founder and owner of William Demuth & Co., employed leading show figure (also known as shop or trade figure) wood-carvers Samuel Anderson Robb (1851– 1928) and Thomas White (1825–1902), sold their hand-carved wooden shop figures, and mass-produced figures based on their carvings for national distribution.German born, William Demuth immigrated to the United States in 1851 at the age of sixteen. By 1860 he was employed by William Hen (dates unknown), another German immigrant, who founded and operated New York City’s premier tobacco and novelty distributor of meerschaum clay pipes, Turkish water pipes, walkingcanes, and show figures. Hen excelled at marketing, and was the first to offer New York-carved shop figures throughout the nation.Demuth opened a competing business in New York in 1863, and in 1868 went into partnership with another German immigrant, Moritz J.Seelig (dates unknown), aBrooklyn foundry operator. Together, they cast figures in zinc and soon offered a wide range of metal shop figures through catalog sales. Demuth improved on Hen’smarketing by expanding catalog sales nationally.The 1870
New York Products of Industry Schedule of the Federal Census,
reviewed by American folk art historian Ralph Sessions, lists one of Demuth’s twoemployees as Robb and indicates production of 120 show figures valued at four thousand dollars. In 1871 Demuth produced the first American-made glass Christmasornaments. An 1875 Demuth Company illustrated catalog of thirty figures explains that his metal show figures, made of zinc, durable, and long-lasting, have replacedthe equally light wooden ones, which were short-lived and subject to “cracking from exposure to climactic changes.”Demuth exhibited his metal show figures at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876, as well as at the Chicago World Columbian Exposition of 1893,celebrating the four hundredth anniversary of the discovery of America by Christopher Columbus. In Chicago, according to articles from the 1893 and 1894 issues of the periodical
reviewed by Ralph Sessions, Wm.Demuth & Co. exhibited several cases of carved pipes, as well as zinc show figures that included threeIndians, a Gambrinus (a mythical Flemish king said to have invented beer), and a “Moorish girl.” Wooden figures of four Nubian boys were also on exhibit. By hiringwoodcarvers, Demuth encouraged the development of their craft, based manufactured models on their carvings, and introduced to a wider audience the beauty of shopfigures. His role was not unlike that of the weathervane companies operating in the same period.
Canes; Christmas Decorations; Cushing & White; Samuel Anderson Robb; Shop Figures;
Artists in Wood: American Carvers of Cigar-Store Indians, Show Figures, and Circus Wagons.
New York, 1970