A “Postcard from Nowhere,” side one: found in Indianapolis Marion County Public Library Digital Indy Collection
A Vintage Advertising Curiosity
Researching old advertisements can bring on a serious case of the “WhatTheHecks!?”
Take, for example, this early advertisement by the Indianapolis Polar Ice & Fuel Company, featuring illustrations of three buildings that bear no relation to the company… nor to ice… or fuel, and it doesn’t list the advertiser’s contact information. The designers left virtually no space for correspondence on the back, so though it is clearly labeled as such, it’s hardly a functional postcard.
Trade cards and postal cards were highly prized in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. When a German chromolithographic printing process was adopted by a number of printers in the US in the 1860s, enterprising marketers realized the potential of the new technology and began using multicolored cards as giveaways. The public was captivated. By the 1880s, hobbyists were collecting these premiums, and trading or saving them in elaborate scrapbooks. Clever marketers sometimes printed card series that would require a patron-collector to visit their store regularly in order to complete a set.
Our “postcard to nowhere” may have been one of the first such advertisements for Polar Ice. The company’s marketers eventually produced a series of cards featuring the iconic Polar Ice wagon photographed with (or superimposed near) a popular landmark.
Popular as it once was, the fervor for collecting trade cards died off in the early 1900s, when postage rates for magazines became more affordable and businesses turned to cheaper and more widely-distributed magazine ads.
The Polar Ice Company (1892-2000)
First Location: 177–179 (later 331) East Wabash Street, Indianapolis (1892–1902)
Company founder, Henry Louis Dithmer, was born in New York in 1869 and moved with his family to Indianapolis in 1872. Dithmer appears to have been an industrious young man. He worked as a newsboy, office clerk, and bill collector, and for a brief time in his teens, co-owned a cigar store and newsstand on Virginia Avenue. Dithmer learned the ice trade while working for the Shover & Dickson Ice Company beginning in 1885. Before the advent of refrigeration, large chunks of ice were cut from ponds and lakes around the region and hauled to the city for storage at a number of ice companies in the area. Shover & Dickson were the first to build an artificial ice plant in Indianapolis in 1889, in a small building on Wabash Street.
Being ambitious, Dithmer organized a group of investors to purchase Shover & Dickson in 1892. In response to a depletion of Indiana natural gas, the company diversified and began selling coal in 1902 — refashioning itself as the Polar Ice & Fuel Co.
Polar Ice survived for over 100 years, eventually expanding throughout the Midwest. By the late 1990s, the company was making 17 million bags of ice per year, with sales surpassing $11 million. By the end of that decade, the company boasted eight manufacturing facilities, seven distribution sites, and six regional offices in five states. The firm was sold to a competitor in 2000.
According to the Indiana Historical Society,
The company did not convert to gas-powered delivery trucks until around 1914 or 1915 and at one time owned as many as 110 horses and mules. Two particular mules, Kate and Queen, became local celebrities. The two mules, used in advertisements for Polar Ice, pulled an old-fashioned carriage at the head of the parade that opened the baseball season every year. The city held a downtown parade in honor of the two mules upon their retirement in 1928, and when Queen died in 1938, the Indianapolis Star declared the mules “a sort of civic institution, symbol of an era in the development of Indianapolis.”
Dithmer also seems to have been a bit of a firebrand. One story of his antics — a spat between Dithmer and Indianapolis Chief Inspector of Weights and Measures, Isidor Wulfson — is brilliantly retold by HI contributor Libby Cierzniak here (with additional postcard views).
Tell us in the comment box below:
What else do you know about the Polar Ice Company?
What kind of vintage Indianapolis advertising, postcards or trade cards do you collect?