Showers Brothers Furniture Company: The Shared Fortunes of a Family, a City, and a University
Showers Brothers Furniture Company: The Shared Fortunes of a Family, a City, and a University

Showers Brothers Furniture Company: The Shared Fortunes of a Family, a City, and a University

by Carrol Ann Krause


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253002037
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 05/22/2012
Pages: 312
Product dimensions: 7.00(w) x 9.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Carrol Krause, a former member of Bloomington’s Historic Preservation Commission, writes a weekly column in the Bloomington Herald-Times.

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Showers Brothers Furniture company

The Shared Fortunes of a Family, a City, and a University

By Carrol Krause

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2012 Carrol Ann Krause
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-00224-2




IN THE LATE 1850s, the community of Bloomington, Indiana, did not appear to be a promising location for a future furniture empire. Located far from other industrialized regions of the United States, Bloomington called itself a city even though it had fewer than 2,700 inhabitants. The town was ten blocks long and five blocks wide, stretching from Jackson Street on the west to Dunn Street on the east, and extending from what is now Eighth Street on the north to Third Street on the south. The unpaved roads turned to deep, sticky mud after heavy rains despite repeated attempts to macadamize the streets. Pedestrians walked on boardwalks of wooden planks raised above the bare surface of the road. The brick courthouse that served as the county seat was surrounded by a square where storefronts were interspersed with small homes left over from the early settler years. The roadbeds had not yet been leveled, so the buggies and wagon teams that drove the length of the city labored up small inclines and down into hollows, lurching through several creek beds and muddy seeps along the way.

In the 1850s the nation was predominantly rural. The people who lived in Bloomington were considerably outnumbered by the much larger population in the surrounding county. Outside the city lay countless homesteads and farms, with houses that ranged from log cabins to stately brick homes. The soil was adequate for agricultural purposes but not as good as the rich, dark soils found further north in the state. Deep stands of hardwood forest stood undisturbed in many places. Monroe County had no mineral wealth except for small traces of coal and iron ore, and there was no river capable of carrying shipping. The town of Bloomington had come into existence for the simple reason that it lay at the geographic center of the county and was therefore a good location for the courthouse.

Although portions of the nation were already industrialized by that time, the Industrial Revolution had been slow to penetrate the interior. Bloomington had its own small industry: a wool mill, sawmills, grain mills, tanneries, a mitten works, a hattery, the Seward foundry, and similar manufactories, but none of them employed more than a handful of workers. The arrival of the railroad in 1853 marked a turning point for the community, linking the once-isolated town to the rest of the nation and opening up new possibilities of commerce, prosperity, and travel. Nearby towns of similar size with no rail service soon began to decline, leaving Bloomington as the county's eminent community. Even though early trains moved slowly (often less than ten miles per hour), creeping up hills and stopping dead in deep snow, the presence of the railroad meant that shoppers on Bloomington's courthouse square could obtain exotic consumer goods unknown ten years earlier, including quality cigars, imported fabrics, and barrels of oysters. The town's few manufacturers could send their finished goods via rail if they chose, and they could obtain replacement machinery from the East.

Many people within the city kept cows and chickens in outbuildings in their backyards. Swine roamed freely through the streets, rooting through garbage piles and scratching themselves against fences. There would be no city water or sewers for nearly another half century, and every home and business had a privy in the back. A well on the courthouse grounds provided water that was probably tainted to some degree and was occasionally vandalized by teen pranksters who tossed refuse or rotten eggs down the shaft, to the anger of their elders. Each year there were outbreaks of cholera, malaria, typhoid, smallpox, and scarlet fever. The dead were buried in the weed-infested city cemetery that lay almost a mile west of the square downtown. Each year during the late summer the rains would stop and a dry spell would ensue, but every few years there would be a serious and long-lasting drought that made the leaves droop on the trees and the earth split into a mosaic of cracks. Thrifty people constructed subterranean brick cisterns to store rainwater for their homes.

Bloomington was distinguished by a feature shared by few other communities of similar size: the state university, at that time an institution consisting of fewer than ten professors and approximately one hundred young men. There would be no women students until after the Civil War. College Avenue dead-ended about half a mile south of the courthouse at the small campus of Indiana University, at that time still commonly referred to as the State College. The university was not yet a magnetic force that would create what we think of today as a "college town": a dynamic and invigorating place, surrounded by restaurants, boutiques, bookstores, music, and nightlife. All this would come in the twentieth century. Instead, the university was more like a cloister where young men studied Latin, Greek, and rhetoric, and attended mandatory chapel on Sunday.

The presence of the university had a significant impact on housing in Bloomington. In the 1850s there were not enough houses to shelter the population and the students, a situation that would bedevil the town for decades to come. Because there were no dormitories, private individuals and boarding houses provided room and board to students who doubled and tripled up in spare bedrooms and unused parlors. Renting to students was a common way to make a little side income. The housing stock of the city was motley. A number of old log cabins were still in use, their exteriors disguised with clapboards or shingles; but they were considered uncomfortable and old-fashioned and were rapidly disappearing, either torn down or enveloped by bigger frame houses that were constructed directly around them. Those who had the means to do so built tall frame or brick houses that loomed over the small and flimsy two-room cottages nearby. But housing was expensive and there was never enough to meet the demand, which resulted in great hardship for the poor.


In 1856, the Showers family arrived in this little community. Up to this point Charles Christopher Showers, known as C.C., had led a nomadic existence with his wife, Elizabeth, relocating their ever-growing family at least fifteen times over the course of eighteen years across the greater Midwest. Beginning in 1838 in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, and zigzagging through Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Iowa, Tennessee, and Louisiana, jolting by wagon over rough dirt tracks and floating along rivers on flatboat and steamboat, the family's series of removes totaled approximately 3,500 miles. This would be an impressive sequence of moves today, but it was far more grueling and hazardous in the early to mid-1800s, when the only roads between communities were rough and unpaved. It's likely that C.C. and Elizabeth had family connections in several of the communities they moved to.

C.C. served for a time as a Methodist circuit rider who traveled on horseback to preach to people who lacked established churches in rural frontier areas, which may explain some of his family's apparently random wanderings. Although many people called him "Reverend," it is not clear if he was in fact ever formally ordained as a minister. One account states that he was "licensed to preach" beginning in 1847, almost a decade after he left Pennsylvania; but his name is not included on the official lists of early Methodist ministers assigned to the state of Indiana. He may have been a supernumerary minister who assisted the main minister, and there is at least one record of him performing a marriage. But the money earned through itinerant preaching was not sufficient to feed a family, so C.C. was also an entrepreneur and businessman. It's not clear how much money he had; a poor man could not have afforded to relocate a large family as many times as he did, but a wealthy man would not have continued to uproot himself and his family in this manner. His income was probably somewhere between modest and moderate, never descending to abject poverty.

Elizabeth Hull had married C.C. in Coudersport, Pennsylvania, on May 16, 1836, at the age of nineteen, and followed him on his wanderings across the nation, a baby in her arms during each relocation. Each of their seven children was born in a different community. Her life must have been extremely difficult, living in a succession of pioneer villages with a growing number of children, but she raised seven children to adulthood without any deaths despite the frequent outbreaks of epidemics and lack of good medical treatment. Elizabeth suffered from chronic ill-health and appears haggard and worn in the single photograph of her that still exists, but she was a survivor in a way that modern people can barely imagine. She gave birth to seven babies in primitive conditions; she suffered the ravages of yellow fever for five weeks; and she probably endured smallpox and malaria. An ongoing affliction was severe asthma, which left her gasping for breath. Sweeping and dusting a house cannot have been easy for her, nor preparing meals each day on a wood- or coal-burning stove. Stoic and dutiful, Elizabeth was deeply pious and had complete faith that God would see her through her hardships, as the entries in her spiritual daybook show. The daybook, written in a small, clear script using irregular spelling and no punctuation marks, tells us much about Elizabeth. In it she recalls her childhood experiences of religion:

"at the age of thirteen I became powerfully convicted that I was a greate sinner in the sight of god and greatly needed salvation though I was of a disposition to conceal my feeling from any one seeking reliefe alone in the secret place of devotion giving vent there to my feelings in teares trying at the same time to give myself to the savior the sinners friend but oh how much I needed light and instruction."

In this breathless manner she composed her spiritual thoughts. Her daybook gives us almost no information about her day-to-day life but contains powerful affirmations of her faith and her ongoing struggles to achieve "sanctification," which finally occurred on October 15, 1854, when she was thirty-seven years old. Beginning in October 1859 and continuing until the end of her life, Elizabeth commemorated each anniversary of her sanctification by spending the day apart from her family in a closed room, on her knees, reading the Bible and praying. Each year on January 1 she wrote an entry thanking God for allowing her to live to see one more year. Her daybook gives no account of family moves and never mentions that she was pregnant or had given birth; there is no indication that her country was teetering upon the brink of a great war that would tear it apart; nor is there any record of her sons and daughters marrying and moving out of the family home. Her sole topic was her spiritual relationship with God. Elizabeth had much in common with the saints and martyrs of the ancient church. Although she loved her husband and children, one gets the uneasy sense that Elizabeth may also have regarded them as impediments to a closer relationship with God.

It is not clear why C.C. and his family came to Bloomington: family connections, church opportunities, and business prospects are all equally possible reasons. Although he was a Methodist, C.C. left that church the year after his arrival in Bloomington to become a Baptist pastor, a move that filled Elizabeth with dismay.

Aprile the 13th 1857

This has been a week of ample temptation and trial the time having come that the tie that bound me so closely to the church of my early choice is to be severed oh how selfe would draw back but oh thy will be don my dearest Lord after living in the M.E. Church 27 years I to day tak my letter and join the Baptist Church that my husband is pastor of with a strang impression that I shall again live and die with the people I so much love though this is all in the future yet I would submit my all to the most gracious god oh help thy feeble child in this time of need one year and six mounthes I have tarried back had it not been that my dear husband was a Baptist minister and I seen that the lord ownd his labours I could not got the consent of my mind to make the chang for it was the greatest trial that I ever was called to endure I prise so highly her privileges I love so well the doctrains of holiness oh how I love her sweet communion feastes the privileges of the classroom could my dear husband have been satisfied I never could have left but I feel to praise the Lord I care not for the name religon is the same bless the Lord oh my soul

Elizabeth's comment that she had "tarried back" from joining the Baptist Church for a year and six months already suggests that it may have been the attraction that brought C.C. to Bloomington in the first place. Sectarianism was so marked in the mid-1800s that it was quite unusual to "take one's letter" and move from one church to another. C.C. preached in a Baptist Church in a small community called Putnamville, south of Greencastle, Indiana, for a year or so. But Elizabeth's "strang impression" that she would return to the Methodist Episcopal Church was correct: C.C.'s involvement with the Baptists ended by January 1 of 1859, and he and his wife returned to the Methodists.

Elizabeth and C.C. had six children when they arrived in Bloomington. Several of the children were known by their middle names, a family custom that continued with many of the grandchildren, and several of those family names would be used and reused in subsequent generations, which makes it confusing to read the family tree. The first two children born were sisters, Sarah Elizabeth and Mary Eleanor (known as "Ellen"). Next came two brothers, James David and William Norton; and after them came two more sisters, Anne Manerva ("Annie") and Martha ("Lola"). The youngest child, born four years after the family's arrival in Bloomington, when Elizabeth Showers was about forty-three years old, was named Charles Hull for his mother's family and known fondly as "Hullie." Because of Elizabeth's extended years of childbearing, Hullie was nineteen years younger than his older brother James and twenty-three years younger than his eldest sister Sarah. A short while before the family's move to Bloomington, the eldest daughter Sarah had married John Sears in Orleans, Indiana, and the newlyweds relocated to the Bloomington area around the same time as Sarah's parents and siblings did. John Sears, the eldest son-in-law, was a workingman from rural Orange County who was skilled in the useful trades of blacksmithing, house plastering, and machine work; he is credited with having plastered the columns of the old Monroe County Courthouse in 1855. In later years his descendents would play an important role in the Showers family business.

The three Showers boys, James, William, and young Hull, would become the Showers Brothers of later fame. Despite the five-year difference in age between James and William, the two were extremely close. In his memoir James recalled the birth of his younger brother:

Mrs. Rhoda Metzer, the midwife of my Mother, called me into the house and told me I could see my little baby brother and if I would sit down on the floor and hold open my arms, I could hold him. Mrs. Metzer placed Willie in my arms and from that day on, all my life, I had my arms around him, and he was the same with me as soon as he was old enough to be my pal. During all our years of association, there was never a cross word between us.... William N. was destined to be the life-long playmate, pal, and business partner of James D.

C.C. had learned the skill of cabinetmaking while young. In the early 1800s American furniture began to be manufactured with power tools rather than hand tools, and C.C. knew how to use this new technology. Steam power drove the machines that cut the boards and the tools that were used for shaping. All the power tools that can be found in today's home workshops—circular saws, drill presses, electric drills—had steam-powered equivalents in C.C.'s day. He undoubtedly owned at least a few of these necessary tools. Making furniture completely by hand, the old-fashioned way, was a remnant of America's pioneering years and now obsolete as a method of mass manufacture. Machines were the key to success when manufacturing a number of similar items for sale. During his years of living in frontier communities, C.C. must have built simple, utilitarian furniture for his family's needs, and he made and sold similar furniture to others. He taught his sons James and William to work with wood as soon as they were old enough to understand what they were doing. Years later James recalled that at the age of six he was able to build two-wheeled wagons, which he traded with other boys for marbles, pocket knives, and other trinkets, and that at the age of thirteen he did "a man's work, making tables, chairs and other articles of furniture." William was removed from formal schooling "while still studying short division" and apprenticed (apparently to his own father) for $6 a month in order to learn the cabinetmaker's trade. Both William and James received sufficient outside schooling to surpass their mother in spelling ability.


Excerpted from Showers Brothers Furniture company by Carrol Krause. Copyright © 2012 Carrol Ann Krause. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Table of Contents

Showers family information
1. The Reverend and His Family
2. Showers & Hendrix
3. Legal Troubles
4. The Brothers Enter Business
5. The Booming ‘80s
6. Death and Fire
7. Prosperity and Loss
8. Boom and Bust
9. Moving Towards Modernity
10. Houses and a Hospital
11. "The World’s Largest Furniture Factory"
12. The "Shop Notes" years
13. Another Beginning
14. Final Successes
15. Everything Changes
16. Legacy

What People are Saying About This

author (with Will Counts and Scott Russell Sanders) of Bloomington Past and Present - James H. Madison

Author Carrol Krause has chosen a very interesting subject and writes with an especially good eye for 'telling detail' and for imagining sounds, images, and smells of long ago. The illustrations combined with the engaging style will attract an enthusiastic local audience.

Mayor of Bloomington, Indiana - Mark Kruzan

This once dominant and still prominent building houses the story of a city's past manufacturing prowess, a downtown in decline, and an urban renaissance. The roots of that important story are now available in this written history of Showers.

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