(re)Discovering History in the Salisbury House Library

The Library at Salisbury House is the stunning manifestation of Carl Weeks’ longtime love of collecting books. From fifteenth-century incunabula, to Grant Wood, James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, and D.H. Lawrence, the collection includes a trove of wonders.

Most of these books are still displayed on the shelves in the Library at Salisbury House, as they were during the Weeks family’s residency (from 1926 to the early 1950s).

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Archival Image of the Library, c. 1930

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The Library Today

Our records include several Library inventories from over the years, but it became clear that a newly-updated catalog was necessary. Thus, we embarked upon a multi-year project of revisiting every entry in the collection inventory. Each book was taken off the shelves, meticulously examined for condition issues, ephemera, signatures, etc. and – crucially – each book’s location in the Library was confirmed and/or corrected as well.

We could not have finished this mammoth project without the assistance of our wonderful Library volunteers: Christine Whitney, Charles Timberlake, and Judy Ford were integral to the inventory’s successful completion.

Two and a half years later: we’re done! The dream, from our museum staff’s perspective, would be to make the inventory fully available and searchable online. For now, though, we wanted to share a very special discovery that Judy and I made during the final day of updating the collection.

Two medieval Books of Hours number among the most visually stunning works in the Library. These volumes typically contained a range of psalms, hymns, and prayers, and became immensely popular among laymen and women between the 13th and the 16th centuries. The two Books of Hours in the Salisbury House collection contain elements typical of most works in this genre – illumination, decorative borders, full-page illustrations (called miniatures), and text in Latin.

Pictured below is one example from our collection, including the cover, full-page miniature, and decorative text:

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The second Book of Hours in the collection is slightly larger. It dates to the late 14th century and is also highly decorative:

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These two volumes represent the full extent of the Books of Hours in the Salisbury House collection.

….or do they??

As it turns out: we have a third Book of Hours! Now, we did start to wonder as we neared the end of the inventory. We had noted a third entry for a Book of Hours in the old inventory but, believing as we did that the two known copies were all we had, assumed that the third item in the inventory was a duplicate/erroneous entry. Soon, though, we rediscovered a bit of history lost among the shelves in the Library at Salisbury House.

It all began innocuously enough. We pulled a volume enclosed in a very nice, custom-made case with the label “Novum TestamentumJohn Trumbull’s Copy – 1794″ on its spine.

“Well, that’s interesting,” we agreed, “it must be early American artist Trumbull’s copy of the New Testament.”

As with every book we pulled from the shelves during the process of updating the inventory, we removed it from the case for a closer inspection of condition, etc.

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First, we noticed that the book itself didn’t quite fit into its custom-made enclosure:

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Odd.

And then we opened the front cover.

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Hmm. Well, that certainly doesn’t look like it’s from the late 18th century, we agreed. That feeling grew as we leafed through subsequent pages.

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And then we realized – we’d found it! There actually was a third Book of Hours! It had, many years ago, been mistakenly placed in a case that belonged with the Trumbull New Testament (which sat, uncased, a few books down the shelf).

This third Book of Hours includes less decorative elements when compared to the other two, but it will always hold a special place in our hearts. All in all, it’s not a bad day at work when you (re)discover a late 14th/early 15th century book in your museum’s collection!

Owning Salisbury House: A Long, Strange Trip

First, a quick assessment of your Salisbury House knowledge:

(1) Who occupied Salisbury House for the longest period of time?

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  • (a) Carl and Edith Weeks
  • (b) The Iowa teachers’ union
  • (c) Drake University College of Fine Arts
  • (d) Salisbury House Foundation

It may come as a surprise to learn that the teachers’ union – the Iowa State Education Association (ISEA) – occupied Salisbury House from 1954 until 1998.  If you guessed (b), pat yourself on the back!

The ISEA was headquartered at the House for forty-four years. Carl and Edith lived here for twenty-eight years,during which time Drake University planned for two decades to turn the property into a fine arts college. The Salisbury House Foundation was formed in the 1990s, purchased the house, grounds, and collections in 1998, and continues to run the property today.

Our historic interpretation of Salisbury House now focuses primarily on the Weeks family. However,  Drake’s and ISEA’s control of the property represent significant chapters in this narrative as well. Documents in our archives trace the curious route of Salisbury House’s ownership, and also illustrate the unique challenges inhered in owning this singular property.

One factor plays an outsized role in this story: taxes. Even before Carl Weeks’ Salisbury House was completed in 1928, this knotty issue preoccupied its owner. Because  Salisbury House potentially posed a whopping tax liability for Carl, he applied his considerable inventiveness to circumventing the issue. A proposal dated November 1927 illustrated one plan he developed.

The gist of the document lies in Carl’s framing of Salisbury House as a “high grade investment for the Armand Company.” In this scenario, house was to be financed by Armand corporate funds instead of Weeks family money. Carl continued: “My verbal proposal to the Armand Company was that we would move in, attend to the upkeep of the house so far as servants, light, heat and power were concerned, and begin paying rent when the house was finally pronounced complete.” Rent, as suggested below, would run $25,000 per year.

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 Why would Carl pursue this plan in 1927? One explanation might lie in the reorganization of federal tax statutes in 1926.  Maybe the “rental agreement” in 1927 stemmed from an unfavorable tax situation that resulted from the revised tax laws. Perhaps Carl wanted to use payment of rent to offset his personal income tax as part of his own business. In other words, he would take his business income minus business expenses, including rent, to arrive at his taxable income. Alternatively, it seems possible that Carl wished to offset the tax on Armand corporate income – if the company could claim the the expenses involved in building Salisbury House, this could considerably reduce Armand’s taxable corporate income. Or, instead of an income tax issue, onerous property taxes might have prompted Carl to consider alternative tax arrangements.

We’re not sure if Carl was able to put this, or a similar plan, into action. Still, it’s clear that issues surrounding ownership of and tax liability for Salisbury House represented significant concerns. During the early 1930s, though, he executed a master stroke that eliminated his property’s heavy tax burden.

In November 1934, the news was announced: Carl deeded Salisbury House to Drake University in Des Moines. The university planned to eventually use the property as a fine arts college. The Weeks family would continue to live in the house for a minimum of five years and pay $100 monthly in rent to Drake. Ultimately, the terms of the lease remained in place for the next twenty years.

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By deeding Salisbury House to Drake University, the property (theoretically) became exempt from taxes.  Taxes on the property went from $8,500 in 1933 to $0. The above article from November 21, 1934, pointedly noted the fact that Carl would continue to reside in Salisbury House without paying any tax on the property.

Newspaper reports in subsequent years also remarked upon the sweetheart deal. A 1942 article reported that Salisbury House claimed the title of highest appraised valuation in Des Moines. Terrace Hill, then home to the Hubbell family and now to the governor of Iowa, represented the highest assessed valuation in the city. Despite Salisbury House’s towering appraisal, the article observed, “Because Weeks deeded the property to Drake university [sic] in 1934 as the future site for the fine arts college, Salisbury House is tax exempt. The manufacturer and his family still occupy the home….paying rent to Drake.”

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Still, questions surrounding Salisbury House’s tax liability – and Drake University’s subsequent responsibility for it after 1934 – did not go away. A pair of articles published in the Des Moines Tribune in 1937 indicates that Polk County nearly took the deed to Salisbury House due to delinquent taxes.

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Our archives do not contain further articles about this particular incident, and additional research thus far has yielded little. Still, because Drake University’s arrangement with the Weeks family remained in place for twenty years, the delinquent tax issue must have been ultimately laid to rest.

By the early 1950s, 1950 9 21 CR Bar Asso. May buy SH-page-001however, Drake administration recognized the impracticability of the Salisbury-House-as-fine-arts-college scheme. A buyer for Salisbury House was sought.

Reports in 1950 suggested that the American Bar Association considered moving its headquarters from Chicago to Salisbury House in Des Moines. While Drake “agreed to discuss it with them,” nothing substantive resulted.

Then, in late 1953, word was announced that a buyer had been found. The Iowa State Education Associate purchased Salisbury House, the collection, and the 11-acre property, for $200,000.  According to published reports, $100,000 of the proceeds went to Drake, while the remainder of the purchase price went to the Weeks family.

ISEA purchase

Almost immediately, ISEA also had to deal with the thorny issue of Salisbury House taxes. The central question in determining the tax status for the new occupants of Salisbury House hinged on “whether the ISEA is held to be an educational and charitable organization or a professional organization.”

1953 ISEA tax

Ultimately, as later reported by the Des Moines Register, the ISEA successfully sued to obtain tax-exempt status of the portions of Salisbury House kept open to the public for educational tours (the Library, Great Hall, and Common Room.

The tax question, as far as ISEA was concerned, appeared settled. Still, as Salisbury House transitioned from the family home of Carl and Edith Weeks to the headquarters of the Iowa State Education Association, some ambiguity remained in terms of the ownership of furnishings, pieces from the Weekses’ considerable collections, and other objects. Soon after the ISEA purchase was completed, efforts began to sell off objects deemed extraneous to the organization’s operations.

A little more than a month after the announced sale of Salisbury House, Charles Martin – then the executive secretary of ISEA – circulated a letter “concerning the disposal of “for sale” items in Salisbury House. Cedar closets, ceramic tile, bathroom fixtures, kitchen and laundry facilities, “and any odd furniture not bound by the purchase contract” was available for purchase.

A number of bids were placed for Salisbury House items. The VA hospital in Des Moines offered $30 for a stainless steel sink and $15 for the Reliable gas stove. Another individual offered $2 for “the small round mahogany tables and for the small drop leaf tables,” in addition to a $5 bid for a pair of metal twin beds. A Des Moines man placed a $5 bid for a cedar closet. Bathroom fixtures were sold for $25.

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Cedar Closet Bid

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1955 Small bids

1955 Kitchen bids

All bids (for which records remain) appeared to have been quickly accepted – with one exception. For reasons that remain unclear, Carl was in the position of having to purchase some items he wished to retain from Salisbury House after the sale to ISEA. We don’t know why these pieces weren’t exempted from the purchase contract in the first place. Essentially, Carl had to buy back objects from the ISEA that he had himself previously purchased. Most of the offers made by Carl were found agreeable by the ISEA administration, but his bid in August 1955 for a rug, table, and sofa was rebuffed.

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Response to Carl mangle bid

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Response to Carl list of items bid

Additional items were offered for purchase over the years. A public sale, for example, was held in the 1950s and anecdotal evidence suggests that similar events took place over the years.  ISEA also actively sought buyers for a number of antiques, and contacted both Tiffany’s in New York and Marshall Field in Chicago to inquire whether or not they might be interested in purchasing some Salisbury House objects.

1955 Public Sale

Marshall Field response

Tiffany

The most well-known ISEA sale came in the 1980s. Joseph Stella’s Tree of My Life brought $2.2 million at a Christie’s auction in December 1986. Later publications from the ISEA indicate the funds were invested in order to secure monies for restoration and related projects at Salisbury House.

Today, the Salisbury House Foundation, a private, nonprofit, 501(c)(3), owns and operates the property as an historic house museum. This status as a not-for-profit museum clarifies our role in terms of the custody and care of the house and grounds. Ultimately, though, the complicated history of Salisbury House ownership, taxes, and stewardship suggests the broader difficulties that are part and parcel of this extraordinary structure.

Special thanks to attorney Martha Sibbel for identifying possible tax-related issues regarding the ownership of Salisbury House.

“In the Little Pink and White Box”: The Rise and Fall of Carl Weeks’ Cosmetics Empire

“It was built on women’s vanity,” Carl Weeks frequently remarked when he discussed the fortune he made in business. More specifically, Weeks amassed his riches in the early twentieth century by selling cosmetics. His million-dollar idea originated in a combination of cold cream, face power, and perfume. Voila! Foundation makeup. By 1915, Weeks began selling his products under the Armand Company label.

Sales quickly took off. Armand skyrocketed in value from a few thousand dollars in the mid-nineteen-teens to over two million dollars in the late 1920s. Marketing and advertising – nascent in the early twentieth century – played a key role in Armand’s success. Alongside other cosmetics manufacturers, such as Max Factor, Elizabeth Arden, and Helena Rubinstein, Weeks’ business, according to historian Kathy Peiss in her indispensable Hope in a Jar: The Making of America’s Beauty Culture, “highlight[s] the decisive turn of the cosmetics industry toward national advertising and media-based marketing in the 1920s.”

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Weeks advertised Armand widely, from full-page, color ads in Vogue and Ladies Home Journal, to more specialized publications, as Peiss points out, such as the Jewish Daily Forward. Another key component in Armand’s advertising arsenal was Better Homes & Gardens, a magazine – like Armand – founded in Des Moines, Iowa. This periodical was established by Edwin Thomas Meredith in 1922. Meredith had embarked upon his career in publishing two decades before by founding Successful Farming in 1902; the company he built continues to figure prominently in today’s publishing landscape.

Better Homes & Gardens was originally called Fruit, Garden & Home: an ingot of publishing arcane that we on the Salisbury House staff discovered on a  recent research trip to Meredith’s headquarters in downtown Des Moines.

The excursion to Meredith’s offices will go down in this historian’s memory as a wondrous moment when the gods smiled as the gates to archival heaven parted. My colleague, Erica, and I planned to comb through old magazine issues to determine whether or not Weeks had, in fact, advertised in the Meredith publication. “Surely he did – he must have!” we agreed, but then again, one never knows. We sat down at a table and pulled out an early issue from 1924.

I nearly had a heart attack.

May 1924

There it was! Inside the front cover! A full-page, color Armand advertisement. It was a momentous occasion. The remainder of the research trip was spent discovering additional ads, tucked away like Easter eggs, among the tissue-paper folds of ninety-year old magazines.

This first Armand advertisement we found came from the May 1924 issue of Fruit, Garden & Home (the name was changed to Better Homes & Gardens in late 1924). We now knew that Car Weeks’ Armand Co. had advertised in the magazine from its earliest years – but what about its first year? Indeed, what about the very first issue?

And there it was: July, 1922, page 51.

July 1922

Both ads included the type of marketing that typified Armand advertising for most of the 1920s. The ads assured customers that, “Armand Cold Cream Powder is the only dry face powder with a base of exquisite cold cream!” Furthermore, the product “was created to bring increasing loveliness to every woman who wants her complexion to express her best self.” The allure of  “The Little Pink & White Boxes,” Weeks and his New York advertising team at N.W. Ayer hoped, would entice women away from the increasing variety of cosmetics on the market. And, for a time, it did.

By the late 1920s, a shift in the style of Armand advertisements became apparent. The New Woman required a different message, and Weeks’ company changed tack. An ad that appeared in May 1928 suggested this transition towards a more modern sensibility.

May 1928

“This one distinctive face powder meets the changed conditions of your active modern life,” the advertisement declared. The ad’s graphics also portrayed a woman of decidedly modern tastes, though her shadow, of course, maintained the traditional Armand silhouette.  At this point, the company’s cosmetics remained generally unchanged. Soon, however, significant alterations extended beyond Armand’s advertising and into its product line.

Here too, Carl Week’s Armand Co. reflected the broader historical moment. Historian Kathy Peiss notes that during the 1920s and 1930s, “Manufacturers and consumers alike increasingly perceived the face as a style, subject to fashion trends and fads.” With its introduction of the Symphonie face powder in 1929, Armand was situated squarely within the changing cosmetics industry.

Advertisements for Symphonie from 1930 illustrated this effort to twin fashion and cosmetics. Armand and other companies seemingly, in the parlance of our times, trended towards planned obsolescence. The ads urged women to think about their cosmetics in the same way in which they thought about their clothing fashions: changeable with both the seasons and the latest styles.

A June 1930 ad made connection explicit: “A ‘love-affair’ chiffon by Bergdorf & Goodman. A cinderella [sic] sandal by I. Miller, Inc. A charming complexion by Armand!”

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 From August of the same year: “Clothes are more alluring now…complexions must be too!”

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 By October, ad copy read, “A fair skin with your new furs – it’s the first note in the autumn Symphonie!”

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Despite the massive overhaul of Armand product and advertising, the Symphonie brand proved unpopular. Historian Peiss indicates that consumers’ attention typically focused more on the clothing styles and the women in the advertisements and less on Armand Cosmetics. Moreover, lagging sales signaled that women who did purchase the new Symphonie powder generally did not find it to their liking. Ultimately, Peiss suggests, the lackluster response to Symphonie revealed, “to Weeks’ despair, that modern marketing methods could not overcome the product’s limitations.”

Other factors also led to a decline in Armand sales. Though Weeks embraced new advertising, his insistence on selling product only through pharmacies and drugstores and not department stores – to which cosmetic brands like Max Factor and Maybelline increasingly shifted – negatively affected the company as well. By the second half of the twentieth century, Armand Cosmetics had all but disappeared. What remains, however, offers arresting images that illustrate the rise and fall of an early twentieth-century cosmetics empire.

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Better Homes & Gardens magazine covers reused with permission.