How many Meskers does your town have?
I spend a lot of time photographing small towns and abandoned old buildings, and I've encountered the legacy of George L. Mesker and Company's handiwork many times in many states. But after a recent trip to small towns in the Mississippi Delta, I finally became curious enough to learn more about the Mesker company.
Black and white photograph of Mesker identification badges found in a small town. Click to buy a fine art photographic print.
Ornate pressed sheet metal storefronts sold by catalog starting in the 1880s
Whether you live in the city or in a small town, chances are you've seen their ornate, old-fashioned rooflines or street level architectural details, perhaps covered in chipped or peeling paint. Mesker and Company were a leading supplier of decorative, prefabricated, pressed sheet-metal storefronts to American towns and helped shape the look of turn-of-the-century America. But what do you really know about George L. Mesker and Company?
George L. Mesker was one of three brothers, all in the iron works industry. The brothers seem to have made an amicable division of markets. Frank and Bernard Mesker operated Mesker Brothers Iron Works out of St. Louis, while George began manufacturing pressed sheet metal storefronts and other architectural elements in Evansville, Indiana in the 1880s. Mesker store fronts were especially popular in the Midwest, but were sold to every state of the union.
Images from the Geo. L. Mesker and Company Architectural Iron Works catalog, circa 1900
Above: Cover of the 1900 catalog from Geo. L Mesker and Company Architectural Iron Works, courtesy of Archive.org
Browse all of my architectural photographs here
Above: a spread from the Mesker catalog (1900) features lavish illustrations of available facade designs.
It's interesting to compare then to now. The catalog advises potential customers to "Write for Discounts."
Page 21 of the 1900 catalog says this about the company:
We have one of the largest establishments in the United States for the manufacture of Store Fronts. We get out (sic) material in large quantities and carry large stocks, thus bringing the cost of production down to a minimum. We are centrally located, and accessible by rail and river to all the great iron, coal and lumber markets of the country."
How much did a Mesker store front cost?
One of the advantages of a Mesker store front was the affordability. For example, a caption under item No. 1729 in the 1900 catalog says . . .
"A handsome arrangement for a cheap double brick store front. It has cast iron sills, lintels and columns, and galvanized iron lintel cornice, main cornice and pediment. Price of cast iron and galvanized iron work for 32 ft. front, $162.00; 35 ft., $170.65; 38 ft., $179.30. Woodwork and glass extra."
Above: Text and an illustration from the Mesker and Company catalog.
Further reading about George L. Mesker and Company
A great source for information about the history and locations of Mesker store fronts seems to be this Mesker Brothers blog, which is meticulously documented and updated.
Willard Library (Indiana) hosts lots of pictures related to Mesker's product catalogs and manufacturing plants.
Hallie A. Fieser wrote an extensive academic paper about the histories of all the Mesker Iron Works enterprises. Read it here.
Photographs of historic store fronts I have seen around America
I can't say for certain these are all Mesker store fronts, but I have found and photographed metal facades in a lot of cities. Here are a few.
Old Geo L. Mesker and Co. sign found on a building in southern Illinois. Buy a fine art print here.
Historic storefronts on Meeting Street in Charleston. Click to buy a fine art print.
The old Starr Piano building in downtown Nashville. Click to buy a print.
The Reuter Building, across the street from the Alamo in San Antonio. Buy a print here.
Abandoned store front in Cairo, Illinois. Buy a fine art print here.
Old building with vintage wall ad for Ayer's Pills in Cairo, Illinois. Buy a fine art print.
Morris County State Bank in Kansas. Buy a fine art print.
Pressed metal facade in Missouri. Click to buy a fine art print.
Small town architecture in Tennessee. Buy a fine art black and white print.
Pressed metal florals on an antique store front in Mississippi.
Mesker Iron Works architectural detail photograph by Keith Dotson.
Antique metal rosette, black and white photograph by Keith Dotson.
Sources and more information:
Archive.org, Geo. L. Mesker & Co., Architectural Iron Works Catalog, 1900
Chicago Tribune, "Small-town building blocks rediscovered," 2006
Hallie A. Fieser, At the Forefront of Storefronts: A Look at the Legacy of Mesker Brothers Iron Works and George L. Mesker & Company, Southeast Missouri State University, 2009
Mesker Brothers Storefronts of America by Darius Bryjka
Wikipedia, "Mesker Brothers"