In late September, there was a spirited bidding war on ebay over an item that most people would consider a piece of trash. The lucky buyer who won the 100-year-old can of Van Camp’s Pork & Beans beat out four other bidders with a final bid of $37.50. Because I collect old “Libby’s” cans, I wasn’t surprised by the selling price or by the fact that there are at least other five people in the e-universe who are willing to pay good money for a rusty tin can. But I had to wonder where the tin can had been for the past 100 years.
Unlike Grandma’s china, the family Bible and other cherished heirlooms that are lovingly preserved for future generations, most antique advertising was meant to be used for a short period of time and then thrown away. If you ever watch Antiques Roadshow, you’ve seen the stories about valuable posters that were used as insulation or painted trade signs that were stowed in an attic and forgotten for decades. Here’s a news flash for buyers of expensive “collector edition” items – the reason that old advertising is valued on the collector market is because it was not produced for collectors. Scarcity tends to increase value, which means you’re more likely to get a greater return from a vintage can of beans than from a vintage Collector Edition Beanie Baby.
Two weeks ago, I spent a fun and fascinating afternoon at the State Fairgrounds hunting for Indianapolis-related advertising. Indianapolis is a great place to live if you like old advertising, because it’s also the long-time home of the Indy Ad Show, one of the top antique advertising shows in the U.S. Even if you’re not a collector, you’ll be both amused and amazed by the colorful signs and store displays hawking everything from Alka Seltzer to Zero Bars.
Most of the dealers at the Indy Ad Show are from out-of-state, so I didn’t expect to find any advertising for local hotels or restaurants. However, souvenirs that were carried home by visitors to Indianapolis occasionally crop up, including this pair of vases from the Hiawatha Room at the Hotel Kingston. Little information is available about the hotel, which is listed in the 1916 city directory at 31-35 Monument Place.
I found a few examples of advertising for Indianapolis products that are no longer made, including a Holcomb & Hoke popcorn box. James Holcomb and Fred Hoke brought the world its first taste of “movie popcorn” when they introduced their Butter Kist popcorn machines in 1913. The Indianapolis-based company’s popcorn machines and peanut roasters were hugely popular in theatres, five-and-dime stores and other local businesses, but sales dwindled during the Great Depression and production ended in 1934.
Some of the other advertising I found for Indianapolis products of the past include:
- A lithographed poster for Kingan & Company’s “reliable” meat. In 1862, Irish immigrants Samuel & Thomas Kingan opened a meat packing along the White River at Maryland and Blackford Streets. By the 1940s, the plant covered 27 acres, employed 3,000 people and was one of the 10 largest meat packers in the country. The plant was purchased by Hygrade Corporation in 1952, closed in 1966, and destroyed by fire in 1969.
- A sample container for Virginia Sweet coffee, roasted in Indianapolis by the Fishback Company. Frank Fishback started his coffee roasting business in 1887 and by 1930, the Fishback Company was also manufacturing Virginia Sweet pancake flour from its plant at Delaware and McCarty Streets. The company closed during the 1930s.
- A tray for Furnas Ice Cream, which creamery operator R.W. Furnas began manufacturing in 1878 after he was asked to make ice cream for a church social. His business grew rapidly into a wholesale venture that marketed Furnas ice cream throughout the state of Indiana. The Furnas office and factory was located at 133 N. Alabama into the 1930s, when it was purchased by Borden.
- A tin sign for Prest-O-Lite batteries. In 1904, inventor P.C. Avery had a bright idea that automobiles could actually be equipped for night driving by means of acetylene compressed into portable cylinders. He joined with Carl Fisher and James Allison to found the Concentrated Acetylene Company. The name was changed to Prest-O-Lite after Avery withdrew from the company in 1906. It was a booming business – literally, because the process of compressing the volatile acetylene caused occasional explosions. In 1912 the city council passed an ordinance banning the manufacture of explosives within city limits, and Prest-O-Lite built a new plant on 16thStreet in the new town of Speedway. Prest-O-Lite entered the battery business in 1914, and was sold to Union Carbide in 1917. Ten years late, Electric Auto-Lite Company of Toledo bought the plant and the Prest-O-Lite name, and manufactured batteries in Indianapolis until the plant closed in 1947.
After wandering around the Indy Ad Show for about an hour, I finally found a poster that took me back to my Wonder Years. Like most Hoosiers of a certain age, Wonder Bread was a staple of my childhood diet. Fried bologna on Wonder Bread. Peanut butter on Wonder Bread. Thanksgiving turkey with Wonder Bread stuffing. But it wasn’t just a white bread existence, because Wonder Bread occasionally took an international twist at our house, doused with garlic butter on Italian spaghetti nights or soaked with eggs for French toast.
In 1921, the Taggart Baking Company of Indianapolis was planning to launch its 1.5 pound loaf of bread. Inspired by the balloon races at the Speedway, company Vice President Elmer Cline named the new product “Wonder Bread” and designed a package with colorful balloons. After Taggart Baking Company was purchased by Continental Baking Company in 1925, Wonder Bread became America’s first sliced bread, inspiring the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread.”
Indianapolis’ inventiveness is also responsible for the ubiquitous casserole of baked beans that graces every barbecue and pitch-in throughout the U.S. Gilbert Van Camp and his wife, Hester, began a canning business in 1861 from their small grocery on Missouri Street. The company grew over the years, boosted by a lucrative contract to supply provisions to the Union Army, but business really exploded in the 1890s after Van Camp began adding tomato sauce to its canned pork and beans. The origin of this flavorful combination is a classic tomato-tomahto tale — some sources claim it was Hester’s idea while others attribute the recipe to Gilbert’s son, Frank. In one version of the story, Frank created the recipe after adding some Van Camp’s catsup to a can of pork and beans; in another version, Frank was eating lunch in the warehouse and the flavorful combination happened by accident when a tomato fell into his bowl of pork and beans. Regardless of the origin, an aggressive advertising campaign in the 1890s helped change the nation’s taste in pork and beans from a molasses-based sauce to the tomato-bean combo.
Gilbert Van Camp died in 1900, but the company continued to flourish under Frank’s leadership, eventually expanding into canned milk. A dealer at the Indy Ad Show offered the poster, below, for $225.
Van Camp Packing Company fell on hard times during the Great Depression, and in 1933 merged with Stokely Brothers, a Tennessee canning firm established in 1898. Stokely-Van Camp became the official company name during WWII, when the cannery developed the infamous Army “C” rations at its Indianapolis flagship plant at 2002 South East Street. In 1984, Stokely-Van Camp was acquired by food giant Quaker Oats, and after a series of changes, the Indianapolis plant closed around the turn of the 21st Century.
As interest in local food continues to grow, I encourage you to celebrate Indy’s culinary heritage with a delicious baked bean sandwich on Wonder Bread. While I prefer the basic beans-on-bread combo, here’s a link to a baked bean sandwich recipe from 1943 that’s fancy enough to serve guests.
The Indy Ad Show is held twice yearly at the Indiana State Fairgrounds. The next show is scheduled for March 17, 2012.