Saturday, June 12, 2021

Downtown Alley Naming Project Misreads 1908 Ad

A couple years ago when people were evaluating and voting for the downtown alley naming project, a couple of the proposed names were real head-scratchers. "Fortune's Corner Alley" was one of them that didn't make much sense.

May 13th, 1908 - via Salem Reporter

Salem Reporter had another history column yesterday on two of the names, and it seems pretty clear that "Fortune's Corner Alley" is based on a misreading. And when the Main Street Association and then Historic Landmarks Commission rushed the public part of the process without publishing more of the underlying historical analysis, they made it impossible for the public to catch things like this.

The building wasn't up in 1908
January 1st, 1910

The Main Street Association cites the ad at top from 1908 "for the U.S. National Bank at 'Fortune's Corner' in downtown Salem," but the bank building didn't exist then. So it is very unlikely that the ad is referring to anything specifically on that corner. Could it refer to Ladd & Bush, on the kitty-corner? I suppose so, but pointing out a competitor seems unlikely in this context. The map the Main Street Association published with their proposal references Ladd & Bush does ambiguously include it in the yellow highlighting, but that really is an anachronism based on our modern knowledge of the bank locations.

Proposing "fortune's corner"

In fact, the ad copy isn't principally about a street "corner" at all. The word is "cornerstone," though there is an erasure or awkward space in it.

detail from ad

Rather than being about a place, the corner of State and Commercial, "Fortune's Corner," the ad is about a generic idea, that the bank is the "cornerstone" for "fortune," any fortune, and any person who desires a fortune or to be fortunate. The ad copy in small type lacks end punctuation and is to be read with the following larger type:

Every dollar saved and deposited in bank is adding just so much to fortune's cornerstone.

We should read it primarily as Fortune's (Cornerstone) rather than (Fortune's Corner) Stone.

The ad was probably a one-off or part of a limited run, and not indicative of any place name in popular conversation. A similar ad in the afternoon paper ran from May 2nd to May 16th in 1908, and the word pair "fortune's corner" does not appear again in advertising or news articles.

The afternoon paper, May 5th, 1908

The alley name is not an homage to a real historical fact; the alley name is a new creation, even a little bit of a confection. In an attempt to manufacture interest it is, by accident or design, an instance of disneyfied history and fake heritage.

The other alley name discussed in the piece, an homage to the Wexford, does not seem to be factually wrong as much as wrong-weighted. The Wexford had only a very brief life on Court Street, and it does not rank very high on the list of historically significant features on the block. Old City Hall was right there! This was a missed opportunity.

They definitely missed on the Old City Hall site

It is not helpful to get too cranky about these names. They are small, minor things. But they do illustrate the erosion of historical understanding. If we repeat them often enough, they will become part of the conventional historical self-understanding for Salemites, and then they will become difficult to unwind.

Addendum, Sunday

More footnotey things...There seems to be two well-attested names for the corner, Moores Block and the Red Corner.

Here are two very early views from the front. They focus on three lots. US National Bank took Moores Block and the one next to it; the third building is now a void with the drive-thru. In these pictures, the Capital National Bank did not exist until much later.

Moores' Alley would have been a strong candidate for an alley name. John H. Moores was Mayor of Salem and State Senator in the very early days.

The corner (far left) in 1861, March 28th, 1931
Also, here in the Library Historic Photos

Slightly later (middle filled in by 1864)
January 1st, 1911

The note from 1911 suggests the Moores heirs sold the building to the bank in 1906. So that would rule out Legg owning it. (In his new book on Walter D. Pugh, Terrence Emmons suggests that Pugh also worked on the bank building at the tail end of his partnership with Legg.)

Perhaps in the 1880s or 90s, likely coinciding with a paint job, the building became known as the Red Corner. That also is well-attested and would also be a better name for an alley.

Red Corner as Red Cross Drug Store
detail, circa 1905, via State Library

Here it is towards the end of that era. (Note the bikes and the hops broker also. The conical tower of the Capital National Bank is just visible.) The State Library says circa 1902, and the "Red Cross" drug branding may mean it is from 1905 or later when the name changed slightly.

April 14th, 1905

New name, October 10th, 1905

Demolition is coming, February 8th, 1909

The Salem State Bank occupied rooms in the building next door, the one missing in the 1861 photo and present in the 1864 photo.

The United States National Bank opened to the public on February12th, 1910, again nothing an ad from 1908 would refer to.


Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Just some foot notes.

If there is a corner associated with the bank, it is the phrase "Red Corner," which is attested to often in the papers. The White Corner even once ran an ad talking about the Red Corner! There's just no track record of "Fortune's Corner" being used. There is also a pleasing circularity here with Fred Legg (notwithstanding a wandering middle intitial). There is, in fact, a non-zero chance that when Fred Legg sold the drug store, he retained ownership of the building, and a few years later sold the building later to the bank, with the architectural commission a bonus in the transaction. There are still details to sort out.

"Salem is to have a new bank. It will be known as the Salem State Bank, and will open in the room adjoining the Red Corner drug store Thursday, November 10th." (November 8th, 1904)

"The Red Corner drug the corner of State and Commercial Streets...changed hands yesterday. F. A. Legg sold the store...Mr. Legg has been in the drug business in Salem for the past sixteen years, and he retires in order to enter the office of W. D. Pugh, the architect, as a partner." (April 14th, 1905)

"An old friend in a new dress. In announcing the conversion of the Salem State Bank into the National system, under the title of the United States Natonal Bank..." (January 16th, 1908)

"Contract closed today by United States National Bank for five story business block at corner of State and Com[mercial] Streets...The plans adopted were prepared by Architect Fred R. Legg of this city." (May 6th, 1909)

Salem Breakfast on Bikes said...

Added more detail and photos on the Red Corner, and its earlier identity as Moores Block.