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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.

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