In 19th-century America, St. Louis’ cast-iron building manufacturing rivaled New York City
Over the weekend, the History Channel ran a marathon on the history of mass food production in America. Heinz, Hershey, Kellogg’s, and Birdseye all received adulterous surveys on how “democratized” food production was moved from the backyard of American homes to factories far from the consumer that were railroaded to the dining table. Of course, over the past few decades American cuisine has turned its back on massive corporate icons like Heinz Ketchup with the “farm-to-table” movement, which focuses on the democratization of food.
But while food production was being marketed across America in the 19th century, companies here in St. Louis sought to extend architectural design to everyday people with the mass production of cast iron building facades. I visited Larry Giles, director of the Building Arts Foundation, to see the cast iron window display, as well as a rare product catalog published by one of the earliest cast iron manufacturers in St. Louis, the Sweaters Brothers known as the Mississippi Iron Works and Foundry. Giles put St. Louis in the middle of America’s cast iron industry: “The only city you can really compare it to is New York City.”
Like many other products sold nationwide, such as beer and shoes, numerous companies once called St. Louis their home. And like many advances in 19th century America, they were designed to offer a product at a lower cost than traditional materials. Cast iron building materials are mainly used for shop windows and are deceiving. They look massive and massive, but are relatively thin, pressed into shape by punching or poured into shapes. As a result, they are both relatively light and easy to store and transport. Like the Sears-Roebucks catalog, the Pullis Bros. catalog showed examples of the storefronts that could be ordered and shipped over the extensive railroad network from St. Louis.
“St. Louis shipped more architectural iron out of town than was used here, ”Giles said as we flipped through the Pullis Bros. catalog. A book about the St. Louis industry boasted of the company, founded in 1839 at 206-8 N. 6th Street, and its wide range of products outside of the cast iron stores:
“They make iron fronts, window caps and window sills, cast iron plumbing, enameled grilles, iron and slate cladding, prison work, bank vaults, commercial security fronts, doors and shutters in hundreds of designs, verandas, chairs, sofas and vases, decorative hardware, iron bed frames, storage stools , Fountains and aquariums, registers and fans, bolts, anchors and belts, wing weights, weather vanes, zinc center pieces, enameled tiles, brass fire stands and fenders, and all kinds of cast and wrought iron work for the construction of public and private buildings. “
Because of the prevalence of cast iron shop windows, main streets in small towns across much of the Midwest have a similar style. A large iron ore deposit south of St. Louis in the Ozarks, mined as pig iron by the Iron Mountain Railroad, also ensured that raw materials flowed into the city, kept costs down and continued to catalyze the industry.
The simple mass production of fanciful and ornate details in architectural ornamentation from lightweight materials also came at just the right time in American history. While the Neoclassical and Greek Revival styles could use cast iron elements, the Italian and Second Empire styles, with their ornate and ornate ornaments that arrived during the Victorian period, seemed to make better use of the capabilities of the metal. For example, we see elaborate Corinthian capitals that are not carved out of a block of marble but are composed of pieces of individual leaves and miniature volutes. In fact, the pillar under this capital is not necessarily massive, but hollow, but still carries immense weight like cast iron and provides retailers with a framework for large panes of glass in which to display their products. In addition to the Pullis Brothers, numerous companies in St. Louis were able to offer their own individual variant.
Two brothers, Bernard and Frank Mesker, ran the Mesker Brothers ironworks in downtown St. Louis, competing with their third brother, George, who owned a similar company in Evansville, Indiana. Interestingly, Giles believes that the Mesker Brothers largely “repackaged” other companies’ products by simply putting their own nameplates on cast iron products before they were marketed in the Midwest.
Another company worth mentioning for Giles, if for the simple fact that they weren’t the best at their own promotion. While usually anyone can look down to see the manufacturer’s branding logo on cast iron shop windows, Shickle, Harris & Howard firms have neglected to put their name on their products. Giles explains, “I read in a contemporary magazine somewhere that they did a lot more work than you think, but they never signed anything.”
Christopher & Simpson was another large company whose products were distributed from their St. Louis factory. In fact, there were numerous other companies operating in St. Louis. Many were south of downtown, where there are mostly vacant lots and driveways onto the elevated lanes of Highway 40 west of the Poplar Street Bridge. However, there are still thousands of buildings in St. Louis and the United States that have decorative cast iron fronts made right here in Gateway City. Giles and the Building Arts Foundation plan to conduct a more extensive study of this building material in the near future.
St. Louis architecture began to break away from a heavy reliance on cast iron decorative elements in the late 19th century. While decorative terracotta has a long and storied history that dates back to ancient times, I have a feeling that the rich tradition that began with cast iron was translated into clay in St. Louis, and we see its beautiful results in the built Neighborhoods like Dutchtown or St. Louis Hills. The creativity in iron evolved into creativity in terracotta.