Blast from the Past: A New Online Archive Provides Insight into Main Street Design

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A new online architectural archive provides a welcome addition to history of Main Street.  It’s called the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL) and it’s a project of the Association for Preservation Technology International (APT).  The Association, in order to better serve its members and the larger public, has taken on the task of finding and scanning out-of-print architectural trade catalogs and other technical publications and putting them online.  The BTHL was launched in 2010 and now has more than 5,000 period architectural trade catalogs available.

The collection can be searched by design and construction topics. Anyone interested in the history of Main Street should check out "storefronts." There are more than forty catalogs, mostly from the mid-20th century.  The 20th century catalogs reveal the revolution in storefront design that took place in the 1930s and led major renovations on Main Street. Other related topics include awnings, signs, prism glass, display windows, and tin ceilings.  What was once a destination-based research project for the most serious scholar is now available to everyone. You too, can become an architectural time traveler!

Below, the National Main Street Center provides an overview of two publications found in the internet archive to give you a sense of what is available:

First up is How to Plan and Construct Modern Store Fronts by Libby-Owens-Ford Glass Co.

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This 1938 “how-to” technical guide includes some great insights and instructions on how to create welcoming storefronts.  We think you’ll enjoy the introduction, which emphasizes the importance of Main Street and the interconnectedness of the merchant network:

America’s Main Street is the world’s most important shopping center. And the purpose of this book is to provide information which can help to build a better Main Street by adding new beauty and form to the places where buyer and seller meet. No one set of individuals can be wholly credited with the success of America’s retail stores. Owners have been quick to sense and satisfy the needs of the buying public. But progressive architects have developed unusual designs to solve the merchants varied problems of display. And, helping each, the manufacturer has made available building products and practices which can give brilliant new life, color and sparkling originality to modern storefronts in contrast to the drab storefronts of yesterday.

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On page six, the glass company stresses how well-planned storefront design is crucial to attracting buyers:

The windows may display the merchandise. But it is the facade as a whole that first attracts eyes to it. The modern storefront makes more trade by telling the passing world the nature of the shop and inviting it to enter and buy.

And on page twelve, the manufacturer points out that the façade reflects the service:

Customers cannot estimate the skill of a hairdresser or barber, the efficient service of a brokerage house or the excellence of a restaurant’s food, by samples displayed in a window. But they can tell a great deal about the standing and quality of a service establishment by the storefront itself.  If the face is up-to-date, it reflects the success of the entire establishment.

While language, style and assumptions have certainly changed since 1938, much of the advice in this guide still holds true nearly 80 years later. The guidebook’s colorful images depicting the modern storefront designs of the early 20th century will be familiar to many of you as many of these buildings still remain on Main Streets across the nation.

We also want to bring to your attention to the 1951 catalog How to Give Your Store the Look that Sells by Pittsburgh Plate Glass Co.

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The introduction of this product catalog encourages potential customers to evaluate their store from a shopper’s critical eyes and to ask the following familiar questions that all small business owners should still be asking: “Would you stop by if you were a prospective customer? Would you go out of your way to come back again? Does the appearance of the store suggest better and more up-to-date merchandise than that offered by competitors?”  The catalogue includes storefront photos ranging from mid-century bakeries, drug stores, flower shops, and hardware stores.

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The catalog wraps up by emphasizing that modernizing your community’s storefronts in groups not only “helps your business but benefits the entire community” stating:

The modern, inviting store is the one that attracts the trade that brings you profits. And when merchants get together and remodel their stores in groups, experience has proved that the result is a greater degree of prosperity for all. That’s because group modernization helps keep local business at home. Instead of going off to larger centers nearby to spend their shopping dollars, neighborhood residents decide to trade with their own local merchants. […] Join hands with your local Chamber of Commerce and merchants’ trade association, with city planning committees, with other neighborhood merchants and plan improvements. Such action will keep local business at home…and attract new business from other areas.

Those words still ring true today — however, we would add the clause “Join hands with your Main Street organization” to the top of the list of local partners!

There is one other method of viewing highlights from the Building Technology Heritage Library.  Mike Jackson has created Pinterest Boards using trade catalogs from the BTHL.  He has created two boards that will be of interest to fans of Main Street — “storefronts” and “tin ceilings.”   The Pinterest Boards feature an image from each catalog, which provides a more interesting “first look” at each catalog.  The Pinterest board pages link to the full catalog on Internet Archive.

We hope that you’ll utilize this great resource and look forward to providing you with more information about the Building Technology Heritage Library in the Spring Issue of Main Street Now!