The War to End All Wars?

World War I decimated a generation. Fought from July 1914 to November 1918, the war’s poison gas, trench warfare, and horrific bloodletting tortured millions and made a mockery of Enlightenment beliefs in the progress of mankind. A classic war poem by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) poignantly illustrated the terrors visited upon those caught up in the Great War:

Dulce Et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.Owen
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.

GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Wilfred Owen died during the final week of the war on November 4, 1918.

GasGas attack on soldiers, 1918

As the world approaches the conflict’s centennial, events of remembrance and historical interpretation are becoming more frequent. Our own collections here at Salisbury House include some remarkable pieces that connect with the story of The War to End All Wars. Carl Weeks, an inveterate collector of books, documents, and letters, acquired significant pieces that directly relate to the war. These items raise some intriguing questions as well.

First, correspondence from a hugely consequential German leader of the early twentieth centuries represents the most important World War I-era artifact in our collections. This letter, penned and signed by Paul von Hindenburg (1847-1934), dates to October 12, 1915.

Hindenburg Combined

Hindenburg envelope combined

We do not have a translation* of the letter, unfortunately, but the date is significant.  The years 1914-1915 saw several important German victories on the battlefields of Europe, and Field Marshall Hindenburg’s star was on the rise.

Hindenberg photoAlthough Hindenburg had retired from the military in 1911, he was called back into active service when the war broke out in 1914.  By the following year – around the time he wrote this letter – Hindenburg had established himself as a formidable commander of Germany’s forces on the Eastern Front. His command led successful campaigns at the battles of Tannenberg and Masurian Lakes in 1914-1915.

One key member of Hindenburg’s staff grew increasingly close to him during these early years of the war. Erich Wilhelm Ludendorff (1865-1937) was assigned to Hindenburg as his Chief of Staff in 1914, and the two men constantly worked together. Indeed, Ludendorff and Hindenburg were jointly responsible for the German victory at Tannenberg and other key advances.

Together, the two men rose to the very height of the German command structure. The National Army Museum in London describes their ascent: “Through a combination of prestige, military efficiency and intrigues against rivals they gradually established themselves over the Kaiser and the German Parliament (the Reichstag) to become supreme warlords of Germany.”

Hindenburg,_Kaiser,_LudendorffHindenburg, the Kaiser, and Ludendorff, c. 1918

In addition to the letter penned and signed by Hindenburg, the Salisbury House collections includes correspondence and signatures by Ludendorff as well.Ludendorff combined

Here again, our lack of German language skills impedes our ability to more fully interpret the artifacts. These may date to around 1919, the year following the Armistice and the end of the war.

Still, despite our uncertainties, these letters written by Paul von Hindenburg and Erich Ludendorff connect Salisbury House’s collections to two of the most consequential leaders of the German military during the entirety of the First World War.

After hostilities ceased in November 1918, Hindenburg and Ludendorff both advocated the “stab in the back” explanation for Germany’s defeat. In this rendering, the war’s loss was due to the unpatriotic machinations of socialists, communists, and Jews, among others, and not to the failure of the German high command (e.g. Hindenburg and Ludendorff).

By the 1920s, their careers veered apart. Ludendorff became increasingly involved in ultra-nationalist politics and was a prominent figure in the early Nazi party. In 1925, he ran as the Nazi presidential candidate, but received only 1% of the vote. Ludendorff’s politics and personal beliefs became increasingly unhinged and antisemitic.  He died in 1937 in relative obscurity.

Hindenburg, though, remained a prominent figure in Germany, beloved as a war hero. Convinced to stand as a candidate in the 1925 presidential election, he was elected to oversee  Germany’s difficult postwar governance. During the final years of his life and presidency, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor (1932), though Hindenburg remained president until his death in 1934.

Hitler_HindenburgPaul von Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler in Berlin, May 1933
 

At this point, it’s worth asking: when and why did Carl collect these objects? It is tempting to speculate. Given our lack of contextualizing information (a translation of the letters, for example, or historical sources that suggest Carl’s motives), the most responsible interpretation of these artifacts suggests that they were simply just a part of his broader collection. Perhaps Carl viewed the Hindengurg and Ludendorff letters along the same vein as his autographed letters from Charles Cornwallis or the Marquis de Lafayette: collectible documents whose worth rested on their creation by significant historical figures.

Another object from Salisbury House’s World War I-related pieces adds an additional layer to the story. A 1921 letter fromJusserand_Combined the French ambassador to the United States, Jules Jusserand, thanked George S. Murphy of Des Moines for his charitable donation to the postwar recovery efforts in France.

As this correspondence is in English, we have no language barrier, but questions remain. Did Murphy and Carl Weeks know each other? Probably. Murphy’s 1966 obituary indicates that he was a prominent business owner in Des Moines and belonged to several fraternal organizations, including the Kiwanis Club and the Freemasons. It is not unlikely that Weeks and Murphy knew each other through through these groups or business associates.

Was Carl also involved in providing charitable donations to war-ravaged France? Or did Murphy, knowing Carl’s penchant for acquiring letters and signatures of famous men, offer him the letter for his collection?

Here again, we have more questions than answers.

We hope that someday we will have the sources needed to more fully tell the stories of these documents.  Until then, however, they remain important, both  in their own right and as illustrations of the broader historical significance of our collections here at Salisbury House.

* Do you read German? We would welcome a translation of the letters included above. Reach us here.
 
Want more World War I history? Reserve your tickets now for our upcoming History Series lecture by author Michael Nieberg on May 1. His book, Dance of the Furies, explores Europe at the outset of the Great War.

Bricks, Mortar, & Men

Workmen broke ground on Salisbury House almost a century ago. Beginning in 1923, truckloads of brick, mortar, barrels, and beams navigated the steep rise of the hill atop Tonawanda Drive.  Over the next five years, the Weekses’ grand new home took shape. Local photographers captured in-progress images of Salisbury House at different stages of the project.  These shots were primarily taken at a distance, and typically showcased the building’s stately dimensions. However, closer inspection of these photographs reveals the ordinary, work-a-day experiences of life at a 1920s construction site.

The photograph below from December 1923 shows a view of the garage taken from the west. At first glance, the photograph suggests little more than mud, building detritus, and desolation.

12.8.23

A closer look reveals action and purpose. Men stride across the half-finished garage. On the left, a man in a hat and overcoat, closely followed by an associate, looks north. Behind them, two more men continue their labors.

12.8.23_men detail_super close

The far left side of the photograph also includes details of men at work. Look closely at the corner of the structure in the foreground:

12.8.23.more men_construction detritus

12.8.23.more men_construction detritus.close of men

Two years later, thanks to the efforts of these men, a substantial amount of progress had been made. By March 1925, the main footprint of Salisbury House was apparent. The garage – featured prominently in the images above –  is barely visible on the far left side of this photograph.

3.23.25.b_

Though the exterior walls have taken shape, a closer look at this image shows a house far from complete.

3.23.25.b_south door detail.

The east wing of the house extends only to the first floor.  Carl’s and Edith’s bedrooms remain but a twinkle in the architects’  eyes. There is no trace of the sixteenth-century, half-beam ceiling in the Great Hall.  Daylight and oak trees crown the room instead.

3.23.25.b_south door detail.2

A view of the north entrance tells a similar story.

3.23.25.a

The application of the famed flint-work on the Tudor wing of the house appears in progress on the left side of the frame.

3.23.25.a_men detail

The two men in this photograph illustrate the human realities of building Salisbury House. The man on the right was possibly an architect from Boyd & Moore, the local firm responsible for the design and build of the house (perhaps even Byron Bennett Boyd or Herbert J. Moore). As for the man on the left – perhaps a crew foreman? Their markedly different attire certainly suggests differences in occupation and/or class.

3.23.25.a_men detail.2

Progress marked the entire property in this spring of 1925.  Below, the northeast approach to Salisbury House neared completion.

Undated_driveway

Our homburg (or fedora?) -wearing gentleman from above appeared again:

Close up bosses

The three men in the foreground dwarf the workmen (at right in the full-sized photograph) who continued to toil away while the bosses posed for the camera.

Working men detail

Another wonderful detail appears in this photograph. The driveway slope dominates the image’s middle distance, with the majestic silhouette of Salisbury House beyond. Near the crest of the rise, a sign appeared at the base of a tree.

Flower sign

Flower sign_up close

WILD FLOWERS IN IOWA ARE GETTING SCARCE                                                                                                             ONLY THE UNINFORMED GATHER THEM

This sounds like Edith’s doing, as she was an enthusiastic gardener.  To modern-day sensibilities, the sign suggests a vague similarity to the current mania for pet-shaming signs. If this sign were hanging around the neck of one of the Weekses’ canine companions – perhaps after a dig through the Salisbury gardens – they would have had an instant meme on their hands.

Four months after these photos were taken, the progress of construction was documented again. A view from the southeast corner of the property indicated that the workers had been busy during the summer of 1925.

8.5.25.b.

Still, as yet there were no windows in much of the house, including the Common Room and Edith’s Suite.

8.5.25.b.closer

At this point, the Weekses were two years into a five-year, three-million-dollar project.  The pane-less windows, a cluster of barrels, and pile of dirt at photo’s right edge were visible reminders of the work still underway.

8.5.25.b_barrel detail

The view from the north in August 1925 also showed both the great distance already traveled by the Salisbury House builders, and the sizable amount of work left to finish.  Here, the cottage appeared mostly finished – with windows, even! – and a tar-papered roof was in evidence.

8.5.25.a

Still, the main section of the house remained windowless.

8.5.25.a_detail

Makeshift scaffolding and ladders also appeared. Although no workmen were featured in this particular photograph, evidence of their labor remained in the objects they left behind.

8.5.25.a_ladder wheelbarrow detail

A comparison of photos separated by almost a century  offers an amazing study in contrast.

South Collage_Really Use

Collage_North view

Collage_Driveway

Collage_south elevation

Collage_cottage_use

Five years after the first truckloads of bricks and mortar rumbled up Tonawanda Drive, Salisbury House was complete.  The total cost of building and furnishing the home – three million dollars in the 1920s – would be about forty million dollars today.

A local pastor read a blessing during the laying of the house’s cornerstone in 1925. Nelson Owen, the rector of St. Paul’s Church, urged the Almighty to “bring this home to a happy completion.” For Salisbury House – still standing, still magnificent – the preacher’s benediction rang true.

letter.small

Salisbury House Program, Tour and Services Survey

On behalf of the Board, volunteers and staff at Salisbury House, we’d like to request that you give us five to ten minutes of your time to complete a brief (20 question) and anonymous survey on our programs, tours and services. Your complete and candid responses will be incredibly helpful to us as we work to improve existing programming and establish priorities for the years ahead. Thank you in advance for your time. We appreciate it.

CLICK HERE TO BE DIRECTED TO THE SURVEY

Grant Wood Comes to Book Club

It began at book club.

The Salisbury House Young Professionals routinely hosts this event  every couple of months. Literature collected by Carl and Edith Weeks, still housed in the magnificent library today, provide inspiration for the books chosen for discussion.  Sinclair Lewis’ Main Street (1920) was the pick for January 2014.  The selection was particularly apt, as the Weekses purchased several Lewis works over the years, including the 1937 Limited Editions Club publication of Main Street illustrated by Grant Wood.

Following a rousing discussion of both Lewis’ and Wood’s work in Main Street, your correspondent wondered: how else did Wood’s life and work intersect with the story of the Weeks family?

What we found is pretty cool.

First, the Limited Editions Club (LEC) version of Main Street is itself a treasure.  Even if one picked up the book without noticing the Wood references on the cover and frontispiece, his familiar style is immediately apparent in the illustrations.  Wood’s signature appears in the book as well.

Wood Collage.3

This edition of Main Street, published in 1937, appeared at a time when Wood was increasingly well-known in the national art scene.  His first one-man exhibitions took place two years earlier, in Chicago during February and March of 1935, followed by his Feragil Gallery show in New York.

Prior to the opening of the Chicago exhibit, however, Wood attended a January 1935 lecture in Iowa City by fellow regional artist Thomas Hart Benton (R. Tripp Evans’ Grant Wood: A Life details both the visit and the interaction between the two artists).  The two men then traveled to Des Moines where they jointly addressed the Des Moines Women’s Club.

Wood spoke first, followed by Benton.   A Des Moines Register reporter covering the lecture remarked upon both men’s appearance.  “The soft speech of Wood clashes obviously with the vigorous and rough, though exact, words of Benton,” wrote Register journalist Gordon Gammack.  “The latter, as he did Saturday, is the kind of person who can turn abruptly to a lady who has interrupted him and say ‘damn it…’ without being impolite.”

It must have been an entertaining evening.

The Register also included a photograph of Benton, Wood, and the man whose hospitality they had both enjoyed earlier that afternoon: Carl Weeks.  A photograph (grainy and unfocused, sadly) of the three men accompanied the article.  Benton was seated, with Wood and Weeks flanking his right and left.

Wood THB Carl article_cropped

It’s not clear whether or not Woods and Weeks had met before January 1935. Thomas Hart Benton and Carl Weeks, though, knew each other.  One of Carl’s grandsons, Cooper Weeks – who himself lived in the same neighborhood as the Bentons in Kansas City and knew them well – remembered hearing his grandfather talk about Benton, and vice versa.  Cooper recalled that  Benton credited Carl with one of the first big sales of his career, a $500 purchase of an early Benton work that remains in Cooper’s family today.

As for Grant Wood and Carl Weeks, we do know that they kept in touch for a time.  Not long after this Des Moines rendezvous, Wood traveled to Chicago for the opening of his first significant one-man exhibition at Lakeside Press Galleries.  Our records indicate that Carl visited him in the Windy City.   Indeed, their meeting occurred in the midst of a critical moment in Wood’s life: his courtship of and marriage to Sara Sherman Maxon.

An onionskin copy of correspondence from Weeks to Woods, pictured below, was dated March 11, 1935.  Nine days earlier, as Evans’ biography recounts, “Wood’s neighbors read with astonishment that he was to be married that night in a small ceremony in Minneapolis.  The fact that Cedar Rapids’ “bachelor artist” had a secret fiancee was nearly as dumbfounding as the circumstances of the wedding itself – a ceremony conducted with little warning, far from home, and with no friends or family in attendance.”

Weeks’ letter also reflects the surprise commonly elicited by news of the marriage (though he includes none of the misgivings typical among many of Woods’ close friends upon hearing of the nuptials).

Marriage letter

To have been a fly on the wall when Carl Weeks “butt[ed] in on something” between Grant Wood and Sara Sherman Maxon!

Wood and Weeks remained friendly in the months following his marriage to Sara.  Another letter from Carl to Grant in May of 1935 suggests that the two planned, at some point, to meet again.

Carl to Grant

“Taliesin” almost certainly referred to Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous property in Wisconsin. Did Weeks and Wood ever visit Wright’s estate together?  Unfortunately, the answer to that question continues to elude us.  Still, the confluence in the lives of Carl Weeks and Grant Wood, occurring as it did in the spring and summer of 1935, provides a  window into a deeply consequential time in Wood’s life.

The union between Grant Wood and Sara Sherman Maxon was not destined for “great happiness,” as Carl wished for them.  Their fraught marriage ended in 1939.  Indeed, Wood famously enlisted his housekeeper as proxy to deliver his desire for a divorce to Sara.

Salisbury House’s Grant Wood-related objects have stories to tell, like so many of our museum’s treasures.  Our collections provide avenues for explorations of  Picasso, The Book of Mormon, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and many, many more.

Our next book club, which will be held in March, focuses on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover.  Is there a connection, one may well wonder, between Salisbury House’s holdings and this master of twentieth-century letters?

Yes. D.H. Lawrence is coming to book club.

Best Wishes for Xmas, (signed) James Joyce

The early weeks of December often bring a welcome variety to one’s mailbox: Christmas cards.  These envelopes, a nice respite from the usual junk mail and bills, reflect a long-held tradition of exchanging postal pleasantries at Christmastime.  The Weeks family, who built Salisbury House in the 1920s, kept this custom as well.  Our collections here at the museum contain a few samples of the Weekses’ own Christmas cards, and other cards and holiday greetings penned by well-known artists and writers of the twentieth century.

The exchange of Christmas cards was a practice first established in the mid-1800s.  A British businessman, Sir Henry Cole, is typically credited with producing the first commercial holiday card in 1843.  One of the Cole originals sold at auction in 2001 for over £22,000.

800px-FirstchristmascardSir Henry Cole’s Christmas Card, c. 1843

By the turn of the twentieth century, this December ritual had taken hold in Europe and the United States.  Indeed, a young Carl Weeks had his own Christmas cards printed around this time.  The card pictured below is undated, but the fact that the text includes only Carl’s name – and not Edith, whom he married in 1907 – suggests the piece was printed sometime around 1900 (though, as we will see, Carl did not uniformly include Edith’s name on the family Christmas card even after their marriage).

Just Carl undated

After the completion of Salisbury House in 1928, the family home often illustrated the Weekses’ Christmas cards.

Color CEW undated

CEW BW Xmas late 1930s_1940s

The Weeks boys also appeared in the annual Christmas card from time to time.  A handwritten date on the back of the card pictured below indicates that it was sent “around 1938.”  This is curious, given the inscription: “Holiday Greetings from the Three Bachelors of Salisbury House.”

First of all, the only unmarried Weeks man around 1938 was Lafe (the youngest son, standing in the image below).  William was married in 1935.  Carl, of course, was married to Edith.  Perhaps “Three Bachelors” was meant as a joke…but one wonders if Edith or Margaret (William’s wife) found it particularly funny!

Bachelors Reverse says ca 1938

In addition to sending out holiday cards, the Weekses also received them from a variety of friends and acquaintances.  Joseph Stella, a prolific Italian-American artist of the twentieth century, maintained a long relationship with Carl and Edith.  Correspondence over the years between the Weekses and the Stellas often included a Christmas greeting.

 More broadly, though, Carl and Edith were important patrons of Stella’s work.  Stella inscribed a 1926 photograph of himself in the process of painting The Apotheosis of the Roseone of his major works, with thanks to the Weeks family for supporting his artistic endeavors.  The Rose now hangs in Salisbury House.

Stella combined

The Weekses and Stella remained in touch.  From Paris in 1931, Stella penned the following letter:

Stella 1931 note

Paris – Dec. 14 – 1931

Dear Mr. Weeks,

For Christmas I send to you and to Mrs. Weeks my best wishes.

Cordially,

Joseph Stella

Another holiday greeting, addressed to Carl at his office, came from the writer Maurine Whipple in 1942.   Extant correspondence between Whipple and Weeks was quite extensive, and suggested a unique relationship that was reflected in her 1942 Christmas card.

Whipple 1942

Salt Lake City

Dec. 17, ‘42

Dear Bro in the Gospel:

Just a word of cheer and Season’s Greeting before I go back to my corner of the Lord’s vineyard.  Indeed I am blessed to have a corner to go back to! Since the invasion of the gentiles into our City of Saints the weather has turned so foul that truly I think the Lord is pouring out His wrath.  At any rate, I have had four wisdom teeth out and am completely recovered from last fall’s accident and am now ready to work fifteen hours a day for the Arizona Strip, of which you are slated to receive the first autographed copy! (If I hear from you someday, that is.  I am worried – Satan is abroad!)

Faithfully,

Sister Whipple

The year prior to this Christmas missive, Whipple’s The Giant Joshua, a novel about the Mormon religion, was published to widespread popular and critical acclaim.  This holiday letter from Whipple to Weeks took place at a time in which she was increasingly well-known on the national stage.

Additionally, the historical backdrop of the early 1940s is apparent within this exchange.  December 17, 1942:  the United States had been engaged in World War II for almost exactly one year.  The envelope that landed on Weeks’ desk advertised for war bonds and stamps:

Whipple 3 env

Yet another singular Christmas card arrived at Salisbury House in December 1948.  Mailed to the Weekses from Philip Duschnes, a prominent New York bookseller, the envelope included an astonishing supplement.  A leaf from a fifteenth-century manuscript, intricately illuminated on vellum, was enclosed in a paper mat.

Duschenes 1948

An inscription inside the card provided additional identifying information:

Dechenes xmas 2

Philip Duschnes became well-known during his career as a bookseller for offering high-quality pieces and also for the practice of selling single leaves from significant works.   Weeks, a devoted bibliophile, was clearly a good customer.

Duschnes often collaborated with Otto Ege, a dean at the Cleveland School of Art and lecturer at (Case) Western Reserve University in Cleveland.  One of their joint efforts, titled Original Leaves from Famous Books: Nine Centures, 1122 A.D. – 1923 A.D. remains in the Salisbury House collection today.  The collection, one of fifty made available for purchase, went on the market in 1949.  Leaves from the “famous books” were placed in a paper mat and included a brief description penned by Ege.

Leaves.1

This leaf came from a fourteenth-century manuscript of Aristotle’s Ethics, detailed below by Ege.

Original leaves 4 infor

As Ege notes, a secular writer likely penned this 1365 manuscript.  Compared to the leaf from the Book of Hours included in Duschnes’ Christmas card above, marked differences appear in the production of the manuscripts that suggest the secular versus the religious origins of each.

As amazing as the Duschnes, Whipple, and Stella pieces are, however, there is yet another object in the Salisbury House collections that takes the cool quotient up a notch.  The piece initially appears to be a fun, vintage-y Christmas postcard:

Joyce 1

 The back of the postcard reveals just how awesome this piece is:

Joyce 2

Your eyes do not deceive you.  Yes, this is a Christmas card signed by James Joyce and Nora [Barnacle] Joyce.

The massive geek-out does not stop there.  Attempts to date the postcard yielded a trove of information that takes this piece to epic levels of amazing.

We started with the stamp.  Although the postmark date remained illegible, we were able to track down some reliable-looking information about the stamp’s origins.  Issued in 1927 and dedicated to the French chemist Marcelin Berthelot, the commemorative stamp suggests that the postcard probably dates to the late 1920s.

There’s more.  The Christmas postcard is addressed to Mr. and Mrs. James Stephens.

James Stephens, like Joyce, was an Irish-born writer.  According to an article by Richard R. Finneran published in the James Joyce Quarterly, the two men did not immediately become friends.  Indeed, their relationship remained somewhat antagonistic until the 1920s.   Despite this early frostiness, Joyce and Stephens agreed around 1927-1929 that, should Joyce face insurmountable difficulties in completing Finnegan’s Wake, Stephens would finish the work for him.

This postcard, held here at Salisbury House, surely dates to this very time, during which Joyce and Stephens cemented their friendship and struck their agreement regarding Finnegan’s Wake.  

This postcard, held here in the Salisbury House collections, illuminates the story of one of the greatest literary creations of the twentieth century.

Merry Christmas.

The Cadillac of Water-Closets: Sanitation at Salisbury House

“If Salisbury House does not feel one hundred years old on the day that we finish,” Carl Weeks once intoned, “then we have failed.”   Happily, Weeks’ goal  was beautifully realized upon the completion of his new home in the 1920s.  Certain portions of the house, however, were decidedly modern.  The bathrooms of Salisbury House – all sixteen of them – reflected the detailed attention to high-end furnishings that made the Weekses’ home, in Carl’s words, “a harmonious association of the centuries.”

The Weeks family were among the “one-percenters” of the 1920s.  Indoor toilets remained limited for most folks until after World War II.  The outhouse, not a flush toilet, represented the most common form of sanitation for much of the population, particularly in rural areas.

2000.40.575Rural Iowa outhouse, c. 1930s. Special Collections,
State Historical Society of Iowa, Des Moines
 

Indeed, sanitation for most people in the early twentieth century did not look dissimilar to the situation as it stood for much of recorded history.  A hole in the ground sufficed for centuries. Public latrines, for example, were not uncommon in classical Rome.

RomanLatrines at Dougga  (http://www.flickr.com/photos/prof_richard/7759983358/)

Despite the occasional existence of surprisingly complex sewer systems in the classical and premodern eras, the preferred method of excrement disposal for the masses remained al fresco.  Most people unceremoniously dumped waste out windows or doors into the open sewers of city streets.  Passers-by were well-advised to remain alert.

The late sixteenth century saw a significant advancement in the field.  Sir John Harrington, plumber to the stars, created a water closet prototype for the benefit of Queen Elizabeth I in 1596.   Nearly two hundred years later, Scotsman Alexander Cummings secured the first patent for a flush toilet.

toilet

Rendering of Cummings’ design http://www.robinsonlibrary.com/technology/engineering/biography/graphics/bramah4.gif

By the nineteenth century, various historical processes spurred the development of the modern waste disposal system.  Industrialization, urbanization, advancements in the fields of medicine and epidemiology, and the rise of social movements aimed at urban reform, among others, laid the groundwork for contemporary sanitation methods.

A new industry sprang up to meet the public’s needs.  Around the turn of the twentieth century, a variety of companies vied to become the public’s preferred purveyor of all things plumbing.  Here in the United States, the Meyer-Sniffen Company of New York emerged as a rising star. Their 1884 Catalog “D” contained a dazzling array of faucets, sinks, toilets, bathtubs, and other accouterments.

Cover and title
 
 

Tubs.Shower

What set Meyer-Sniffen’s wares apart from the average products installed by Joe the Plummer c. 1920?  John Christou of George Taylor Specialties, a vintage faucet and valves company in New York, explained the appeal of Meyer-Sniffen in a 2002 interview for Old House Journal.

“Without regard to cost or consumer, Meyer-Sniffen equipment appears to be purposely heavy—not so much as to be better mechanically than their competitors,” he remarked, “but to be different.”  According to Old House, the company’s plumbing products were “unmistakable: massive but rich with voluptuous curves and thickness.”   Further, Christou continued, “parts that other manufacturers would nickel plate, Meyer-Sniffen would make out of pure nickel.”  Much of Meyer-Sniffen’s product line centered on providing high-end clients with high-end finishes.  “No matter how many years a mansion, club, or hotel staffer polished this faucet,” concluded Christou, “they could never wear off the shine.”

The company’s products appealed to Carl Weeks.  Leaving aside his affection for “voluptuous curves” in a context entirely apart from plumbing, Weeks likely responded to the quality and durability of Meyer-Sniffen.  Although many of the original fixtures of Salisbury House have been removed during the years since the Weeks family lived here, the remaining pieces are fine examples of the company’s workmanship.

On the second floor of Salisbury House, each of the seven bedrooms bedroom includes an en-suite bathroom.  We first noticed the Meyer-Sniffen trademark on the toilet in the porch room bath, just off the balcony in the Great Hall:

MS Toilet

An earlier version of this “Vortex Special” toilet was, in fact, pictured in their 1884 catalog.  Among several options pictured, the offerings shown here include both a standard and ornate finish.

Toilet MS

The tanks were not wall-mounted as shown at Salisbury House in the 1920s, but otherwise the style remained similar.

The Weekses also employed a bit of classy camouflage for the bare toilets.  It’s possible that all the bathrooms in the house originally contained the wicker and wood toilet covers pictured below.  The remaining examples now appear in the baths in the Queen Anne guest bedroom (left) and Edith’s suite (right).

SH toilets

The bath fixtures that have survived the years also attest to the durability of Meyer-Sniffen. The sink ensemble in Edith’s suite (top) and the fixtures in the Queen Anne bath (bottom) are still in remarkably good shape.

Fixtures

The installation of first-rate tubs, toilets, and hardware would have themselves alone assured the superiority of Salisbury House bathrooms.  However, the Weekses were not done.  Deftware, the finely-crafted tiles made in the Netherlands, were incorporated into the tile walls of several baths.  The Delft tiles embedded into the walls of the baths in William’s room (top), the Queen Anne room (middle), and Edith’s suite (bottom), are pictured here.

Delft

So much about the Weeks’ home remains extraordinary.  Its architecture, artwork, rare books, artifacts, and the plumbing – yes, the plumbing – testify to the breadth and depth of the Weekses’ vision.   On your next visit to Salisbury House, take a closer look at these Cadillacs of water-closets.  

 
 
 
 

The Sons of Salisbury House

Today, Salisbury House operates as a museum.  Our world-class collections include an incredibly array of art, rare and limited edition books, historic documents, artifacts, furnishings – the list could go on and on.

What can get lost, sometimes, in this catalog of treasures, is the family who first called the House home.   Our newly-installed exhibit aims to illuminate their story.

Panel1.Final

The Weeks family moved into Salisbury House in 1926.  Charles, the eldest, was eighteen.  Lafe, the youngest, was eight.   This new exhibit focuses on the Weeks sons’ early lives and continues through their adult years.

A wealth of photographs, many of which have never been available for public viewing, figure prominently in the exhibit.

The image below is part of a larger collection on display of Weeks family stereographs taken around 1919-1920.

Frosty

Despite its damage, the stereograph below offers a rare, intimate portrait of Carl and Edith, the boys’ parents.

Edith carl

William’s room, which previously functioned as meeting space, has been refurnished.  Additional exhibit panels continue the story of the sons of Salisbury House here as well.

Wrap up panel

Ultimately, the story of the Weeks boys resonates with families everywhere.  Aspects of their lives, especially the splendor of their home after 1926 were unique, but the rhythms of life common to most families emerge as well.  Incorporating the Weekses’ narrative into the broader fabric of the museum enhances the richness of Salisbury House.  Come by for a visit to view all of our treasures!

Heads

“Motoring is a Sport for Kings”: Salisbury House and the American Auto

Automotive history comes alive at our annual Concours d’Elegance car show.  A superb collection of automobiles, set against the backdrop of Salisbury House, creates a truly majestic scene.

ConcoursThe connection between Salisbury House and American auto history runs deep.  The Weeks men loved cars.  Carl, reportedly, was a Cadillac man, while his sons grew to prefer Packards.    Lafe and Hud, the two youngest Weeks boys, took charge of the family’s Model A in 1927.  Their antics reflected Carl’s long-standing interest in automobiles.

Hud.Lafe.1927.28.1st Model ACarl’s enthusiasm for cars has been preserved in the archives here at Salisbury House.   Our collection includes several copies of Auto News, a publication printed in Des Moines and devoted to all things automotive.  Weeks’ collection contains Volume 1, Number 1 of Auto News.

The magazine suggests more than Carl Weeks’ long-time interest in cars.  Auto News provides a window into the early years of the motor industry in the United States.  Indeed, glimpses of the country’s car culture surface in the magazine’s yellowed pages.

Auto News_1911_1.A

Interestingly, the inaugural issue of Auto News pictured a woman at the driver’s seat.  Some early manufacturers did market certain cars towards a female audience.  However, the masculine tenor of Auto News’ content indicates that the publishers were not seeking to engage feminine readers.  Instead, they were likely driven by that oldest of advertising tropes: put a pretty lady on the cover and it’ll sell like hotcakes.

This issue of Auto News from February 1911 appeared in the auto industry’s early years.   Henry Ford’s Model T had started rolling off the production floor in the autumn of 1908.  Ford’s “car for the great multitude” ultimately proved enormously popular.

When the first edition of Auto News hit newsstands in Des Moines, Herring Motor Company bought advertising space to tout its Fords.  The Model T Tornado Runabout came equipped with, among other things, two six-inch gas lamps, an extension top, and automatic brass windshield.   All this could be had for $725.  Alternatively, Herring Motor Co. advertised the Model T Touring Car.  This larger model sat five passengers and ran to $780.

Auto News_1911_12Prominent individuals within the local automobile scene made the pages of Auto News as well.  William Moyer of Des Moines was pictured in the midst of a “Joy Ride” in his Hudson 33.  Elsewhere in the magazine, his auto dealership advertisement queried readers, “Why Not Own a Hudson.”

Auto News_1911_1.B

Auto News_1911_2The publishers of Auto News also remained wise to the practical needs of their readership.   In the event that one’s motor car might suffer a mechanical failure or otherwise, it behooved one to acquire protection for one’s garments.

The Automobile Apparel company of New York City promised to provide customers with the means necessary to “keep the cloths [sic] clean when making repairs about the car either on the road or in the garage.”

Auto News_1911_13

Still, Auto News contained more than advertisements for cars and apparel.  Stories of individual enthusiasts, clubs, and news of events calculated to appeal to these early motorheads dominated the publication’s pages.

One story chronicled the experiences of a newspaper reporter who covered an automobile tour in 1910.  “Motoring is a sport for kings,” declared A.R. Hultman, though he allowed that the pastime might also be tempered by “visions of punctures, blow-outs, carburetor troubles and many other bugaboos incidental to the life of the automobilist.”

Auto News_1911_4

Other Auto News articles presented – to our modern sensibilities – a fascinating intersection of old customs and new technology.   “Hunting Rabbits in an Auto” by Rodney C. Wells of Marshalltown suggested that readers take up this eponymous pursuit.

 He cautioned that certain steps ought to be followed for the aspirant rabbit-hunt-by-auto aficionado.  “Four make a great plenty,” Wells advised, “three guns and a driver.”  Good weather and a revolving searchlight were also keys to success.  He closed with a word of caution:  “Some one [sic] has said gasoline and booze do not mix.  By all means they do not mix on a night hunting trip.”

This sage advice, combined with a stirring image entitled LASSOOING [sic] A JACK FROM A RACING BUICK, perhaps led some courageous souls to set out on a nocturnal quest for midnight rabbit.

Auto News_1911_7

Rabbits were not the only quarry.  From Minnesota came a startling report of “the first and probably the last car to be used in hunting down and killing a buffalo.”   The accompanying photograph assured readers of the claim’s veracity.

Auto News_1911_8

Leaving aside these noteworthy incidents, other articles in Auto News anticipated the future.  One such piece assured readers that the time had arrived for American trucks.

Auto News_1911_14

The motorcycle, too, appeared in the pages of Auto News.  Indian Motorcycles, a decade old by 1911, could be serviced in Des Moines at Jenkins & Co.  Readers were also apprised of the latest motorcyclist’s world’s records.

Auto News_1911_10

Auto News_1911_11

The expansive world of motors captured Carl Weeks’ interest.  His sons, too, eagerly took to the machines.

The Weeks boys, with mother Edith in the background, were pictured on the back of a motorcycle around 1913.  William, the second-oldest, had his own motorcycle in 1925 at the age of fifteen.

Edith.boys.motorcycle

Bill.motorcyle.1925

Despite the magazine’s prescience in 1911, the publishers of Auto News surely could not have guessed the extent to which the car would come to dominate American life.  The process ultimately took generations.  The story of the automobile’s ascendance in our cultural imagination appears in the pages of this century-old magazine and, once a year, on the grounds of Salisbury House.

Concours 2

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 44 other followers