Up to Snuff

Ask Vance



Dear Vance: I found an old cardboard fan advertising a product called Dental Snuff, and the Memphis company that made it — the snuff, not the fan  — claimed it was the oldest and largest in the world. What was this stuff, anyway? — C.I., Memphis.

Dear C.I.: I wish you had never shown me this image. I must tell you that a depressing number of my teenage co-workers glanced at it and said, "Hey Vance, that old man looks just like you, haw haw!" I suppose I really have let myself go, what with slumping in my La-Z-Boy and guzzling Kentucky Nip all day long.

But I'm also dismayed by the sad, twisted life of these two folks. There's the old man, reading a newspaper whose coverage is devoted entirely to news about snuff ("tobacco in its purest form"). Brochures and papers piled on the table are also all about snuff ("a man's chew"), and there's a big can of it sitting under the lamp. And then along comes Grandma, bringing yet another newspaper with bold headlines announcing "Dental Snuff Made of Pure Tobacco."

Clearly, these people pay way too much attention to snuff. I'm glad the image doesn't show the man's grizzled face, which is probably just drooling and dripping with snuff and chewing tobacco. These folks need to branch out, I say, and add cigarettes and booze to their daily addictions.

But some of the claims made on this fan — and hundreds of other promotional items distributed by this company, many in the collection of the Lauderdale Library — are indeed true.

The American Snuff Company actually got its start way back in 1782, when a former Revolutionary War soldier named John Garrett built a snuff mill on a creek somewhere in Delaware. Snuff, you see, is nothing more than finely ground tobacco. In the old days, you would actually sniff it up your nostrils, much like a similar product popular these days with certain Hollywood starlets. Or so I've heard. But most snuff today is actually placed in your mouth ("just a pinch between your cheek and gum" is how one manufacturer puts it). Anyway, Garrett's snuff company evolved into the American Snuff Company, with headquarters in New York. In 1912, for reasons that are never made clear — not to me, anyway — the company relocated to Memphis and built a huge factory here overlooking the river, where it churned out thousands and thousands of the little metal cans of snuff.

"Dental Sweet Snuff is ideal for beginners" explains a handy booklet I have. "It's mighty good, and you'll like it." What do they mean by beginners, I wonder — 5-year-olds? "Have you ever thought what coffee would taste like if made from the whole bean?" they ask, a question that has never occurred to anyone, anywhere. Well, the American Snuff people explain, "This will give you some idea why Dental Snuff is the favorite of tobacco users. In this brand of snuff, you find tobacco at its best." They have lots of handy information in this little booklet, including how to measure a cord of wood, but they never explain the "Dental" part of the name.

Like most tobacco products, though, it's not entirely safe. "Caution," says the booklet. "As snuff is very finely ground, a beginner should be very careful to not inhale or exhale when placing it in the mouth." They then suggest various ways to cram it in, for people who have no common sense whatsoever, and hint, "One way is to use the large blade of a knife for this purpose." For all those "beginners" who carry around giant knives, I suppose.

Snuff in all its various forms became hugely popular, and I suppose it still is. In the 1930s, the American Snuff Company even aired its own national radio program, called Up To Snuff. I'm serious! In 1985, the company was restructured and renamed the Conwood Corporation. I was intrigued by the illustration (above) on the back of the fan, which showed the sprawling facilities, and was astonished to discover that this huge complex is still standing today, relatively unchanged, at the northwest corner of North Front and Keel.

Oh, I could go on and on, but I have to stop now. It's almost time for the weekly installment of Up To Snuff.

Fancy Florists

Dear Vance: Look at this old postcard for Idlewild Greenhouses. What happened to this company? — J.K., Memphis.

Dear J.K.: Well, like many smaller companies around town, it went out of business. But boy, this one managed to last a long time. The card (above) reveals some interesting details. A handsome brick building, perhaps a former residence, serves as the display and sales office. Next door are rows of glass-sided greenhouses, and a smokestack towers over everything, with the name IDLEWILD painted along its side. The card, as you can clearly see, brags "Over 40 Years Dependable Floral Service," but there's no date, so I can't tell you, exactly, when the company started.

What I can tell you is that it is listed in telephone directories as early as 1903, originally located at 89 South Main. The owner wasn't anybody named Idlewild, as you might imagine, but a fellow by the name of Otto Schwill, and the company didn't begin in the Idlewild community in Midtown, so I can't explain the name. You'll just have to live without that bit of information.

An old advertisement mentions their wide range: "cut flowers, corsages, blooming plants, house plants, funeral pieces, displays, flower designs, baskets, and bulbs in season." Like the postcard, it also announces "floral service — day and night." How many florists today, I wonder, stay open all night? And why would you need to? Even if it's for a funeral, surely the flowers can wait until morning, can't they?

In 1910, Idlewild Greenhouses opened a larger operation, the one shown on the card, at the corner of East and Eastmoreland. Their telephone number at the time, back when Memphis had neighborhood "exchanges," was 4980 Hemlock, which I thought was an interesting number for a greenhouse, hemlock being a deadly poisonous plant and all. Idlewild had plenty of competition over the years. In the 1950s, I counted more than 50 florists in business in Memphis. The last owner was Margaret Wilkerson, who ran the place until it closed in 1961. Drive by East and Eastmoreland today, and you won't find a trace of the buildings shown in the postcard. Looks like Idlewild finally went idle.

A Very Cool Building

Dear Vance: I own the property at 620-622 Union and was told it was originally an ice house. Right? — T.B., Memphis.

Dear T.B.: Well, you're halfway right. Half of the property was an icehouse, but actually only half of the business was devoted to ice, so I guess that makes you one-quarter right.

Perhaps I'd better explain this. In 1935, a fellow named Frank Kaye opened the Kaye Ice Company at 624 Union. There was no listing for 620 or 622, so apparently the street numbering has changed over the years. Just two years later, he expanded his business, now calling his firm the Kaye Ice and Coal Company.

That seems an odd combination of things, if you ask me, sort of like blending fire and water, but Kaye even added two other locations, at 650 East and 999 Jackson. His good fortunes didn't last long. In 1937, the city directories show that 624 Union was vacant. What's more, Frank Kaye seems to have left Memphis entirely, since there's no listing for him, either.

Now, T.B., here's where it gets confusing. The old phone books only list a 624 Union until 1950, when suddenly Manufacturer's Rubber & Supply Company shows up — at 620 Union. A different building, or the same building with new numbering? I can't say. They remain there for more than 40 years. Look carefully, and you can still see their name on the building. But at no time is there any listing for 622 Union.

So — all I can tell you is that half of your property was indeed an ice house. And a coal company, too. As for the other half, I'm stumped. That seems to happen a lot these days. Perhaps a pinch of Dental Snuff will clear the cobwebs.

Got a question for Vance? Send it to "Ask Vance" at memphis magazine, 460 Tennessee Street #200, Memphis, TN 38103 or email him at askvance@memphismagazine.com

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