Made-in-Detroit holiday gift ideas (from the late 1800s)

This post is from a recent issue of the Little Detroit History Letter, an email newsletter I occasionally send about Detroit history, news, tours, and events. Subscribe here.   

Some last-minute local gift shopping ideas, 100-odd years too late.

A cheery winter scene from Queen Anne Soap. Image via Detroit Public Library.

Queen Anne Soap. “Soaps may come and soaps may go. But QUEEN ANNE SOAP lives on FOREVER.” Queen Anne Soap was the signature product of the Detroit Soap Company, founded by top-hatted Ypsilantian Sam Post (read more about him here) in 1881. The company had a factory at Dix and 25th St. and a “premium store” on Woodward Avenue, where you could exchange hoarded soap wrappers for household goods, colored prints for framing and hanging (like this winter landscape), or tickets to Boblo Island.

“Everybody seemed to feel it was a civic duty to use Queen Anne soap so that framed pictures of ‘Horses in a Storm’ could decorate the parlor,” recalled Malcolm Bingay in his column for the Detroit Free Press in 1945. Bingay also recounted some probably-apocryphal (he couldn’t even get the guy’s name right) folklore about Sam Post making his way home after bar time, when he was too drunk to figure out which house was his:

““He would stop a passerby and ask, ‘Can you direct me to the residence of Mr. George [sic] Post, the Queen Anne soap man?’ … One day he asked that of a woman in the neighborhood and she said, ‘Why, you are Mr. Post.’ ‘Dammit, madam … I did not ask you who I am; I asked you where I live.'”

The Detroit Soap Company and its brands were sold to Lautz Bros., soap manufacturers of Buffalo, NY, in 1915.


Or some dog remedies? Image via Detroit Public Library.

German canaries from Edward’s Bird Store. German canaries, bred in the Harz Mountains and famous for their superior song, were the most stylish pet birds in Europe and the United States in the 19th century. In 1909, one New York birdseller estimated that 200,000 German canaries were imported to the U.S. every year, mostly during November and December so the canaries could be given as holiday presents.

Edward’s Bird Store also sold homing pigeons, ducklings and fancy chickens, talking parrots, trained ferrets, and goldfish for five cents a piece.

In the 1920s Edward’s Bird Store was under new ownership and rebranded “Petland.”


Lyman E. Stowe is the tall dude in the back. Image via Detroit Public Library.

A mirror or something from spiritualist shopkeeper / legendary Postmaster Lyman E. Stowe. I don’t actually know anything about this store or what you could buy there – presumably mirrors, frames, and pictures? Plus maybe those crazy bikes are for sale? But let’s talk about the apparent owner of this store, Lyman E. Stowe, who was a real piece of work.

Stowe was the first Postmaster of Flint, Michigan. Flint had no post office when Stowe was Postmaster, and so Stowe would meet the mail coach, place the day’s mail in his hat, and hand-deliver the mail. When Flint built a new post office building in the 1950s, Lyman Stowe’s silk hat was displayed there.

Stowe later moved to Detroit and was widely known as a deliverer of batshit prophecies about calamity and havoc and earthquakes, divined from a mash-up of the Bible and astrology. On Christmas day in 1905, Stowe predicted that the United States would go to hell more or less inevitably, but especially if President Theodore Roosevelt were not re-elected: “Some time between now and 1915 this country will run pools of blood, chaos will reign and the big money magnates, who have been lording it over this country for so long, will fall.”

He also wrote dozens of books about science, religion, astrology, and the occult (any of which would also make a lovely made-in-Detroit gift of yore!). Wrote the Free Press about Stowe’s book “Poetical drifts of thought; or, problems of progress,” published in 1884: “a showy volume in which a somewhat fanciful attempt is made to reconcile science and Christianity. It is an exceedingly curious book, and the engravings are by no means the least curious things in it.”


Illustration from Karmenia, by Lyman E. Stowe, published in 1918.

It’s worth checking out this book and its “curious engravings” via, or read his spirtual-autobiographical novel “Karmenia,” “a romance of many worlds.”

Sounds like a guy whose small business you’d like to patronize, yes? Just to see how weird he is IRL?

Best of luck with your last-minute holiday shopping! Sorry that time travel isn’t real.

#canaries#christmas#Detroit#holiday shopping#lyman e. stowe#queen anne soap#retail#victorian retail