Grand Avenue is one of the longest streets in St. Louis, a north-south thoroughfare with a median near Saint Louis University where the numbers start in the single digits and begin to climb in either direction. North Grand Circle, close to its terminus at Interstate 70, is a roundabout with a large, white Corinthian column in the middle. A landmark in what is now called College Hill. This area was once alive and bustling, but certainly not in the 34 years that I have lived here. In the late 1970s, when, as a public health officer, I first came upon College Hill, the once-vibrant commercial environment was already in a woeful state of dereliction and it has gone downhill ever since. The storefronts and businesses that once lined the traffic circle are now mostly gone—buildings shuttered or demolished altogether—and nothing has come along to replace them.
Amidst this forlorn setting, reading the walls as it were, we catch a glimpse of an earlier time when the Circle with its imposing monolithic tower was not merely a transit point, a place to pass through without much notice, but a destination where folks shopped for sundries, drank in saloons, ate in lunchrooms, or simply milled about waiting for something to happen. Yes, reading the walls, because there were two grand old advertisements visible on the periphery of North Grand Circle: Admiral The New Cigarette and W.B. Corsets, both windows to the past. In referring to these old signs I use the past tense, for they are no longer with us.
For perhaps 20 years, Admiral Cigarettes was the largest and best preserved wall sign in St. Louis. This wall was exposed sometime in the 1970s when an adjacent building was torn down, evident by the large vacant lot between it and the street. The building bearing the old sign became more and more decrepit until it, too, was torn down in the mid-1990s. How many years Admiral had been protected from the fading effect of sun rays and elements no one can say with any certainty.
Yet there are clues. The disclaimer “Not Made By A Trust” seen at the bottom of the wall is of note. To the tobacco company who paid for the advertisement it was important enough to include as a selling point, as if to say “We are proudly independent, not accountable to anyone.” This reference may date the sign to the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt [1901-09], who was known as the “Trust Buster.” This supposition is bolstered by period advertisements found online. One website with extensive archives, tobaccodocuments.org, features a whimsical ad, a painting dated 1900, of three showgirls standing beside or laying atop a huge pack of Admiral Cigarettes. A comical-looking, bespectacled gent pokes his bald head out of the pack, as tall as the cigarettes on either side of him. The lettering is highly-stylized with line scrolls surrounding the profile of an eagle’s head in the center. The product, we are informed, is “Manufactured by National Cigarette Tobacco Co. – New York, U.S.A.”
Far less prominently displayed was W.B. Exact Form Corsets, a smaller sign occupying a portion of a second-story of a building on the southern side of the Circle. The “W.B.” stands for Weingarten Bros., a national manufacturer of women’s under-apparel. According to circa 1920 ad copy, “For 25 years the letters W.B. have been the sign of the utmost value that human ingenuity and factory resources could put into this corset for the price. Why not have one of our corsetieres fit you to your right model tomorrow?”
Tomorrow came and went and 90 years later all the corsetieres have gone the way of patent medicine peddlers.
The aforementioned Corinthian column has presided over this scene a long, long time. It is actually a water tower, one of three remaining standpipe towers once maintained by the Water Department. When first put into service in 1871, it was considered, according to its Wikipedia entry, “to be the largest perfect Corinthian column in existence,” reaching a height of 154 feet [47 meters]. A second one, The Bissell Water Tower, also called the Red Tower, is located only few blocks to the east, toward the river. The third is the Compton Hill Water Tower located on South Grand near I-44. What is a standpipe? Before modern pumping methods, steam-powered pumps were used to send water throughout the city. Water flow was uneven and pressure surges were common, causing the pipes to rattle and shake. Some residences could not get water to upper floors. Standpipes—large vertical pipes in which a column of water rose and fell—were built to equalize water pressure and prevent surges. Standpipes alone were not attractive and so eye-catching towers were built to house them; each of the towers here is architecturally distinct from the others. At one time, nearly 500 of of these towers dotted our cities and towns. As hydro-technology improved standpipes became obsolete and most of them, along with their towers, were torn down. Today, only seven remain, and St. Louis has three of them. All three have been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since the early 1970s.
Admiral The New Cigarette – St. Louis, MO 1979
Between its sudden exposure and subsequent demolition 20 years later, this sign stood prominently in North Grand Circle. It is thought to date from around 1900. The business owner’s identification or “privilege” stripped in over the Admiral ad copy reads, in part, [something] Bakery & Confectionery
Next line down: [something-something-something Soda Water & Cigars. While this sign is black-and-white, other specimens were done in color; signpainter Mark Oatis says he once saw a large blue-and-white version in Kansas City.
W.B. Exact Form Corsets – St. Louis, MO 1981
A well-faded sign that had been exposed to elements for probably 60 years when I came upon it. A vertical, rectangular space situated to the left of the primary ad copy likely had an illustration of a woman wearing her new form-fitting corset. The privilege stripped in over the the main ad copy reads Tower Dry Goods. The object in the left foreground is the base of a 154-foot Corinthian column, a city landmark.