The Amazons of Davenport

Earlier this month, local officials confirmed e-commerce giant Amazon’s plans to build a robotics fulfillment center west of the Davenport Municipal Airport. This is not the first time, however, an enterprise with the name “Amazon” has done business in this city.

Advertisement from the Davenport Daily Times, 25 Nov 1905

In the year 1882, William M. Smith, L. Wahle, and B. H. Raphael incorporated the Amazon Vinegar & Pickling Works with $50K in capital and a facility in southwest Davenport reported to be the “largest in the state.” Smith had been manufacturing vinegar since 1871 in partnership with Edwin Fay; the pair also made paper and bags. In August 1880, however, the “most destructive fire known in Davenport in a year” ravaged the Fay & Smith buildings at 122-126 E Front St (River Drive), and Smith began focusing his energies on reviving the vinegar part of the business on his own.

Davenport Daily Times, 22 Jan 1917

In 1884, W.M. Smith sold his interest in the works to Frank W. Smith (unrelated), but remained its business manager until 1886, when he left to run a farm in Butler Township. He retired and returned to Davenport in 1901, passing away in January 1917. He was the father of thirteen children (m. 1863 to Clara Goetsch) and a veteran of the Civil War, having served the Union Army in the 20th Iowa Infantry, Co. C, in the battles at Prairie Grove, Vicksburg, and Fort Blakely.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Davenport, Iowa, 1886 (Library of Congress)

Despite fires, cold snaps, thefts, battles with railroad companies, and nuisance complaints (calls to clean up the “filth” that had accumulated in the slough behind the factory in 1889), the Amazon Vinegar & Pickling Works, while “not a gold mine,” remained “one of the solid and substantial industries of Davenport” into the twentieth century under the management of F. W. “Vinegar” Smith.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map, Davenport, Iowa, 1892 (Library of Congress)
Advertising Cards – Postcard Collection – PC 010
Advertisement from the Half-Century Democrat, 22 Oct 1905
Davenport Democrat and Leader, 6 Jan 1919

Entrepreneur Janet Burgess began a mail-order period costume pattern business in Davenport in the 1980s. She chose to repurpose the Amazon Vinegar & Pickling Works name and logo from the original company’s stationery (if only we had a sample in our collections!), adding “drygoods” at the end:

Ephemera collection – Business and Industry – Amazon Drygoods catalog, Summer 1988

A “fitting” heir to the Amazon run by two Smiths who served in the Civil War, Burgess specialized in fashions from that time period for re-enactors! In explaining in her catalog why she took on the Amazon name, she made sure her customers knew “any resemblance to the owner’s stature or temperament is purely intentional.”

(posted by Katie)

This entry was posted in Local History and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.