Showers Brothers Furniture Company: The Shared Fortunes of a Family, a City, and a University

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When the Showers family arrived in Bloomington, Indiana, the railroad had only recently come to town and a modest university was struggling to survive. Having spent the prior 18 years moving from place to place, the family decided to settle down and invest its modest resources to start a furniture company. The business proved to be extremely profitable and a stroke of good fortune for the small community. The company's success strengthened Bloomington's infrastructure, helping to develop new neighborhoods, and the philanthropic acts of the Showers family supported the town's continued development. The family's contributions helped Indiana University through difficult times and paved the way to its becoming the largest university in the state. In this detailed history of Showers Brothers, Carrol Krause tells the story of a remarkably successful collaboration between business, town, and gown.

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1 The Reverend and His Family

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THE REVEREND AND HIS FAMILY

BLOOMINGTON, INDIANA, 1856

IN THE LATE 1850s, the community of Bloomington, Indiana, did not appear to be a promising location for a future furniture empire. Located far from other industrialized regions of the United States, Bloomington called itself a city even though it had fewer than 2,700 inhabitants. The town was ten blocks long and five blocks wide, stretching from Jackson Street on the west to Dunn Street on the east, and extending from what is now Eighth Street on the north to Third Street on the south. The unpaved roads turned to deep, sticky mud after heavy rains despite repeated attempts to macadamize the streets. Pedestrians walked on boardwalks of wooden planks raised above the bare surface of the road. The brick courthouse that served as the county seat was surrounded by a square where storefronts were interspersed with small homes left over from the early settler years. The roadbeds had not yet been leveled, so the buggies and wagon teams that drove the length of the city labored up small inclines and down into hollows, lurching through several creek beds and muddy seeps along the way.

 

2 Showers & Hendrix

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SHOWERS & HENDRIX

AFTER THE SHOWERS FAMILY moved to Bloomington in 1856, C.C. established himself in business. It’s unclear what led him to settle permanently in Bloomington instead of moving onward, but he remained in his adopted town for the rest of his life. The succession of enterprises that he launched in Bloomington was on a par with his previous work history. For a short while C.C. worked at a cabinet shop with Elizabeth’s brother, Isaac Hull, where, according to James Showers’s memoirs, he trained Isaac in cabinet building (C.C. is listed on the 1860 census as “cabinet maker”). The late Bloomington amateur historian Robert Leffler apparently had access to a trove of newspapers that no longer survive in the public collections; in his Showers pamphlet (preserved at the Monroe County History Center), he claims that the May 25, 1860 issue of the Bloomington Republican reported that Showers & Moffatt were making and selling bedsteads on the east side of the square, and that later that same summer Mercer and Showers were operating a grocery. By December 15 of 1860, Leffler states, C.C. was partnering with his new son-in-law, James Hendrix, who had recently married the second Showers daughter, Ellen.

 

3 Legal Troubles

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LEGAL TROUBLES

WORKING MEN IN THE LATE 1800s toiled approximately ten to fourteen hours per day, six days a week. In his memoirs, James Showers mentions that the Showers & Hendrix woodturners were paid $2.50 per day. Working six days a week for fifty-two weeks a year meant an annual income of $780 for a skilled woodworker. That sounds like abject poverty, but a dollar went a lot further then than it does today. For comparison, ordinary untrained laborers such as haulers and diggers made about $1 a day, and the Showers brothers were earning more than double that amount. A surviving page from the company account book dated January 1868 shows payments of $21.50 to James and William, which was the same amount that C.C. himself drew.1 If paid weekly, this would have meant an annual income of more than $1,100. By this point James and William, aged twenty-six and twenty-one, respectively, appear to have reached the rank of full partners in the family business.

 

4 The Brothers Enter Business

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THE BROTHERS ENTER BUSINESS

AT THE BEGINNING of their new partnership, the brothers were careful and did not repeat the errors of their father. They found a business partner in storekeeper Frank Rogers, whose investment resulted in a short-lived incarnation of the company called Showers, Rogers & Co. The firm’s advertisement in the August 7, 1872 issue of the Bloomington Progress read:

Planing Mill and Furniture Manufactory. Showers, Rogers & Co., Smith & Tuley’s Block, Up-Stairs, in Smith & Tuley Hall, Bloomington, Ind., are prepared to fill orders for Furniture or Chairs, either at wholesale or retail. We have greatly enlarged and improved our manufactory, having added new machinery, and our facilities are such that we can sell as cheap at wholesale or retail, as any other house in the state. Carpenters and Builders are informed that we have procured the necessary machinery, and can now dress and rip lumber at very low prices. Good seasoned lumber always on hand and furnished very cheap.

 

5 The Booming ’80s

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THE BOOMING ’80S

THE YOUNGEST SHOWERS CHILD, Hull, joined the firm as a partner the same year that Elizabeth died, in 1878, although he was still a teenager. He had a pleasant face with an open, earnest expression, dark hair, and jutting ears. Some accounts claim that Elizabeth Showers gave Hull her interest in the company upon her death,1 but there is no evidence to support this claim. He may have purchased a partnership in the firm with whatever inheritance he received after his mother’s death.2 The following year, Hull married Maud Ella Coatney on October 15, 1879, two days after his nineteenth birthday. His bride was only sixteen at the time, the precocious and intelligent daughter of a prominent farmer and landowner in the Bloomington area. A plump and pretty blonde, a staunch parishioner of the Christian Church, she was recorded in legal documents as both Maud Ella and Ella Maud. In years to come she would play an important part in the family business. At some point the name “Ella” became merely an initial and she primarily went by “Maud E.” The addition of a second Maud to the family (the first was James and Belle’s daughter) complicates the narration of the family story, as does the occasional “e” placed by the newspapers at the end of her name. In order to simplify this narrative, “Maud” will always refer to Hull’s wife, while “young Maude” (with an “e”) will refer to James’s daughter.

 

6 Death and Fire

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DEATH AND FIRE

C.C. HAD DEPARTED FOR OHIO on the morning of January 16, 1882, on a sales trip on behalf of his sons. Because Bloomington then had only a single train line, which ran northwest toward Chicago, passengers who wished to go east needed to take the northbound train to Greencastle, where they could transfer to the other rail line. C.C. had gotten off at Greencastle with his valise and had some hours to wait until the eastbound train arrived. He walked into the town to look up a friend and presumably found a place at which he could order a meal. Then, drawn by professional interest as a former woodworker, he stepped into a local planing mill to have a look around. It was snowing heavily.

While there, he heard the whistle of a locomotive. Believing that it was his train, he rushed off in the direction of the depot. He hurried through the falling snow with his head down, holding his hand up to the side of his face to ward off the cold snowflakes. The yards of the intersecting train lines were complex and were made more confusing by being blanketed in snow. As C.C. picked his way through the snow on the tracks past a parked train, the prolonged hissing of escaping steam from the nearby engine masked the sound of an approaching express train. C.C. stepped past the parked train and onto the rail directly in front of the oncoming express before he realized his mistake. Either in confusion or resignation, he turned his back on the approaching engine. He was struck and carried along for nearly forty feet. At some point one of his feet caught on an obstruction, and he was wrenched beneath the engine.

 

7 Prosperity and Loss

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PROSPERITY AND LOSS

HENRY HEWSON, Irish born and a soldier in the Civil War, had married the youngest Showers sister, Annie. He had been a Bloomington shoemaker since at least 1869, as shown by advertisements in the Bloomington Progress. An advertisement some years later read, “Henry Hewson, just east of the old Greeves Corner, has purchased a handsome, carefully selected stock of Ladies, Misses and Children’s Fine Shoes, and asks an inspection of them before you purchase. Also, best Low Button and Congress Shoes for Men EVER OFFERED in this Market.”1 This all sounded promising—the Showers family was now connected to another Bloomington businessman—but the following month a new item appeared: “Owing to a dull trade, etc., Mr. Henry Hewson, the well known boot and shoe maker, next to the Greeves Corner, has been compelled to close his retail department. His assets are about $1,400, with some $2,400 of liabilities. Showers Brothers hold a mortgage on the stock for $600. This misfortune of Mr. Hewson’s does not interfere with his custom business, and he will continue to manufacture the best boots and shoes in Bloomington, for his old customers. Don’t forget Hewson when you need something in this line.”2 Hewson had obtained a loan from the First National Bank with James and William as his sureties; in return they had taken a mortgage on his stock and fixtures. He defaulted on his bank loan and then failed to pay off the mortgage within the time agreed upon.3

 

8 Boom and Bust

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BOOM AND BUST

THE SHOWERS BROTHERS were involved with their own progressive alliances. James and William were committed to modernizing Bloomington and enhancing its economic vitality in order to attract immigration and outside investment. William took Hull’s place on the board of the young electric company; James joined the new waterworks committee. And both brothers helped to launch the Bloomington Real Estate Association, which specifically addressed the perennial shortage of housing for workers. For years the newspapers had complained about the lack of housing, noting that it was so scarce that anyone who built a new house would be able to rent it out with no trouble before it was completed. The Showers family’s activities in this area would soon transform Bloomington.

The Real Estate Association was a win–win situation for the businessmen backers and the workingmen who borrowed money to build cottages. The wealthy men received a good return on their money and the workingmen moved out of the boarding houses and became property-owning citizens. It was easy to make money in those years by addressing an obvious need. Real estate development—creating all-new neighborhoods where farmsteads used to be—yielded much more money than simply renting spare rooms to boarders or constructing individual houses here and there on existing vacant lots. As employers, the Showers brothers were happy to have their workers buying homes because it created a larger pool of “steady” men to hire from, men who would not walk out on a job if they had a house they needed to make payments on. Workers’ housing, the brothers felt sure, would have a beneficial impact upon local industry by stabilizing the workforce.

 

9 Moving toward Modernity

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MOVING TOWARD MODERNITY

NOTWITHSTANDING the shaky national economy, Showers women were instrumental during the 1890s in improving the town. From the elder generation, these included William’s wife, Hanna Lou; James’s wife, Belle; and James Hendrix’s wife, Ellen. Maud Showers came next in age, then those from the younger generation: William’s daughters, Jennie and Nellie; and James’s daughter, young Maude. Several Showers women served on the Ladies’ Cemetery Association, which had the goal of improving the city cemetery west of town, which had fallen into a sad state of disrepair. Despite the financial depression the association succeeded in collecting enough modest donations to be able to enlarge the cemetery through the purchase of a large adjoining property, and the group even built a small cottage for the sexton. They arranged for a graceful archway at the gate to the cemetery, covered the drives with fine crushed stone, arranged for the grounds to be kept well mown, and installed a decorative iron fountain in the center of the grounds. They renamed the burial ground “Rose Hill” and planted flowers among the graves. Funds were raised by means of a pleasure excursion by train to Louisville, a special performance of the Gentry Dog and Pony Show, and a baseball exhibition between “lean” and “fat” players. “The ladies deserve great credit for their energy and determination in this enterprise, and have certainly pushed it to successful completion, hampered by circumstances under which a like organization of men would have failed,” remarked the Republican Progress.1

 

10 Houses and a Hospital

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HOUSES AND A HOSPITAL

W. EDWARD AND NELLIE had each enjoyed luxurious weddings, and now it was the turn of their cousin, Maud Showers’s daughter Beryl. She and her new husband, the osteopath Dr. J. E. P. Holland, celebrated an enormous “society” church wedding in September 1903 “in the presence of about 400 friends,” as the paper reported.1 The church was artfully adorned by a professional floral decorator, who observed a red-and-green theme using asparagus ferns and roses; the family home, where the huge reception was held, was similarly decorated. Maud herself, dressed in white moiré silk with lace, gave away the bride to her new son-in-law. The wedding gifts occupied four entire tables. This lavish wedding was in stark contrast to that of young Maude (James’s daughter), who married Dr. Burton D. Myers on March 3, 1904, with little public warning. “Surprise wedding this morning,” read the paper. “Miss Maude Showers becomes the bride of Dr. Burton Myers.—Wedded at 10 o’clock this morning. Left on 11 o’clock train for Chicago.” This young couple was united the old-fashioned way at the residence of the bride’s parents, James and Belle Showers, with only the immediate members of the family present. “The bride is one of Bloomington’s most popular and beautiful women,” the paper noted, adding that she was an Indiana University graduate of the class of '01 and a member of Kappa Alpha Theta. “The groom is the head of the department of anatomy at the University and is an excellent teacher…. He came to IU last fall term when the School of Medicine was established here.”2

 

11 “The World’s Largest Furniture Factory”

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“THE WORLD’S LARGEST FURNITURE FACTORY”

IN 1907 the Showers Brothers Company had built the largest veneering plant in Indiana at the north end of their existing building. This new addition had its own separate power plant and what the Bloomington Telephone described as “remarkable machinery of the latest design.” The Coe Automatic Veneer dryer was

an enormous machine, made of solid steel, and 120 feet long. Four miles of steam piping are required to heat it, and a 120 horse power boiler is required to supply it with power and heat. The cost of this machine alone was $15,000. It bakes veneers bone dry within fifteen minutes from the time they come dripping wet from the wringers. It is the only machine of its kind in the state. Another enormous machine is the rotary veneer cutting lathe, with its knife 100 inches long, which will turn an enormous saw log into one twentieth inch veneers quicker than it takes to describe it.1

 

12 The Shop Notes Years

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THE SHOP NOTES YEARS

IN 1917 THE COMPANY STARTED a biweekly employee newsletter that would appear for the next decade. Shop Notes was a miscellany that combined official news from the company with jokes, advertisements, and notes of interest. Shop Notes contains news about employees’ weddings, new babies, sick relatives, and bereavements; it mentions workers who have recently purchased new automobiles and the results of employees’ hunting and fishing excursions. There are previews of upcoming vaudeville events and detailed examinations of the performance of the company baseball team, the Showers Specials. Many of the issues contain short items about the early history of the company. Editorials praise home ownership and thrift, holding up the example of the factory founders as a template for others to follow. Shop Notes records many instances of the company’s benevolence toward its workers; it notes that in October 1916, Showers management made a gift to each of the thousand-odd employees of the factory: a passbook at the Showers Brothers Savings Bank with one dollar credited to each worker’s name.1 (Adjusted for inflation, this equals an outlay by the management of nearly $20,000 in today’s values.) The country was preparing for war; workers were paradoxically advised to spend freely while practicing thrift. They were also advised to kill flies, plant gardens, give their children good educations, and clean up after themselves. Shop Notes is a curious little publication, filled with anecdotes, manufacturing facts, and profiles of the major figures at the factory. Because it honestly recorded the ups and downs of the company, Shop Notes is a valuable historical record of the factory at its height, a decade-long portrait of a large company and the concerns and interests of its staff and workers. In its pages we find a parody of the Lord’s Prayer involving Superintendent Charles Sears:2

 

13 Another Beginning

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ANOTHER BEGINNING

DEATH WAS SHADOWING William Showers. By 1919 the Showers family had suffered five losses in three years. James and William’s aged brother-in-law and former partner, James Hendrix, and his wife Ellen (one of the four Showers sisters) had both passed away, as had their middle-aged daughter Laura; their brother-in-law Henry Hewson had also passed away. Most painful to William was the death of his wife Hanna in 1916. Six months before her death she had endured thirty X-rays in an attempt to discover whether she had abscessed teeth,1 and the huge amount of radiation contained in those early, crude X-rays could not possibly have benefited a woman who was already ill. William was much quieter and sadder after her death. He began failing in the spring of 1919, afflicted by Bright’s Disease, the now-outdated term for a number of different kidney disorders whose impact upon the body includes edema, high blood pressure, kidney stones, and difficult urination, which together result in general organ failure. At first he did not realize that he was in danger; he made an auto trip to Bedford early in April with his son and upon his return visited his niece Beryl Holland and asked for “some good books to read.”2 Never one to complain, he finally admitted to his son, W. Edward, that he was not feeling well. He was sent to bed and an Indianapolis specialist was sent for. Although he had been outwardly vigorous at seventy-three, supposedly looking no older than a man of fifty, his organs were shutting down. Surrounded by doctors and nurses, in his own bed at home rather than in the hospital, he drifted in and out of consciousness. He died, still unconscious, on Easter morning, 1919. His funeral was the largest ever seen in the city, according to the Telephone. All businesses and factories in town were closed during the hour of his funeral and hundreds of workers with their families and children attended the viewing, the service at the Methodist Church, and the interment at Rose Hill next to his wife Hanna Lou.

 

14 Final Successes

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FINAL SUCCESSES

IN MAY OF 1924 the old draft horse Cap, who for fifteen years had patiently hauled lumber from the sawmill to the veneer mill at Showers Brothers, was retired owing to the fact that “he was still willing but had not the sand to make the grade any longer.” He was driven out to enjoy retirement at the Showers farm ten miles north of town, but apparently disliked the abrupt change from a muddy lumberyard to a grassy field. The first day Cap found himself on pasture, he jumped the fence and walked back to town. When he came to the bridge over Griffy Creek on the North Pike, he stopped to make sure no traffic was coming before he crossed it. He continued southward toward town. “He kept to the side of the road all the way to avoid accidents. He reached his old place of business without a scratch, but several days later was returned to the farm. It seems Cap would rather be hitched up than live the life of ease.”1 The editor of Shop Notes, the company newsletter, apparently approved of the old horse’s work ethic.

 

15 Everything Changes

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EVERYTHING CHANGES

ON FEBRUARY 20, 1928, Sanford Teter died at his home after a paralytic stroke. He had battled kidney disease for thirteen years. “During his long illness his cheerful disposition and sense of humor never left him,” his obituary noted. “He was one of the pioneers in the work which brought about a greater Bloomington…. There was no more popular man than Sanford Teter. He was as near an ideal citizen and business man as a community could have; he was a neighbor and friend who could always be counted on in times of stress.”1 The family was deeply grieved; Teter’s continual good spirits, intelligence, and helpfulness had been much loved and relied upon. After he had recovered from his two surgeries twelve years previously, his doctors ordered him to avoid active community life. He had effectively been exiled to the sidelines, unable to participate in civic or business affairs. “A brave man is not afraid to die,” observed the Telephone in a tribute to Teter. “But, though the facing of … imminent death requires great courage, it requires greater courage on the part of a strong man to sit by the window for twelve years watching the rest of the world go by without being able to join in the activity.”2

 

16 Legacy

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LEGACY

EVERYONE DIES IN THE END, but a large number of the Showers men suffered untimely deaths. The patriarch of the family, Rev. C.C. Showers, died after being struck by a locomotive; his son Hull died in his mid-twenties from a tonsillitis infection that became toxic, and his grandson W. Edward died of heart disease after a debilitating illness of more than a decade. James’s son, Charley Showers, died in his twenties from tuberculosis; James’s little grandson died of a rare disease while still a child. Sanford Teter, technically an inlaw rather than a Showers, died at fifty-three after a dozen years of invalidism. After Erle Showers’s death in 1940 from heart disease, there were no Showers men left and the family surname disappeared.

In her master’s thesis on the physical structure of Showers Brothers Plant 1, Eryn Brennan argues that architect C.H. Ballew’s 1910 building represented a transitional form between Victorian and modern architecture, and that this form ultimately doomed the company by not easily accommodating modern assembly lines. The sawtooth roof with its north-facing skylights was a progressive feature, but the use of brick and timber-frame for the building’s shell was retrogressive. She observes that Albert Kahn was designing large factory buildings around that same time using reinforced concrete.

 

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