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?

Gardens spring

  • (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.

Salisbury Rental Proposal-page-001

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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.

Tax sale combined

Tax sale article_3

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.

For Sale letter_Jan 1955

Cedar Closet Bid

1955 Bathroom fixtures cedar closet bid

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.

Mangle bid

Response to Carl mangle bid

List of items

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.”

6.15.1918June 1918 

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!”

June 1930June, 1930

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

August 1930August, 1930

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

October 1930October, 1930

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.

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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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A view of the north entrance tells a similar story.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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Still, the main section of the house remained windowless.

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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.

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

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Collage_North view

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Collage_south elevation

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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.

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Company Women

Salisbury House graces the crest of a hill just off 42nd Street on Tonawanda Drive in Des Moines.  Surrounded by old oaks and formal gardens, the imposing brick and limestone structure evokes a time and place far removed from twenty-first century life.

For some visitors, a walk up the driveway towards Salisbury House generates a range of responses: gasps, jaws-dropping, and a general sense of awe are often elicited by the majesty of the property.

Exterior

This is where I get to come to work every day.

My name is Megan Stout Sibbel and I have the great pleasure of taking over the position of Curator and Chief Historian here at Salisbury House.

I first visited Salisbury House on a long-ago field trip during (I think) elementary school.  As with most kids who grow up in Iowa, I am fairly sure we hit the state’s classic field-trip trifecta: Living History Farms, the Science Center, and Salisbury House.

Following that first school-age encounter with Salisbury House, I drifted in and out of Iowa.  A double-major in English and History rounded out a B.A. from Simpson College.  Next up: the Peace Corps.  For a little over two years, I taught English in a small town named Kochkor up in the mountains of Kyrgyzstan.  Upon my return from the Peace Corps, I eventually landed in a PhD-track graduate program in history at Loyola University Chicago.  The focus of my graduate work and dissertation – public history and women’s and gender history – culminated in the completion of my doctoral degree in the spring of 2013.

Now, back in Iowa, I am thrilled to come on board at Salisbury House.  As an historian, I am continually amazed at the wealth of the collections and the great potential for this museum to garner rightful recognition as a national treasure.

From my perspective, one of the intangible treasures of Salisbury House appears in the how the house and its collections reflect our nation’s broader history.  For instance, women’s entry into the public workforce at the turn of the twentieth century represents an especially rich example of the intersection of Salisbury House with the American past.

The images included below come from a 1916 scrapbook compiled by Carl Weeks, the man who built Salisbury House.  He documented the packaging and shipping of primarily mail-order pharmaceutical products from D.C. Leo & Company, a business that Weeks and his partners originated in 1901.

An essential part of Weeks’ workforce – and the individuals he chose to document in this scrapbook – were women.

By the early twentieth century, the “new woman” in America was on the rise.  Whereas the culturally idealized nineteenth-century woman remained cloistered in the “domestic sphere,” raising children and taking care of husband and home, this situation changed significantly by the end of the century. Increasingly, women found work in the burgeoning manufacturing and mercantile economy across the country.   The women of Carl Weeks’ D.C. Leo &  Company in Des Moines, Iowa, reflected this nation-wide trend.

The scrapbook compiled by Weeks showed the steps involved in the receipt and filling of pharmaceutical orders to D.C. Leo & Company.  Female workers, representatives of this broader cultural shift in women’s labor, appear in nearly every step of the process.

WEEKS’ CAPTION: THE PHOTOGRAPH SHOWS JUST AN AVERAGE MORNING’S MAIL, REMITTANCES AND ORDERS.  The young lady is opening, sorting, stamping each piece of mail matter with “Date Received.”

Opening mail

The woman pictured in the foreground is engaged in typical clerical work.  Only a generation or two before, however, this type of office job would have probably been held by a male worker.

WEEKS’ CAPTION: HERE ARE THE YOUNG LADIES WHO MAKE OUT YOUR ORDERS. 

Two at desk

Here again, female workers fill clerical positions for D.C. Leo & Company.

WEEKS’ CAPTION: FIRST PRINT SHOP.  FOUR OF THE LABEL PRESSES ARE SHOWN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH.

Print room

Here, the women of the company. prepare the labels that were affixed to the pharmaceuticals and cosmetics sold by the company.   More than basic clerical staff, women were involved in the production of supplies for the company as well.

After the labels were produced, other women applied the labels to the boxes and packets sent out from the factory.

WEEKS’ CAPTION: After the labels are printed, and dry, they go to the labelling [sic] table.  At each table, the young lady has an assortment of all preparations, in boxes, on shelves before her.  If the order calls for Cold Tables, she takes down the Cold Tablet container, gets out the required number, and LABELS THEM AS SHOWN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH.

Labelling

For women entering the workforce in this era, a set of assumptions often underpinned their efforts.  First of all, these positions were generally considered jobs – not careers.  Young, often single, working women, so the theory went, should remain in the workforce only until they found a husband.  Then, it was often back into the home to care for the family.  The women of D.C Leo & Company may have felt the potential pressure of this dynamic.

WEEKS’ CAPTIONFIRST FILLING DEPARTMENT.  This machine counts, fills and boxes a gross of Cold Tablets every four minutes, fifteen gross an hour, one hundred and twenty gross a day.  They are seldom idle…the circular machine in the foreground does the same thing for Kidney Pills.

Group filling

Each step of the process, as documented by Weeks himself, relied primarily upon the labor of women.

The image below is unlabeled, but it appears to show another view of the filling department.  The young woman pictured is filling a number of small boxes with a product from the container above.

Lone girl filling

By 1916, the year from which these photographs date, D.C. Leo & Company had been in business for fifteen years.  Carl Weeks was on the verge of the greatest business success of his life.  The Armand Co., a sister company to D.C Leo & Company, was newly incorporated.  The cosmetics line produced and sold by Armand would make Weeks a millionaire in just a few years’ time; construction on Salisbury House would begin soon after.

This collection of photographs offers a glimpse into the very particular story of the man who built Salisbury House.   Behind the man, however, was a workforce composed of increasing numbers of American women.