved: Peter Schwamb and Walter Peirce (Theodore’s son-in-law) headed parade sections and Edward served as secretary for the committee as well as being responsible for the music, fireworks and the collation. At the recap banquet after the anniversary events were successfully completed, Edward received a surprise award, a gold pen, for his efforts. Perhaps his achievements with the centenary celebration and the rising prominence of the Zouaves whetted a taste for politics, as he helped organize the town’s Progressive Party town committee in 1913 and was a town meeting member in the 1920’s.

From Arlington, One Hundred Years Anniversary Booklet

The Arlington Heights Crescent Zouave Fife and Drum Corps marched all over New England participating in parades, political events, and firemen musters. When the Arlington cross country team won nationals in 1913, the Zouaves led the parade in their honor, as they did for Arlington High’s exciting state ice hockey championship win in March—the Zouaves escorted Arlington fans on an impromptu midnight march ending with a bonfire at the Town House. They participated regularly in the huge Boston Columbus Day parades, and manager Edward Schwamb booked them into successful gigs at Loew’s South End theaters. The band prospered, even adding a young ladies auxiliary, until the disruptions of the First World War.

Ed Schwamb lived at 1033 Massachusetts Avenue nearly his entire life. It was the site of his father’s small piano case mill and home. After Jacob Schwamb’s death, two Schwamb sons William and Edward, continued the business with their mother, Catherine Gruehling Schwamb, until her death. William and Edward tried many different ventures at the site: screen production, cabinet construction, house painting, paper hanging, and home decorating. After William’s death in 1906, Edward and his sister Eliza continued to live at the same location, which Edward now owned. Eliza taught piano to the youth of Arlington Heights, and Edward restored and sold antique furniture. In the Old Schwamb Mill ledgers there is evidence that in 1908, Edward Schwamb rented space, power, and equipment for his business at the former Charles Schwamb Mill, now in the energetic hands of the third generation, Clinton and Louis Schwamb, Carl William’s two sons.

Entries under the account for Edward W. Schwamb Co. showing rent, power, and sundries, and payments for the same. Ledger, Clinton W. Schwamb Co., OSM archives.

The archives may tell us of machine rentals and business locations, but they don’t tell us if the cousins ever lingered after work to goof off, analyze the choreography for the latest Zouave performance, or maybe even sing a bit of harmony on “Take Me Out To The Ball Game” (the top tune of 1908).

For basic facts about the Schwamb brothers, their journeys to and subsequent lives in America, we are all indebted to Grace Dingee’s history of the Schwamb family and their mills, “Theodore Schwamb and the Era of the German Mills in Arlington.” Copies are still available in the Old Schwamb Mill’s Visitor Center when we are ready to open again. Additional information about the Zouave band and the Tuckers from a Leonard Collins’ column, “Arlington’s Big Band,” vertical file, Robbins Library Local History Room. Finally, accounts of the Tuckers and other colorful residents—like the lawyer— of the early days of the Crescent Hill neighborhood, can be found in Doreen Stevens, Aimee Taberner, and Sarah Burks, Arlington’s Cultural Heights: 1900-1925.

Doreen Stevens, Director, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust

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!

Tin Pan Alley on the Mill’s Third Floor

Tenth in an occasional series of Schwamb Shares

As we write this in July 2020, the temperature is nearing 100 degrees outside and certainly is higher than that in the Mill. In the nineteenth century, the third floor must have been a hot place to put in a ten-hour day (typical summer hours in Arlington according to the Massachusetts industrial census). The third story was added to a previous addition in 1873, at a time when the Schwambs’ workforce was approximately 37 workers. We do not know the work done on the third floor, though we suspect it was frame finishing; there is no machinery there and the walls show signs of varnish, whiting, and pigments.

The walls also display graffiti, newspaper clippings, poetry and many sheets of lyrics to popular songs of the 1880s and 1890s. (At right, the lyrics to “He’s All Right When You Know Him — But You’ve Got To Know Him Fast.”) The paper ephemera was either glued or varnished to the wooden walls, and has since deteriorated and flaked off after a hundred and thirty summers and winters in the attic.

Most of the song lyrics appear as broadsheets with bold titles, though some were probably cut from the local newspapers. Publishing song lyrics with the address of the publisher encouraged respect for copyright, fired curiosity about the song, and helped people learn the words to sing along. Before radio, new songs written or published in New York, Boston, or Chicago could be heard on the stage (musical theatre or later Vaudeville), in public houses such as saloons, or in parlors where a family might play them on the piano (or from a player piano roll). Song pluggers sometimes prearranged the interruption of a theatrical production from the audience, only to have the instigator and stage actor end their argument by joining in a new song for the surprised onlookers. Singers and pianists, using a megaphone for amplification, might sing a new song to a captive audience at an event, repeating the performance enough times for the song to catch on.

Phonograph cylinders and flat records were already consumer items in the 1890s, and would be more widely available in the 1900s and 1910s. However, songs of the 1880s and 1890s were largely sold as sheet music. Any middle class home was expected to have a piano and someone who could play it.

Most of the lyrics on the walls of the Mill’s third floor are from comic songs, a popular type of composition in the late nineteenth century. A survivor from this time is “Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay”, sung by a young girl (“not too timid, not too bold, just the kind for sport, I’m told”) who enjoys romantic adventures but plays coy as she explains herself in the verses.

Here are a few of the songs pasted to the third floor walls.

Where Did You Get That Hat?
Written & Composed by Jos. J. Sullivan. Arr. by Wm. Loraine.
New York: Harding’s Music Office, 1888

A simple enough story: the singer inherited a fortune from his deceased uncle, on the condition that he always wear the uncle’s dated hat. The humor comes from the sharp comments he meets with from fellow city dwellers.

If I go to the op’ra house, in the op’ra season
There’s someone sure to shout at me without the slightest reason
If I go to a “chowder club” to have a jolly spree
There’s someone at the party who is sure to shout at me:

Where did you get that hat?
Where did you get that tile?
Isn’t it a nobby one and just the proper style?
I should like to have one just the same as that
Where e’er I go they shout: “Hello, where did you get that hat?”

This song has had a second, third, and fourth life as a children’s song – “chowder house” and “spree” having long passed worrying about in mixed company. Here’s a spirited version of the song by Anne Hills and Cindy Mangsen.

Come Down, Mrs. Flynn
New York: Frank Harding.
Words and Music by J. W. Kelley. Sung by Maggie Cline.

This song presents a more recognizable urban situation: a boarding house with tenants who always seem to stay out too late.

There’s a boarding-house next door to mine not of the highest grade,
Where no one but a gentleman would stay;
And Mrs. Flynn keeps them in line, she has them all afraid,
And not a saucy word they have to say;
Sometimes there will be one come home with his skates on;
He falls six times before he finds the door;
He has lost his key as well, and has to pull the bell,
Then sings a song he often sung before:

Come down, Mrs. Flynn, are you going to let me in?
I’ll rouse up every neighbor in the block;
For it’s raining, don’t you see; so throw me down the key,
And I’ll promise to be home at ten o’clock.

In the next verse, a servant girl comes home at two in the morning.

Like many of the songs on the third-floor walls, the subjects of the humor are Irish city-dwellers, often with accents. The fellow who comes home “with his skates on” has been drinking: the euphemism can be taken as witty, but it is also discreet. A direct mention of saloon life might be off-putting in respectable temperance households. In the next verse, the servant girl “comes strolling home with Paddy Joyce.” But Mrs. Flynn, also Irish, keeps her tenants in line.

Lampoons of ethnic immigrants were a staple of popular music and comedy in Vaudeville days. The humor ran the gamut from gentle to dehumanizing. One quality of many Irish-focused comic songs is that the singer, often an Irish acquaintance of the subject, has a hand in pointing out the laughable behavior of his fellow Irishman. If an Irish rogue takes things too far, the Irish cop sets him straight.

Some similar numbers:

Since Casey Runs The Flat
New York: T. B, Harms & Co., 1890.
Words and Music by B. H. Janssen.

We’ve got a brand new janitor, and Casey is his name.
The way he runs McNally’s flat I think an awful shame;
He walks around just like a lord, you’d think he owned the place,
he has a frightful, rasping voice, and “scups” around his face.

Casey checks all the boxes for “comical” Irishman: shiftless (hosing down the hallways); officious (fining tenants for coughing, having visitors, and rushing a growler, i.e., bringing in a pint of beer); and in charge because of his connections (whether running a fire drill on a whim or demanding that all the shades be Irish green).

There Goes McManus
New York: T. R. Harms & Co., 1889
Words and Music by B. H. Janssen.

McManus gets himself a too-large coat and too-tight pants, new patent shoes, etc., etc., all to take the powdered, emerald-gowned Miss Gilhooley to the ball. The neighbors cheer him – in derision. And inevitably…

He felt his own importance when he walked across the hall;
They told him Miss Gilhooley was the belle of all the ball;
He danced the “polka “and the “waltz.” and did it very nice,
But for a better fitting pants he’d given any price.
The next dance was a “lancers” and everything went well
“Salute your pards.” McManus did. And then there was a yell;
No pants could stand a bow like that, and so Mc’s gave away.
And when they rolled him in a cloth, he heard some people say:

There goes McManus with a rip right up his back…

The modern listener might find the song amusing enough until the third verse, where McManus roughs up Levi Cohn, who sold him the outfit. The policeman arrives on the scene and McManus is nearly jailed as he stands before the judge. Italians, Jews, Greeks, Dutchmen, Japanese, Chinese, and African-Americans had entire bodies of derisive songs to themselves in Tin Pan Alley, but made occasional appearances in the each other’s stories as well.

Irish Jubilee
New York: 1890, M. Witmark & Sons.
Words by J. Thornton. Music by Chas. Lawlor.

Songwriters and vaudeville performers had a “Jubilee” for every ethnicity, each playing on accents and stereotypes. In this “Irish Jubilee,” electoral success and the rewards for the voters could be celebrated by self-assured Irish immigrants and simultaneously laughed off by native born Americans of traditional stock. We don’t know who posted this lyric sheet or why, but we do find graffiti in the same work room recording the arrival in Boston from Ireland of one man James [last name illegible] on February 13, 1886. Scribbled comments about Tammany Hall, symbol of Irish Democrat control of New York city politics, appear nearby.

Oh, a short time ago, boys, an Irishman named Doherty
Was elected to the Senate by a very large majority,
He felt so elated that he went to Dennis Cassidy,
Who owned a bar-room of a very large capacity.
He said to Cassidy, “Go over to the brewer
For a thousand kegs of lager beer and give it to the poor,
Then go over to the butcher-shop and order up a ton of meat,
Be sure and see the boys and girls have all they want to drink and eat.

Send out invitations in twenty different languages,
And don’t forget to tell them to bring their own sandwiches;
They’ve made me their Senator, and so, to show my gratitude,
They’ll have the finest supper ever given in this latitude-
Tell them the music will be furnished by O’Rafferty,
Assisted on the bag-pipes by Felix McCafferty;
Whatever the expenses are, remember I’ll put up the tin.
And any one who doesn’t come, be sure and do not let him in.

This song is still a favorite in some folk circles, sometimes sung a cappela, but here is a cylinder recording from 1913 by Steve Porter and Co. (with spoken introduction for about one minute).

I Believe It, for My Mother Told Me So
Chicago: Lyon & Healy, 1887

Not every set of lyrics on the third-floor walls is a comic song. Sentimental ballads are here as well.

There’s a little maxim that was told to me by mother dear,
When in childhood I was seated on her knee;
She told me that a rolling stone would gather little moss,
Many lessons of advice she gave to me.

Lessons follow: Honor the Father above, give to the poor, be honest in all dealings, etc. If today we listen with dismay at what passed for humor in the 1890s, we are often at a loss to understand how popular these sentimental ballads were.

Seizing upon this very song for an example, The Illustrated American offered its own smart take in 1891: “Songs with a mother in them can be counted upon with tolerable certainty by writer, singer, and manager. Of course, it is understood that this is true only when the public is given mother in reasonable doses. There can be a surfeit of mother as well as of anything else.” (“Songs of the People.” The Illustrated American, vol 6, p 40)

These sentimental ballads, sometimes derided as “country corn,” survived in country and old-time music circles. Here are the Delmore Brothers covering the song in 1935, near 50 years after it was published.

A similar song on the Mill’s walls that would have counted as an “oldie” even in the 1880s was “The Old Oaken Bucket.”

These are just a few of the songs saved on the Mill’s attic walls. There are many others, some so worn away that we may never know their titles. Poems are also on the walls, and it seems fitting, as this hot summer gives way to fall, to close with this poem by English writer Sarah Doudney. The poem was modified and reprinted, without credit, in many newspapers of the day. This poem was also set to music.

The Water Mill

Listen to the water mill,
Through the livelong day;
How the clicking of the wheel
Wears the hours away.
Languidly the autumn wind
Stirs the withered leaves;
On the field the reapers sing,
Binding up the sheaves;
And a proverb haunts my mind,
And as a spell is cast,
“The mill will never grind
With the water that has passed.”

Bonus Track: The song shown at top, “He’s All Right When You Know Him,” has American lyrics. There is often a British music hall version of many of these songs. Here’s a British version of the song by music hall performer Charles Coburn in 1936.

Dermot Whittaker, Director, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.


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What We Can Learn from the Mill’s Accident Reports

Ninth in an occasional series of Schwamb Shares

The Old Schwamb Mill’s archives include 78 accident reports completed between 1915 and 1930. The reports were submitted to the Federal Mutual Liability Insurance Company of Boston, Mass., the insurance company covering the Clinton W. Schwamb Company’s workers in accordance with Massachusetts Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1911. A copy of each report was also to be submitted to the Commonwealth’s Industrial Accident Board.

There are some gaps in this series; there are no reports between 1915 and 1919, and none for 1924. But for most of the 1920s, these reports are the most illuminating documents in the Clinton W. Schwamb Company’s business records. Here are some questions they help to answer.

“How many people worked here?”

There are many sources of information of the Schwamb workforce over the company’s 104 years in business, but for the 1920s, the accident reports are the best resource.

For the years 1915 to 1930, the workforce gradually increased from 7 to 12. This is in keeping with the amount spent on payroll over the same period (adjusted for inflation).

The horizontal axis at bottom shows the range in the number of workers known to be employed for each year.

While the Mill had as many as 37 workers in the 1870s, this declined to 14 by the 1890s. When Clinton and Louis Schwamb took over from their father Carl William in 1904, there were as few as four workers in some weeks. From what we can see during the prosperous 1920s, ten to twelve was the optimal number of workers for the rest of the Mill’s life as business.

“How old were the workers?”

For the 1920s, the accident reports give workers’ ages as follows:

The chart above suggests, younger single men were more common than older, married men. However, this picture is incomplete because many known workers of that time had no accidents to report.

“What else do we know about the workers?

Of the 38 workers named in these reports, 27 lived in Arlington, 11 of these in the Heights. Other towns where workers lived included Melrose, Everett, Roslindale, Boston, Lexington, Cambridge, Somerville, and Dorchester.

The question of how long an employee had worked at the Mill was not always completed, but most workers in the accident reports had worked with the Schwambs less that three years, and more than half had worked there less that two years. We know from other sources that turnover was a constant challenge at the factory, where the best paying jobs such as the moulder were relatively few.

People often ask if there were many immigrants working in the Schwamb Mill. The accident reports do not answer this question, but the employee names (Fitzpatrick, Comeau, Gonsalves, Sarnie, Pierce, Tanck, Boudreaux, Camarano, etc.) suggest an ethnically diverse workplace typical of the Boston area in  the early twentieth century. Further research in the US Census records would provide a definitive answer.

“What were the jobs at the Mill?”

The reports demanded more job classification than the Schwambs themselves imposed on their workforce. As Peter Jerardi, who worked at the Mill in the early 1920s, recalled, a worker generally took a frame order from start to finish, cutting the four segments, squaring and grooving the ends, gluing the segments together, and finally turning the oval frame. We know from later production reports, broken down by worker and task, that certain jobs such as selecting the wood to be used or setting up the four cutter heads of the straight moulding machine, required a particular worker.

But as the Schwambs described things on the accident reports, here are the skilled and unskilled jobs one might be doing at the Mill in the 1920s.

The reports also tell us what different workers earned both before and after the accident occurred – important information since the law forbid reducing a worker’s pay because of an accident.

“What were the most common accidents?”

In a woodworking shop like the Schwamb Mill, interaction with machines was nearly always by hand. Hands were the part of the body most likely to be hurt in the course of sawing, moulding, or turning wood.

Here’s what the reports tell us about the nature of the workers’ injuries in the 1920s.

Apart from the machines, causes of injury included deep splinters (always with a possibility of blood poisoning in the 1920s) or burns in the steam boiler room across Mill Lane. Then as now, falling or hurting one’s back at work also counted as a workplace injury. Getting emery from the grinding wheel in one’s eye (neglecting to wear safety glasses) required a doctor to rinse the eye out, but the worker might be back on the job the same day.  A back injury or broken bone might keep one out of work for weeks.

Most machines had guards of some kind, either as part of the purchased machine or manufactured by the Schwambs themselves. But machine guards, even safety glasses which existed, could be dispensed with if they were inconvenient or obstructed a view of the work. The questions “Is there a guard for this machine?” and “Was the guard in place at the time of the accident?” drew a variety of answers from Louis Schwamb as he completed the reports. Indeed, he was not usually a witness to the accident and had to record it as related by the injured worker.

Some unusual accidents:

  • “Typewriter slide is disappearing type on heavy springs. The machine was off the slide man was putting slide in place it slammed up catching finger.” Fractured bone, third finger, left hand.
  • “Operator was turning an oval frame his tool caught breaking frame and a piece flew off and struck him on side of nose.” Slight cut on side of nose.
  • “Had just closed a high window in wall and in getting to floor had walked along a pile of lumber striking head against pulley.” Scalp slight cut one stitch.

“Do any workers stand out?”

Some of the workers do, for different reasons.

  • Tony Johnson, in his late twenties, managed to have eleven accidents (that we know of) in eight years: jambed finger, wrenched back, finger cuts, emery in his eye. Some accidents were minor, and others more serious.
  • John Skoglund of Cambridge was hurt on his first day. Using the shaper, a machine like a router, without the hold-down guard in place and secure, he grazed his hand on the cutter head, requiring 3-4 stitches.
  • Gordon Richardson (who banged his head on a pulley, described above) was hurt three months after starting work at the Mill in 1927. He was still working for the company when it closed in 1969 and remained on in the early years of the Old Schwamb Mill under Patricia Fitzmaurice.

What was the Mill itself like in the 1920s?

Each report includes a short description of the accident, usually written by Louis Schwamb, the shop foreman. He often captured incidental aspects of work at the Mill that add to our understanding of the manufacturing process and Mill layout in those days.

For instance, we know that workers used the shaper, in addition to the face plate lathes, to mould the edge of oval frames.

Incidental facts captured by Louis in his descriptions appear in red in these examples:

These accident reports from the 1915-1930 period are the only ones we are aware of, though accidents certainly occurred throughout the Mill’s history as a business. The Massachusetts Industrial Accident Board issued annual reports that summarized accident data and provided details about cases that went to court; however, we know of no repository for specific accident reports of the kind we have in the archives.

There is some evidence that, even before the 1911 workers’ compensation law, the Mill covered the cost of accidents through insurance, as we know the Theodore Schwamb Company did. In addition, for the period from 1872 to 1904, we can turn to the Arlington Advocate, which reported accidents wherever they might occur – in the home, on the streets, or in the workplace. Several accidents connected with the various Schwamb mills in town are described there.

Until we have time and resources to research individual worker’s lives through census and other records, these reports of mishaps in the factory provide the most personal and detailed glimpses of the people who spent their working hours in the Schwamb Mill.

Dermot Whittaker, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.


Please consider renewing as (or becoming) a Friend of the Mill this spring. Here are some options for becoming a Friend in 2020:

$30 Individual $40 Family $100 Sponsor $200 Business

– Renew securely online with a credit card here.

– Consider a recurring monthly donation – an option you will see on the same donation form online. An automatic monthly gift of 2, 3 or 5 dollars allows even modest support to add up over time.

– Send a check (payable to Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.) to

Old Schwamb Mill
17 Mill Lane
Arlington, MA 01730

We look forward to opening soon.

Telephone Comes to the Mill

Eighth in our occasional series of Schwamb Shares

Visitors  who have toured the Mill’s downstairs front office may have learned that the Mill’s current phone number 781-643-0554 is essentially the same one that the Clinton W. Schwamb Co. had as early as 1921 — 0554. Here’s the earliest phone bill in the Mill’s archives.

Clinton and Louis Schwamb sometimes attached notes on phone usage to the bills to be sure they were only charged for completed calls, and to track calls by themselves and “others” such as employees or visitors.

In the notes above, we see most calls were placed by Clinton and Louis Schwamb, with a few calls by other persons. The two calls made by Dr. Smith on Dec 12, 1921, are interesting because employee Vincent Kearney was hurt that day at 1:30 p.m., according to an accident report. (“Operator was sawing small piece of stock and ran end of finger into saw…”). The injury, from the blade on the “scroll band saw,” was described as a slight flesh cut to the end of left fore-finger.  Dr. Smith’s phone calls from the Mill’s phone suggest he was called in to check the wound.

The accident report itself records the physician as Dr. Sanford (listed in the Arlington True List as Robie Sanford of 1300 Massachusetts Avenue, Arlington). The employee, Vincent Kearney, lost no time from the accident. Dr. Smith is not mentioned in any of the other accident reports in the archives; he may have practiced nearby though he does not appear to have lived in Arlington (unless it was Holden Smith, veterinarian).

As this example shows, even with a wealth of records — phone logs, accident reports, town lists and directories — questions always remain. In relating a story like this one to visitors, it is tempting to fill in or conflate details. The facts as we know them still give a more vivid, life-like picture of the Mill in its daily operations.

Clinton and Louis Schwamb took over the Mill in 1904, and initially their workforce, customers, and expenses were modest. Their ledgers show that they did not pay for phone service from New England Telephone & Telegraph until March 1906, when they paid in cash for three months service in advance.  They paid monthly for service thereafter, $3.88 per month, in 1906.

Yet clearly the Schwamb Mill had a phone before then. In what is now the “frame gallery” on the second floor, is the outline of a 1890/1900s wall phone that was mounted to the south wall before it was painted in a light cream color.

The oldest graffiti on this painted wall records a first snow in October of 1903. If the phone was already on the wall and painted around, as it appears, then it precedes the later phone service and even Clinton and Louis’s assuming management in November 1904.

The outline  does not clearly correspond to any wall phone we can identify. (Here is one at right that is roughly comparable, minus the backing board.) The large shape at bottom is likely where the battery cells were kept. The outline of a wire connects this to the rectangular shape of the phone itself, typically a wooden box with a mounted speaking piece in center, a listening piece on the left that a user could literally “hang up” or leave “off the hook,” and a crank on the right to signal that the user wanted the local operator to connect a call. Two cloth insulated wires remain in the wall at the top.

Evidence of use on the wall nearby also strongly suggests that this outline is of a telephone. This includes

  • A worn spot that may correspond to where the hand crank was turned
  • A doodle of a telephone of the period, showing the mouthpiece and other typical features
  • At least seventeen phone number written in the style of the period (e.g., 151-2, 1907-2, 312 Hay)
  • Frame and moulding order information one might have taken over the phone

While we do not have accounting records before November 1904, when Carl William Schwamb was in charge of the factory, we do have access to phone directories for New England Telephone & Telegraph from the 1880s to 1901, on the Internet Archive.

Charles Schwamb and Son, Moulding and Picture Frame Manufacturers had a listing from July 1898 to as late as 1901 (we have not yet found later directories on line). The phone number was Arlington 111-3.

An advantage of using the online scanned version of this directory (with the text available digitally) is that one can search the phone numbers written on the wall to see who the business was talking to … with different degrees of certainty.

For example, none of the phone numbers or notes are dated — so knowing what year’s directory to check is a problem. But on the assumption that the phone was in use around 1900, we can enter each number and, usually, find many results for that number. Often too many results.

Then as now, more than two, three or four digits was needed to make a phone call. Today we have a lot to remember:

In 1900, it was easier — you would tell this information to the operator …

… and she would connect your call to that town and number. For a populous city like Boston, you would need to know the name of the local exchange such as Haymarket, Oxford, etc., that covered nearby streets.

The people who jotted down numbers on the wall next to the phone at the Mill certainly knew both the exchange and number, whether they were making or receiving a call. Our assumption is that these users remembered the exchange or what town they were calling, and only wrote down the subscriber number — the part they were likely to forget. For us in the twenty-first century, with search functionality across dozens of directories, each thousands of pages long, we still cannot be certain if the manager or worker who wrote down 151-2 meant …

  • Bangor 151-2 Hastings & Strickland … Lumber … 86 Exchange st
  • Newton Highlands 151-2 Murphy & Sullivan, Steam Heating & Plumbing … Newton Centre
  • Arlington 151-2 Stickney Lewis E … Residence … Arlington
  • Medford 151-2 Bay State Moulding Co, Factory, Medford

… or any of a dozen less plausible but entirely possible subscribers.

Here are a few numbers we do feel certain about.

These two are known customers based on the Schwambs’ 1904 ledgers.

These two numbers have exchanges that make us feel more certain of them.

These two numbers are written on the wall as a pair, much as they appear in the directory.

The rest of the numbers lead to many business and residences, all intriguing, none with any other evidence to make us certain of them. Virtually any four digit number will lead to a lumber supplier somewhere in New England … as well as fish dealers, carriage makers, druggists, and residences. Nevertheless, these are slight clues that may one day point us to more information about the Mill in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

A few more fun facts…

The section of the second floor that today serves as the Mill’s “frame gallery” seems to have served several purposes in the past. In addition to the south wall being painted a cream color (helpful for reading in low light?) there is a wooden ceiling above the space, all painted the same blue-gray. The ceiling would have kept dust and debris from dropping into this space from the third floor. The Mill’s roll-top desk, listed in inventories and named by Carl William Schwamb as a possession in letters, was on this second floor as late as 1970 before it was moved to the front office on the first floor. At some point in the twentieth century, whiting (a gesso like compound) was applied to frames or mouldings in this space, based on the gesso on the walls and graffiti by Louis Schwamb in 1917.

The outline of a phone similar in shape and measurements to the outline on the second floor can also be seen in the Mill’s front office on the first floor. The varnish on the wood where the phone was mounted is darker and better preserved than the slightly crazed and whitened varnish around the phone’s outline. Its measurements are the same as the outline upstairs. The front office with its safe, as well as the mill’s turbine, were all added in the late 1880s under the management of Carl William Schwamb, son of the founder Charles Schwamb. Much of this outline is obscured by a large green board on which are mounted electrical switches from the mid twentieth century.

Theodore Schwamb, whose piano case factory was down the brook from the Charles Schwamb mill, had a residential phone as early as April 1895. A second phone was installed in his factory by January 1900.

Dermot Whittaker, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.


Please consider renewing as (or becoming) a Friend of the Mill this spring. Here are some options for becoming a Friend in 2020:

$30 Individual $40 Family $100 Sponsor $200 Business

– Renew securely online with a credit card here.

– Consider a recurring monthly donation – an option you will see on the same donation form online. An automatic monthly gift of 2, 3 or 5 dollars allows even modest support to add up over time.

– Send a check (payable to Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.) to

Old Schwamb Mill
17 Mill Lane
Arlington, MA 01730

We look forward to opening soon.

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!

Jacob Schwamb’s Divine Initiative: Co-founding The First Zion German Evangelical Lutheran Church

Sixth in our occasional series of Schwamb Shares.

Jacob Schwamb (1815-1881) was the oldest of six Schwamb brothers who immigrated from Germany’s Rhineland to the Boston area between 1838 and 1857. Like many of his brothers, Jacob was a woodworker. Two of his brothers, Charles and Frederick Schwamb, cofounded the Schwamb picture frame mill in 1864, now the Old Schwamb Mill, in Arlington, Mass. Jacob’s brother Theodore Schwamb founded his successful piano case manufactory in 1871 at 1171 Massachusetts Avenue, also in Arlington.

Jacob Schwamb’s work as a piano case wood worker began in Boston’s German immigrant community in what is now the city’s Theatre District and South End neighborhood.

Jacob Schwamb traveled from his family’s farm in the little village of Undenheim, Germany, to Boston in 1838. He was one of the 2.5 million Germans who immigrated to the United States between 1820 and 1870. Although much has been written about Irish immigration to America during the antebellum period, German immigration has been less exhaustively explored. Jacob Schwamb, like many of his countrymen, came to Boston with marketable skills. Indeed, jewelry makers, musical instrument manufacturers, mechanical furniture makers, tailors and others skilled in a trade had a distinct advantage over unskilled labor in a city that was starting to rebound from the recession of 1837.

William Richard Cutter in his Historic Homes and Places and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Genealogical and Personal Memoirs Relating to the Families of Middlesex County Massachusetts (1905) notes that Jacob Schwamb “early learned the trade of cabinet maker” on his family’s 40 acre farm and vineyard in his native Undenheim. In Boston, he found employment in Lord and Cumston which was then a piano case manufactory in its infancy, having been founded as Brown & Hallett in 1835. Situated within a concentration of piano and organ manufactories bordering Washington Street in the South End, this firm would later be known as Hallett and Cumston and Hallett and Davis. Jacob’s expertise as a woodworker made it possible for him to work for a company known from the mid-nineteenth through early twentieth centuries “for building very high quality, expensive pianos.”

During the late 1830s and early 1840s, Jacob Schwamb is listed as living at several addresses on Elliot Street (later Kneeland Street) in the heart of the German immigrant community. Very recently, the last remnant of this “German Town” disappeared when Jacob Wirth’s German Restaurant (founded in 1868) closed its Kneeland Street saloon and restaurant after filing for bankruptcy in 2018.

Described by Cutter as “a man of strong religious convictions,” Jacob Schwamb was one of the founders of the First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zion which still stands on Shawmut Avenue and Waltham Street in the South End. Paving the way for the church’s construction was the incorporation of the German Lutheran (Protestant) Society in 1839. Although efforts to found a German Church in Boston date back to the 1720s, it was not until the 1840s that the “first purely German (Lutheran) church” became a physical reality on Shawmut Avenue in Boston.

The building that housed the First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zion, completed in 1847

The cornerstone of the German Church at the corner of Shawmut Avenue and Waltham Street was laid on July 1, 1842. Completed in 1847, this chapel-scale church was dedicated on Christmas Day of that year. Essentially covering its entire 3,000 square foot lot at 296 Shawmut Avenue, this Greek Revival red brick building’s architectural interests are its boxy rectangular volume, severely plain exterior and pedimented main and rear facades. Why this small Greek Revival structure took five years to build is not documented, but undoubtedly periodic exhaustion of funds due to the congregation’s lack of disposable wealth resulted in a lengthy construction.

The new church would soon be part of a residential streetscape whose planar main facades represent a phase of South End row house construction that predated the projecting swell front residences that have dominated the neighborhood’s streetscapes since the 1850s and 1860s. Directly across the street from the German Church is a group of red brick row houses with rare (for Boston) Flemish gables that were built by Aachen, Germany, bricklayer brothers in 1853.

Row houses with Flemish gables, Shawmut Avenue, Boston

According to William Richard Cutter, Jacob Schwamb contributed to the church as “one of its best workers” and “supplied the pulpit” in the absence of the pastor. All services were held in German, a practice that continued in the Shawmut Avenue church’s successor houses of worship until as late as 1917 when the United States entered the World War against Germany.

During the mid- 1840s, the German Lutheran Religious Society would have been a source of solace and joy for Jacob. His first wife, Magdalene Hammerlee died in 1846, and he married his second wife Hammetta Butz in 1847.  Around 1850, Jacob Schwamb left behind the narrow and crooked streets of Boston, heading west to settle in Leominster, Mass. Once again he was employed in a piano case manufactory that was still in its infancy and destined to be one of the leaders in piano case making in New England. He was hired by the J.C. Lane Company which was founded in 1845, remaining in business well into the twentieth century.

Two separate chapters of Jacob’s peripatetic life unfolded in Arlington, Mass. The first chapter (1853-1862) found Jacob working alongside his brothers in a woodworking concern called Charles Schwamb and Brothers which was housed in the still extant complex of industrial buildings at 1171 Massachusetts Avenue, near Forest Street (later the site of the Theodore Schwamb Mill). During the last years of his life Jacob returned to Arlington to conduct his own piano case and straight moulding concern on Massachusetts Avenue near Brattle Street, a business that was inherited by his sons William and Edward. Edward Schwamb kept his father’s enterprise going until 1926. In between his Arlington sojourns, Jacob and his family lived in West Medford and Roxbury where he made piano cases for the Mason & Hamlin Organ Company and William P. Emerson companies, respectively.

The German church that Jacob Schwamb helped to found carried on through “hard times” but recovered by the early 1870s with a congregation that numbered 1,500 members. By the 1890s, the German Church had become home to the Calvary Baptist Church which made its home here until around 1920. The German Lutheran religious society that started out on Shawmut Avenue found a new home in the yellow  brick church on West Newton Street, corner of Tremont (by the late 1890s). In 1960 the German Lutheran congregation, by that time called the First Lutheran Church of Boston, moved into the modern Pietro Belluschi–designed brick church at Berkeley and Marlborough Streets in the Back Bay. (Belluschi also designed the modern Park Avenue Congregational Church in Arlington Heights.)

For almost the first three quarters of the twentieth century, Jacob Schwamb’s church building was surrounded  by “Syria Land,” a vibrant Syrian immigrant community characterized by Middle Eastern restaurants, specialty stores, and multi-family residences, primarily concentrated along Shawmut Avenue. The former German church became the Sahara Restaurant at some point in the 1950s or 1960s and closed in 1970. The Sahara was part of a quartet of Middle Eastern Restaurants in the Shawmut Avenue/Washington Street area that included the Red Fez, the Cedars, and Nadia’s.

Front of the former First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zion, with its restaurant sign intact

Rear of the former First Evangelical Lutheran Church of Zion

For fifty years the church has been languishing in the midst of the pricey, gentrified South End. The building currently serves as a storage facility for a Shawmut Avenue business. That this Greek Revival gem dating to the presidency of James K. Polk is still standing is a testament to the skills of the bricklayers who may well have been German immigrants.

Edward W. Gordon, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc. (text and photos)

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!

Where’s the Water Wheel?

Fifth in our occasional series of Schwamb Shares

A volunteer does not lead many tour groups through the Old Schwamb Mill before hearing the question: “Where is the water wheel?” Youngsters fresh from reading about the mills of old, Arlingtonians puzzled by the distance between the Mill and the Mill Brook, mill enthusiasts visiting from out of state – all want to see the water wheel in action, or at least know where it was.

Short answer: The water wheel has not been in use since the nineteenth century and no remains of the wheel have been found.

Here is a brief survey of the facts:

  • 1864 The Schwambs purchased the Mill with a working water wheel. Photographs from the 1860s and 1870s show the channel leading from the pond in front of the Mill to the center of the Mill, suggesting that the wheel was mounted within the building, in the center, at or below cellar level. Water exited the back of the building and into Mill Brook.
  • 1872 The Arlington Advocate reported that the Schwamb Mill was using steam power (in some way not specified) instead of water during a winter drought.
  • 1873 The Schwambs built the current dry house with its coal boiler and repositioned the barn to house a steam engine.
  • 1878 Charles D. Elliot, a civil engineer, created a diagram of the Mill’s privilege, showing all ponds and an 18-foot diameter water wheel.
  • 1888 The Mill installed a separate water turbine on the west side of the basement, approximately 8 feet below ground level. Water came to the turbine from Schwamb’s Pond (in the area of Gold’s Gym between Massachusetts Avenue and Lowell Street) through a pipe-like conduit.
  • 1904 The small holding pond and channel that were once in front of the Mill are no longer seen in photos from the period; in a picture from 1904, the basement water entrance has been covered with glass windows.

We think there is still more to learn about the fate of the wheel. Understanding the wheel’s use both in the early Schwamb Mill and the Robbins mill that preceded it is one of the challenges of interpreting this industrial site.

The large pond referred to above as Schwamb’s Pond was formed up hill from the Mill by diverting water from the Mill Brook. By means of a channel that crossed Lowell Street, this large pond fed a smaller pond directly in front of the Schwamb Mill.

Excerpt from “A Plan of the Estate late Purchased by Eli Robbins with the waterfall” (1835)
The flow of water from across Lowell Street to the Robbins Mill in 1835 was essentially the same for the Schwambs when they acquired the new mill built on this site in 1864. The “Reservoir” referred to here is the mill pond, not the much larger body of water that we know today as the Arlington Reservoir.

The site of this smaller pond, recently named Mill Pond Park in memory of Patricia Fitzmaurice, is where the Mill hosts Oktoberfest each fall.

The smaller pond that formed the Mill’s head race. The presence of the Mill’s third story and the dry house at far left date this photo as 1873 or later.

Water entered the building through an opening into the basement …

… and probably ran along a wooden channel to the top of a water wheel mounted near the back of the Mill. We believe the top half of the wheel would have been been visible in current cellar area, with the other half extending down into a large channel beneath the cellar, what we today call “the wheel pit.”

Belts and shafts would have brought the power from the wheel’s turning upstairs to the first floor.

A visit to the Mill’s wheel pit requires a ladder and some dexterity. The less this site is disturbed, the better. We believe that a professional architectural study of the pit could yield information, not only about the wheel, but about the mills that have existed on this site in the past.

Fortunately, director Bob Tanner and Masterworks Conservation principal Melissa Carr together have made the Mill’s nearby water turbine very accessible, safe, and well lit. This turbine, a second-generation of water power technology, was used at the Mill from roughly 1888 to 1904. The turbine and its governor are the focus of our popular behind-the-scenes tours of the Mill’s basement held at different times throughout the year.

We’re happy to share some photos of the wheel pit though. Enjoy!

A trap door with leather hinges leads beneath the Mill’s cellar to the wheel pit, the area where we believe the water wheel was mounted and extended downward
The wheel pit facing the south wall, the direction from which water would have enter from above
The wheel pit facing the north wall, where water would have flowed out of the Mill down into Mill Brook. The bricked area may have closed this exit way in the late nineteenth century when it was no longer needed. What may be a large concrete support (lower center) sits abandoned; its origin and purpose are not known.
Iron oxide at this notch in the east wall of the pit suggest it was a place that a mill wheel’s metal axle was mounted. The beam and cellar floor at the top of the picture would not have been here in the days when a wheel occupied this space.
Beams and heavy flooring cover the top of the wheel pit, creating usable floor space across the cellar above. Presumably the pit was covered by the Schwambs in the late nineteenth century when the wheel was out of use.

Massive beams cross the top of the wheel pit, supporting the cellar floor above. The timbers bear markings and some evidence of having served other purposes before being laid across the pit. Clockwise from top left: a large screw eye; hand and foot holds for climbing; a section of a beam painted white; a metal stamp with numbers.

Dermot Whittaker, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.

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!

The Largest Frame the Schwamb Mill Ever Turned

Fourth in an occasional series of “Schwamb Shares.”

In Jacob’s Bitzer’s “History of the Mills along Sucker Brook,” read at a meeting of the Arlington Historical Society in 1924, he says that the Schwamb factory’s business gradually shrank through the later nineteenth century. He adds that Clinton and Louis Schwamb, grandsons of the founder Charles Schwamb, rebuilt the business after taking over in November 1904. Bitzer’s version of events is borne out by the account books, now in the Mill’s archives. These show a steady increase in frame and moulding orders, employees, and investment in the plant and its equipment from 1904 to 1929. In 1908, Charles Schwamb and Son was incorporated as the Clinton W. Schwamb Company, and the name was added to the office safe.

Given these positive changes, it is not surprising that the following item – a demonstration of the Mill’s new vigor — appears in a trade publication of the day, The Wood-worker.

Largest Circular Picture Frame Ever Made by Hand.

What is claimed to be the largest circular picture frame ever made by hand, was turned out recently at the Schwamb factory, Arlington, Mass. The big circle measures 83-in. diameter and was made on a special order. The frame took 39-ft. of lumber to make it. Other frames have been manufactured as large as this one, but they have been molded.

The frame is for a well-known Boston firm, and was taken to Boston via automobile to be hand-carved. The big circle is a fine sample of the wood-turner’s art, and the outside is half-rounded to a bead on the inside and to a concaved bead on the back.

The Wood-worker, Volume 36 (S.H. Smith Co., 1917), page 47

Finding this article online via Google Books, we at the Mill asked ourselves: Who was this frame for and does it still exist?

We hope to find this frame for several reasons. A hand-carved round frame of this size and shape seems more likely to be a fixed architectural feature than a moveable picture frame. Whether the “well known Boston firm” was the customer or one of the many frame shops that ordered from the Schwambs, we suspect that the frame found its home in the Boston area. Plus…don’t we have the order books in the archives?

We do – and have not yet found our answer. Two volunteers have read and re-read the orders from September 1916 to November 1917 without finding the frame. It should stand out: it was a circle, a distinct size, and a special order. We estimate the 1917 wholesale price to be between $7.00 and $9.00 — possibly more since it was a special order that would take a workman off the usual production.

Might there be other clues in the account books? Unlike the chronological entries in the order books, cash books, and transaction journals, the ledger shows transactions under their accounts (customer and supplier names, but also categories such as shipping and delivery). Thanks to a volunteer’s indexing of the ledgers some years ago, we were able to quickly look up any categories that might have involved the giant frame’s special transport by automobile described in the article. But nothing stands out under these accounts.

OK – could such a frame even be turned on the Mill’s basement lathe? Our current turner David Graf has produced 6 foot by 4 foot black walnut ovals on the downstairs lathe. But this circle was larger, nearly 7 feet in diameter. By our measurements, the basement lathe has enough clearance for a frame this size – have a look at the picture below.

The Mill’s basement lathe, showing the diameter needed for what was claimed to be the “largest circular picture frame ever made by hand”

Nevertheless, at this point our search was at a standstill – until we remembered an item of graffiti near the lathes on the first floor.

Graffiti on the first floor of the Mill

Our best reading of this is

The largest frame turned here to date June 12. 1917.
(81 1/2 outside 3 1/2 wide 2″ thick by J. M. Sousa.)

This seems a very close match to the frame described in the article, despite a slight disagreement over its diameter (if we are reading the damaged message correctly). The June 1917 date leaves time for the news item to have been written and mailed (perhaps by a pleased Clinton or Louis Schwamb, likely readers of The Wood-Worker). However, even with that specific date as a point of reference, no account book entries near that date reveal the frame or activity that might relate to its manufacture or transport. (A rare COD delivery via Adams Express, a few days later in June, to frame shop owner who was also a wood carver appeared promising – but he was based in Providence, RI, and his purchases were consistently for mouldings and ovals).

We remain puzzled by our failure to find the order for this frame in the records – but we are eager to try other resources. The Arlington Advocate might have published a similar article, perhaps with more detail (we await the reopening of Robbins Library to have a look at the Advocate on microfilm). Electronic searches in the historic Boston Globe through the Boston Public Library have not yielded any news of the tremendous circle.

We still hope that the frame exists and look forward to finding it and sharing the news with the Mill’s supporters.

A few words about the man who turned the frame, Joe Sousa.

Joseph Marier Sousa worked at the Schwamb mill from 1910 to 1918 (his tenure is also written on the wall of the Mill, above his turning accomplishment). He started at 17-1/2 cents an hour but was soon raised to 21 cents an hour, bringing home $10 to $12 dollars on a typical week, working Monday to Saturday, 9-1/2 hours a day. This was the middle range of pay for Schwamb workers in the 1910s; less than the moulder operator, more than basic workmen hauling and stacking boards. A note in the time books says he lived at #43 Calvin St. Somerville, a triple decker which still stands. Like other employees at the time, Sousa was sometimes reimbursed for expenses in addition to his weekly pay, though we do not know what the expenses were – possibly deliveries, tools, or work supplies that he bought himself.

Sousa’s 1917-era draft records show that he was born in Terceira, the Azores, on June 3, 1891, making him 26 when he left the Schwambs. With black hair and hazel eyes, he was of medium build and height. Though married and listed as a citizen of Portugal, he may still have chosen to serve in the Great War. Like the giant frame that he turned, his story is to be continued!

Special thanks are due to archives volunteer Rupert Davis for his careful reading of 1917 account book handwriting and to Vivian Kalber, whose past indexing work has made quick searches of the Mill’s ledgers possible.

Dermot Whittaker, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.

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!

The Mill’s Warren Harding Banner

Third in our occasional series of “Schwamb Shares.”

One just didn’t expect to see President Warren Gamaliel Harding in the Old Schwamb Mill.

But, there he was, all 40 inches by 47 inches of him in a larger-than-life painted image on cloth, rolled up and stuck in one of the wood moulding racks on the second floor. Given his perennial ranking as one of America’s worst presidents, perhaps Harding might warrant an even more obscure storage space, but as an artifact of the early twentieth century, the object is one of the Mill’s prized collection items.

Banner of Warren G. Harding (crayon or paint on cloth; 40″ x 47″)

Produced by Arlington Heights artist Henry W. Berthrong (1844-1928), the eye-catching image no doubt originally featured on the end of a large barn, the side of a roadside shed, or possibly even the Mill itself. It would almost certainly have been produced for the 1920 presidential contest between Republican Warren G. Harding and Democrat James M. Cox (Harding won Massachusetts and the election in a landslide). Before CNN campaign ads or even highway billboards, large campaign posters placed candidates’ faces before the voters. Berthrong specialized in such large-scale political advertising, sending his portraits across the country. In 1892, Boston reporters visited Berthrong at work on a gigantic Benjamin Harrison poster, so big at 20 feet x 15 feet that it was completed outside on Berthrong’s Arlington Heights barn.

Born in 1844, in Mumford, New York, Berthrong served in the Grand Army of the Republic for nearly four years in the 5th Corps, Army of the Potomac, taking part in many battles. Sketching the White House on leave, Berthrong’s artistic ability was once noticed favorably by Abraham Lincoln, but Berthrong’s other talents brought him more lasting Washington, D.C., fame.  He had a noted career as one of the very first professional baseball players with the Washington Nationals. Playing center field and catcher without gloves, helmets and chest protectors, he eventually broke every finger in both hands. Berthrong was the idol of American youngsters and a celebrity. An unparalleled sprinter, he held the base-running record for some 40 years and was never beaten in twenty-six one-hundred-yard dashes. He also gained fame rowing with the championship Potomac Four in 1869.

Marrying the niece of the Secretary of the Treasury in 1873, he began a career in the United States custom service that was to last over fifty years and took him to Florida, Nevada, Boston and, for several years, to Cuba. The Boston posting was the longest and allowed the Berthrongs to move to Arlington Heights in 1875.

Active in local community affairs, Berthrong was a Mason and an officer in veteran’s organizations, playing first violin with the orchestra of Arlington’s Francis Gould Post, No. 36, of the Grand Army of the Republic as well. One son was a noted athlete for Arlington High.

The Harding banner appears as late as 1969 in the Mill’s photo collection. The best photo, part of a series that the Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust produced as it sought to save the Mill, shows the Harding banner behind owner Elmer Schwamb as he points to a mirror in a black walnut frame with gold leaf liner. The description from 1969 reads, “Behind Mr. Schwamb is a campaign poster portrait of Warren G. Harding, used for years as a dust screen for the small gold leafing room beyond.”  

Elmer Schwamb in front the the moulding rack on the second floor of the Mill. The Harding banner hangs behind him over the entrance to a space described in 1969 as “a small gold leafing room.”

How the Schwambs acquired the Warren Harding banner portrait is not documented. Letters in the Mill’s collection, newspaper articles from the period, and even the corporation’s board minutes suggest that the Clinton W. Schwambs (husband and wife) were active Republicans with a perspective common among business owners of the day. Clinton Schwamb wrote an approving letter to Governor Calvin Coolidge (Harding’s running mate) on his handling of the Boston Police Strike. Oral history and photographs record that the Schwambs of the period sometimes hung banners and bunting on the property in connection with town celebrations, the return of veterans, and the business itself.

While neither the sketch nor the president are Mt. Rushmore material, perhaps the large Harding likeness gave Schwamb workers their own special view of American politics, up close and personal.

Doreen Stevens, Board of Directors, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.

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!