Newspaper ads serve as community economic indicators

Many historians agree that the strike of 1913 was the single most traumatic event suffered by the Michigan copper district. If that is true, it deserves consideration from more perspectives than just “us and them.”

In April 1914, local elections included many members of the Western Federation of Miners running for various offices on the Socialist ticket. None of them won. By April, the Copper Country had begun its ninth month in the grip of the strike and advertisements and announcements in local papers suggest the extent to which the communities had suffered economically and socially.

The strike not only crippled mining companies, it crippled communities as well. Mines were the foundation of the communities’ economic stability.

With mines idled, so too were the stamp mills and smelters. Towns like Ahmeek, Calumet, Houghton and Hancock, Lake Linden, Hubbell, Redridge, Freda, and to a lesser degree, Ontonagon, were all economically devastated by the strike, which was supposed to be aimed at the mining companies. Without a mine rock and product to haul, railroads suffered just as much as independent, privately owned foundries that relied on stamp mills and mines for contracts, such as the manufacture of stamp shoes and machinery parts. Leasure pursuits, such as theater, were all but idled.

Added to the strangling of cashflow through the communities, thousands of the region’s nonmining employees, who had nothing to do with the mines or the Western Federation of Miners, were caught in the crossfire.

For those workers throughout the Copper Country whose jobs were not cut or eliminated, the average wage still hung between $1.85 and $2.10 per day. Mining company officials, of course, stayed at their desks, and so were paid whether their mines operated or not.

Between the low-income wage earners and the salaried mining officials remained income gaps that were reflected in the businesses that advertised in local papers, what they advertised, as well as the businesses that continued to hang on, but did not advertise.

While there were occasional ads placed by automobile dealerships that sold luxury cars in the $750-price range, the predominance of ads came from clothing and dry goods stores and groceries and markets then, like now, listed items and their prices.

Opal’s Store, in Lake Linden, for example, listed 98-pound sacks of Gold Medal flour for $2.50, more than a day’s wages. Corn sold for .95 cents per bushel, while 25-pound sacks of sugar sold for $1.15 and light brown sugar at $1 for 20 pounds.

Perhaps due to haulage charges from the docks at Torch Lake, Vertin’s Dept. Store in Calumet charged higher prices than Opal’s. At Vertin’s, a 98-pound sack of Parisian, Pillsbury or Cremo flour sold for $2.70, or a 49-pound sack for $1.35.

The Fair Store, in Hancock, offered the same products at the same prices as Vertin’s, but with the added enticement of a 49-pound sack of flour for $1 with orders of $10 or more.

At the same time, Miller’s Dept. Store, in Houghton, offered men’s $1.25 and $1.50 pants for 85 cents; $2.00 pants for $1.25 and men’s 50-60 cent work shirts for 39 cents.

Boys’ $3 suits, ages 3 – 7 years, for $1.75; $5 suits for boys 8-17 years, for $2.98, with a free German Silver, two-bladed pocket knife with the sale of each suit.

After the announcement of the union vote calling off the strike on April 11, no more advertisements from Miller’s appeared offering such sales on men’s clothing.

In addition to clothing and food stores, the most frequent ads came from local banks. Occasionally, a movie house ran a 1×1-inch ad for a motion picture.

On April 8, just six days before the strike was called off, a small announcement appeared in the Daily Mining Gazette: The Amphridome in Houghton offered open roller skating on Mondays and Wednesdays, in the evenings, featuring music by the Quincy band, almost certainly a thinly veiled statement that entertainment venues and mining companies still recognized each other as members of the same community.

Three days later on April 11, something appeared that had not been seen in months: a pricy 2×10-inch ad for a play placed by the Kerredge Theatre, in Hancock. It was not an ordinary play for the conservative Copper Country. In fact, it was intended for mature, primarily female, audiences. “The Traffic” was a play written by a woman for women, and was an exposition on white slavery and its nationwide investigations. Seating prices were $1 – $1.50, more than a half-day’s wages. The Copper Country was, after all, a metropolitan area with Houghton County’s population just under 100,000, it was a community that needed to be enlightened.

Whether it was an advertising campaign initiated by the Gazette is unknown, but April 11 seems to have marked a turning point in either newspaper ads or a turning point in the attitudes of the Copper Country residents. While that day’s edition contained the usual clothing and dry goods stores ads, pages 10 and 11 were entirely theater and entertainment space, including motion picture and play reviews and advertisements from nearly every venue in the three-county area. It was to be a weekly entertainment section supported by the advertisements.

Theater was not the only source of entertainment during the strike, however, and the population was composed of more than just striking men and protesting wives.

Redridge and Beacon Hill, two mill communities located far from the nearest towns offering entertainment, were vibrant, independent communities. The Congregational Church at Redridge gave a musical and literary program on the evening of March 28, 1914.

An odd organization for its time and place, the Ladies Industrial Society of the Beacon Hill Congregational Church discussed the upcoming April 16 church fair at is regular meeting in late March.

While entertainment venues such as theaters and movie houses began advertising regularly in April, it does not necessarily mean that they were not operating during the months of the strike.

Although news focused primarily on the strike, the mining companies were by no means the only employers in the region. For example, villages still employed street crews and maintained staffed departments; logging companies, which sold much of their timber in other regions such as Chicago, continued operations. The number of card-carrying union members strikers also proved to be greatly exaggerated by Western Federation of Miner executives, by some estimates by as much as 3,000. Many of them, once the strike was called off, quickly went to mine offices to apply for work.

While the Daily Mining Gazette’s April 14 claim that “The stampede of strikers began long before the vote even was begun,” was biased editorializing, its statement in the same article was factual:

“Rejoicing was evident among all classes of people, the strikers more particularly, for it is generally known that the majority of them have all along wanted only the opportunity to express their desire to return to work.”

That assessment essentially concurred with Quincy Mine manager Charles Lawton’s annual report for 1913, in which he wrote:

“The vicious activity of the strikers, however, induced a great many naturally well-disposed men to remain away from the mine, and later to join the strike.” It was reasonable for men such as those to subsequently join the union for the purpose of receiving strike benefits as some form of compensation for not being permitted to work.

As spring evolved into summer and businesses could again afford to advertise, few noticed by the businesses placing the ads that a cultural transformation in the Copper Country had begun, even while the strike was severely hampering businesses.


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