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A book of my own

November 11, 2012

The cover of my book, “Showers Brothers Furniture Company: The Shared Fortunes of a Family, a City, and a University.”

This past spring Indiana University Press published my book on the Showers Brothers Furniture Company of Bloomington. The Showers family and the company it ran were the single biggest economic stimulus behind Bloomington, Indiana, for probably half a century.  But over the passage of time the many accomplishments of the Showers family had become largely forgotten as new business leaders and civic benefactors took their place on the scene. It was my privilege to read through sixty years of newspapers on microfilm and uncover the big story of a kindly and generous family who gave back to the community that had helped them to prosper.

The three Showers brothers: from left to right, James, Hull and William

The Showers Brothers, James and William, with their younger brother Hull, were benevolent capitalists who rose from their beginnings as ordinary workingman and became the wealthiest men in their community. They took a small business originally opened by their father and refashioned it during bleak economic times until by the mid-1880s it had become one of the largest industries in town. In a community of fewer than 2800 people, more than half of the population would have been children, and half of the remainder would have been women, so a company that employed a hundred workers could easily have had a workforce that employed one out of every five men in town. The company, under the control of later Showers descendants, would remain the largest employer in town until the Great Depression, having more than two thousand workers on its payroll at its height.

The thing that so gripped my imagination was the fact that a community that had grown and thrived under the presence of the Showers company for half a century could have forgotten their former benefactors so thoroughly over the course of subsequent decades. The things I discovered during my research were once known by every citizen of Bloomington but had been lost to the historic record. For instance, the fact that for nearly 25 years one of the partners at Showers Brothers Furniture Company was a woman, Maud Showers.

The wedding portrait of the 16-year-old Maud Coatney Showers.

Maud had been married at 16 and had no advanced education. Yet the untimely death of her young husband Hull left Maud in possession of his one-third interest in the furniture company. If Maud had been any ordinary young woman of the 1880s her brothers-in-law, James and William, would have bought out her interest and gotten rid of her. Instead they brought in a lawyer and drew up formal documents making Maud their partner. At the age of 23, newly widowed and with three small children, she found herself one of the wealthiest women in town, and a female industrialist. What’s more, she was a suffragist who campaigned constantly throughout the mid-1880s for votes for women. As part of a statewide effort to compel the Indiana legislature to extend voting rights to women she passed around a petition at the Showers factory requesting the workers’ signatures to indicate their support for women’s suffrage (all but one worker signed it). She helped bring Susan B. Anthony to town to speak on women’s suffrage. Maud was a tireless club woman and an indomitable organizational force who also founded the city’s hospital and helped establish its new Carnegie Library. She went on to become the only woman member of an early real estate development company that enlarged the city; she married two more times, traveled widely, and never stopped working for the public good. And yet she becamecompletely forgotten by the Bloomington public after her generation died out. It’s a real shame, because she was a genuine heroine who successfully served a pivotal leadership role at a time when women virtually never became industrial partners or civic leaders.

This image of a man, taken from a family album, was probably a worker at the Showers furniture factory. Dressed in the kind of canvas overalls still made today, this worker holds a cup of varnish and a brush.

The Showers men themselves constantly strove to better their community. In fact they established the unseen infrastructure that Bloomington still operates with today. Today we flick on a light switch or run a faucet and think nothing of it, but Showers men served on the boards of the very first electric and water companies, the companies that brought light and water to households at the dawning of the technology. A factory that ran on steam power knew well the vital importance of water, because it was located in an area known for its late-summer droughts. For decades Bloomington never had enough water to meet the needs of its community, so the Showers brothers invested their time and significant amounts of money in helping construct a series of reservoirs for their community. The family’s crowning contribution was getting Lake Griffy built in the face of opposition from the city’s mayor, who favored a different location. The family personally paid one-quarter the cost of building the new dam north of the city, while the three banks largely controlled by the family furnished loans for the rest of the sum. Afterwards the Showers family made sure that control over the lake was granted to the city’s control for the good of all.

The huge former factory building of the Showers Brothers Furniture Company has been cleverly retrofitted to become Bloomington’s City Hall Building.

This historical research interested and involved me deeply during the three years it took to write the book. The book is abundantly illustrated and will interest anyone with questions about benevolent capitalism, the role of women in the 1800s, small-town Indiana of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. I’ve been amused by the several instances of people who have given me inadvertent back-handed compliments by saying “I didn’t expect to enjoy the book, but I REALLY liked it!” The book is available from IU Press at http://www.iupress.indiana.edu/advanced_search_result.php?keywords=showers+brothers&osCsid=t6n6bfftkpjmrpakin8cpf9i43 and from Amazon.

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