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Yawman & Erbe


File this under “The way things work.”


On the afternoon of Tuesday, January 29th, 1908, fire broke out in the boiler room of the Alfred Peats Co., manufacturer of exclusive wallpapers. Located in the Loop on Wabash Avenue, the fire quickly rose through several floors and spread to adjacent buildings. In this RPPC view taken while the fire still smoldered, you can see the shop front of Yawman & Erbe, who manufactured desks, file cabinets and other quality furniture for office and libraries. Chances are, if you’re over fifty, you once used one of their card catalogues. Plenty of them show up on eBay, though I knew very little about the company (headquartered in Rochester, NY) until this card tweaked my curiosity.

Y&E card catalogue

Armed with only “…N & ERBE MFG. CO” from the postcard, it’s surprising how easily I was able to piece together the story.

  • Plugged the visible portion of the name on the sign into ancestry.com and was taken to a Chicago business directory which gave the company’s full name and address (pre-1909, however, which is when the city reformed its street numbering system)
  • Searched for business history on Yawman & Erbe Mfg. Co. and found much about their home office and actual manufacturing site in Rochester, NY
  • Used the company’s full name as a search tool at newspapers.com and found the front page coverage the day following the fire in the Chicago Inter-Ocean of Wednesday, January 29th

Yet another Chicago disaster interests me for several reasons. First, it’s Chicago and for me that’s sufficient. Second, it involves a company whose products undoubtedly reached northwestern Iowa. Third, they made library equipment and, as Jorge Luis Borges observed “I have always imagined that Paradise will be a kind of library.” Fourth, aspiring architect Anson Tennant was eighteen or nineteen years old that year and on the cusp of moving to Chicago to attend the School of the Art Institute. It’s tempting to imagine Anson and his dad James Tennant in Chicago on business or making arrangements for school and actually witnessing the fire. They sometimes stayed in a hotel in that neighborhood. Somehow I feel a story coming on.

I love learning.


Incidentally, the Y&E loses from the fire amounted to $5,000. Their neighbors weren’t so lucky.


  1. Gray Sailor says:

    You and I are obviously cut from the same geeky cloth. LOL. I found and purchased an old four drawer Y&E file cabinet to use in my shop. It’s built like a battleship. I love it. So of course the first thing I do is research it. And here I am. Thanks for the education!

  2. Thanks for the visit. As you may have gathered (or perhaps not), Agincourt is a fictional place, an academic exercise shared among students, faculty, graduates and friends, to explore the relationship between narrative and design. Y&E came to be part of the story.

    • Gray Sailor says:

      I figured most of that out by perusing the site. I found it very interesting. My dad (he passed away in 2014) was an AIA Fellow (1984) and Chairman of the largest architecture firm in Arkansas (Wittenberg, Delony and Davidson). I have a brother in law and an uncle that are also architects. I design software myself.

  3. The Force is strong in your family! I studied architecture at the University of Oklahoma in the 1960s but realized toward the end of the program that my temperament was unsuitable, if you get my meaning. Too opinionated. So I studied historic preservation at Columbia and then took a teaching job in Fargo at NDSU, which is where the Agincourt Project was born.

  4. […] I’d seen this image some time ago and was intrigued by the event; urban fires have been a fact of municipal life and surely Agincourt had been touched by at least one. A firefighter was still pumping water on the smoldering semi-ruin. At least part of the signage was still visible — “…N & ERBE MFG. CO.” — and turned out to be the Chicago office-showroom of Yawman & Erbe, manufacturer of office and library furnishings at the turn of the last century. I thought immediately that they would have manufactured cabinetry for the public library project of 1915, so I cribbed the image and wrote a brief entry. […]

  5. Kari Olson says:

    I have a beautiful Yawman & Erby stacking stepback industrial file cabinet i bought on ebay back in 2005.. its in perfect condition lucklily escaping a fire at my house that didnt reach that room… i just wanted to learn more about it and the company that made these wonderful file cabinets. I think its the best piece of furniture i own… i love it. i would like to enclose a photo but this wont let me..

    • Hello, Ms Olson: It’s always a surprise when folks happen on the Agincourt site. We like to think of our imaginary town as “more real than real”. Yawman & Erbe helped to do just that. You’re fortunate to have found a piece of theirs. Wish I were that fortunate. Come back any time.
      Ron Ramsay

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