Bellevue Drive-In

Ask Vance



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Shown here slightly larger than actual size, this little pocket mirror served as an advertising promotion for a Memphis firm that — according to some sources — remained in business for more than 100 years.

Leaving Their Mark

Dear Vance: I picked up this small mirror at an antique mall, and stamped on the back it says, “W.J. Cooley & Co. Marking Devices.” What kind of company was this, and how old do you think this mirror is? — J.D., Memphis.

Dear J.D.: I like the design on the back of your mirror, showing the various birthstones, though I’m dismayed that it shows the stone for August (the month of my birth, as everyone knows) as Sardonyx, which the dictionary calls “a common and inexpensive stone.” This will never do.

And just as the Cooley company is apparently confused about the proper birthstone for a Lauderdale, so too are various historians confused about the origins of this “marking company.”

Allow me to explain. I carefully perused Memphis city directories all the way back to the early 1900s, and quickly determined that W.J. Cooley was actually Willson J. Cooley. He first showed up in the phone books in 1912, with no occupation listed, residing with a fellow named Benton Cooley (identified as a “saw filer”) and two women — Miss Hazel Cooley (a teacher at Leroy Pope School) and Miss Fawn Cooley (a stenographer with the B&O Railroad). Now, based on their ages (I won’t bore you with details about how I found that) I’m going to assume that Benton was his father, and the two unmarried women were his sisters, because they all lived happily together at 655 North McDavitt Place in north Memphis.

Still with me? An older brother, Earl, was living elsewhere in town at this time, employed as a stampmaker for the Ellis Seal and Stamp Company at 80 South Front. Within two years, Willson also found employment at this firm, and he must have been a go-getter, for by 1917, he was the manager of the place.

Okay, now here we go. In 1919, the city directories first listed the company on Front Street as “W.J. Cooley, Manufacturer of Rubber Stamps, Seals, and Stencils.” So I would say the Cooley Company officially started around 1919. Wouldn’t you?

Well, then you and I might be wrong. Because I happened to turn up a 1959 Commercial Appeal article celebrating the W.J. Cooley & Company’s “100 Years of Fast Service.” Without providing any helpful details about the firm’s origins, this story suggests the firm began here in 1859! So I just don’t know what to make of it. If it was around in 1859, it wasn’t named Cooley. And were we using rubber stamps in the 1850s?

What I do know, however, is that Cooley very quickly expanded from just making rubber stamps and other “marking devices” into all sorts of things — rabies tags for pets, license plates for cars (and not just in Tennessee, but other states as well), miniature license plates for toy cars and bicycles (every kid with a bike had one of these things — remember the racks of them at the drugstores?), hotel and motel key tags, name plates for offices, and even police badges.

Sometime in the early 1920s, the firm moved to 43 Union, and by 1928 it had located to its own building at 100 Hernando. Willson Cooley died in 1940 at the young age of 45; his wife, Lena, took over the firm and it remained in business for another 30 years or so. At one point, another Wilson Cooley — perhaps a son — became president, and the company moved again, to 2976 Vantage Avenue. In the late 1970s, the W.J.

Cooley Company vanished from the phone books, though other members of the Cooley family remained in the rubber stamp business around here for years.

Regarding the date of the mirror, based on the company’s Hernando address, it could have been manufactured anytime from 1928 to the mid-1960s. I wish I could tell you more, but this query has proven quite confusing, and I certainly hope no one gets me a “common and inexpensive” Sardonyx for my birthday. 

 

Got a question for vance?

Email: askvance@memphismagazine.com
Mail: Vance Lauderdale, Memphis magazine,
460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103
Blog: www.memphismagazine.com/Blogs/Ask-Vance

 

Reader Comments:
Aug 27, 2013 04:14 pm
 Posted by  Anonymous

I lived in Whitehaven, late fifties to early sixties and went to the Bellevue many times. I and my wife both remember the concession stand located in the projection booth.

Dec 15, 2013 05:13 pm
 Posted by  dale7k

The younger Mr. Cooley continued in business as Bear Marking Company, or something similar, up until the late 1990s, when he sold the business to his daughter, Mary. He operated it out of the back room of his house at 306 Malvern St, which is the house he grew up in, the same one purchased by Lena and Willson Sr. in 1923 just after it was built. I know this because I bought the house in 2001 from Mr. Cooley. I was the third owner counting Lena and Willson Jr.. The storage shed was full of filing cabinets, and the basement full of bankers boxes, with receipts from the business going back probably to the 1970s. I found little bits and things around the house - an envelope here, a stick pin there - that had been associated with the business. I even found some toy police badges he had made, in the attic. The house suffered extensive damage during the 2003 summer storm, and when rebuilding, I found even more interesting stuff. I understand that Mr. Cooley passed away in 2002-2003 or so.

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