Willoughby: Subtle advertising from the 1890s, messages that emanate from an open safe | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: Subtle advertising from the 1890s, messages that emanate from an open safe

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Caption: Businesses used safes, such as the one shown in this photo of a downtown Aspen office from 1890, to protect valuables.
Courtesy of Willoughby collection

Do you see the safe at the center of the photograph? The photographer would not have snapped a quick shot inside this office, which reflects effort to display an orderly appearance. He took time to set up the camera equipment, and indoor lighting would have required that the exposure last a few seconds. Notice that the safe is open.

Then notice the gated fence that separates the rear office from the rest of the room. This suggests the presence of valuables beyond the gate. One imagines the set of drawers beneath the eagle may hold strategic documents or glittery specimens of silver.

The photo came from a book published in 1890 that showed off Aspen’s thriving businesses and promoted the town as an economic success. Many photos explore store interiors. Thick hardwood furniture, shelves and decorative pieces surrounded elaborate glass display cases. Roll-top desks fit the fashion rage. Aspen’s several drugstores gleamed as the most photogenic businesses.

But back to the open safe. I have looked at many photos from those decades and the prevalence of open safes puzzles me. It could be that a jewelry store would remove merchandise from the safe each morning and return it at the end of the day. In bank photos, large open doors to walk-in safes take center stage. As an every-morning routine, perhaps the safe was opened for the day. And a bank’s customers would need access to safety deposit boxes throughout the day. Also, tellers would need to regularly move cash to and from the safe and their registers. How would they balance the inconvenience of closing and opening a safe at intervals versus the risk of an open safe?

I think an open safe functioned as a subtle form of advertising. For instance, an open safe at a mining stock exchange office might prominently display samples from mines. Even a casual passerby could note the samples’ sizes and quality, and then associate that office with the most successful mines. Just as they do today, drugstore operators and jewelers may have put their finest merchandise inside glass display cases to provide a shoplifting barrier. But theft did not occur as often then as now.

The more meaningful message seemed to say, “I have bigger, better and more whatnots than any other store.”

In the days when most business transactions took place in cash, an open safe door seemed to whisper, “You might not be able to count how much money is inside, but it’s enough to warrant a safe. And this business is financially secure enough to risk an open door.” Messages of success helped retain old customers and attract new ones.

Businesses advertised in the newspapers. But those ads mainly displayed the business title, included a short list of what the business offered, named its proprietor and identified its location. Also, businesses achieved recognition through their owners, prominent community members. Before newspapers published business photographs, customers gleaned primary impressions of businesses with a glance through a window while walking down the street.

Outward appearances did not help customers distinguish between competing businesses. In many cases, the same craftspeople had built similar exteriors to downtown buildings within the same decade. And inside a store, display cases came from the same suppliers. Against the backdrop of sameness, subtle differences such as an open safe stood out.

You may explore the interiors of Aspen’s shops of 1890 through the Aspen Historical Society photo archives, available online. Just think — a photographic tour of the past may compare favorably with watching televised political pundits shout over each other. If you shut out the pundits by following social media and indulging in online shopping, Amazon would not intrigue you with a picture of an open safe. But photos from mining days may lead you to wonder about the meaning and contents of an open safe. And those conversational tidbits may boost your following in the lift lines.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.