by Dawne


The Genealogy Center received an email query from fellow genealogy librarian Marcia Ford of the Kokomo and Howard County (IN) Public Library Genealogy & Local History Department, recently, asking if we could identify the object in the picture featured with this entry. Marcia had been sent the photo by a colleague, whose friend found the object with a metal detector. It is rectangular, about two inches wide and three inches tall with a hole in the top and small tabs on the sides. Its legend reads “XMAS GREETING ’91” and what looks like “__ESA ARMSTRONG.” Underneath that, “FT. WAYNE, IND.” is clear. There may be a smaller embossed message below this, but it isn’t readable from the picture.

After some research, it seems likely that this metal tag was once attached to a hat box. The name on the tag isn’t “___ESA ARMSTRONG,” but “JAMES A. ARMSTRONG.” According to The Illustrated Milliner, Vol. 11, pp. 175-176, published in 1910, James A. Armstrong established Adams & Armstrong millinery firm in Fort Wayne in 1886 and shortly after bought out his partner and changed the name of the company to The James A. Armstrong Millinery Co. The 1890-1891 Fort Wayne City and Allen County Directory published by R. L. Polk Company, shows James A. Armstrong, wholesale milliner, with his shop at 109 Calhoun Street.

It may be that this tag was attached to the hat boxes containing hats ordered by women to complement their holiday finery, or to the boxes of hats purchased as gifts, or both. In effect, the tag probably served as an advertisement for the James A. Armstrong Company. Without locating an intact hat box from that company for the 1891 holiday season, or a photograph of one, it is not possible to know for sure whether the mystery of this item’s identity has been solved, but this seems like a reasonable possibility.

The full text of the 1910 issue of The Illustrated Milliner that includes the article mentioning the James A. Armstrong Company is available online at the HathiTrust Digital Library. It even includes a photograph of James! James A. Armstrong added C. T. Pidgeon and W. S. Turner to his firm in 1894, then sold out to his partners and moved to Denver, Colorado, in 1902. According to the article, he planned to retire from the millinery business at that point, but because “Denver held such alluring prospects for a first class jobbing millinery house,” he changed his mind about retiring and established Howland & Armstrong in Denver. That firm was dissolved in 1902 and Armstrong, with a former Fort Wayne partner, W. S. Turner, formed the Armstrong Turner Millinery Company in Denver, which was still in business at the time the article was written in 1910.

Heirlooms and artifacts sometimes can tell their stories if we are observant and think creatively about sources in libraries and elsewhere that might help us decipher available clues. In this case, old city directories were instrumental in unlocking a possible answer to the mystery of the metal Christmas greetings tag.