The food trucks and fresh produce stands gathered outside the Indiana State Library today. A quick search on Hoosier State Chronicles, however, turned up nothing about the history of my own lunch — pierogis — so here are some food ads from our latest, fresh-cooked batch of newspapers, among others. Though ours come from Greencastle, that’s about all the “green” you’re going to get.
Nostalgic food-lovers might remember Burger Chef. Surpassed only by McDonalds, which only had about a thousand locations itself in 1968, until the late 1970s this was America’s second-biggest food chain. Originally opened in Indianapolis, Burger Chef’s rapid rise came as an unexpected spin-off of the open-flame burger broiler invented for Burger King in the mid-1950s by Hoosier brothers Frank and Donald Thomas. The Thomases worked for Sani-Serv, a Mooresville company that’s still in business and primarily produces soft-serve ice-cream dispensers and milk shake machines. Rather than go to work for Burger King, the broiler’s inventors opened up their own business — first at 1300 West 16th Street, then in franchises that numbered into the thousands by 1968, the year they sold off the company to General Foods, under whose management the burger chain tanked by about 1980.
The Thomas brothers’ burger broiler was originally capable of cranking out 1,000 cooked burgers every hour, a number upped to 2,000 by the mid-1960s. Hundreds of pounds of meat rapidly fired over the conveyor belts “reduced tremendously the amount of time it takes you to be served at Burger Chef.” In addition to “quick-as-a-wink” service and pre-ordering by telephone, mass production also drove the price down to just 15 cents a burger, which were reportedly ready just 20 seconds after ordering in 1968. Newspapers in the 1960s spoke of open flame broiling as “sealing in flavor and juices.” Burger Chef also sold “Blue Water boned” hot fish sandwiches for a mere 30 cents. As part of a “modernization campaign,” management added all-you-can-eat salad and fixing bars in the 1970s, which cost them $5,000,000 in central Indiana alone. Apple turnovers came in the mid-60s, and funmeals for kids, which included a toy, in 1973.
Burger Chef franchises spread to 38 states, but were most popular in the Midwest and Southwest. The Lubbock Avalanche-Journal (Lubbock, TX) reported in 1968 that “all managers have to go through a three-week training school at Indianapolis, Ind., and there is constant research on what kind of food the public wants.” Corporate headquarters were located at 1348 West 16th Street, today a Kirby Risk.
Burger Chefs gave away a lot of free stuff — from balloons and suckers to live goldfish and holiday mistletoe. In 1973, Kokomo had a chance to meet actor Burt Ward, who played Robin “the Boy Wonder” across from Batman actor Adam West. (Ward appeared at the Kokomo Mall and a local Burger Chef to sign his autograph on kids’ posters provided by the restaurant.) Family-oriented, both because of its atmosphere and its incredibly cheap prices, the company made itself even more of a bargain by publishing coupons in American newspapers. As part of its ad campaign, it also sponsored the popular comic strip Family Circus, as well as an Indianapolis basketball team called simply “Burger Chef” and two Pee Wee football and soccer teams in Kingsport, Tennessee, that went under the same name.
Low operating costs were due to the fact that most of its nearly 8,000 employees were teenagers in 1968 and worked for low wages.
The worst event in the company’s history involved teenagers and occurred in its hometown of Indianapolis. Around closing time on November 17, 1978, unidentified attackers robbed a Burger Chef at 5725 Crawfordsville Road in Speedway on Indy’s West Side and kidnapped four employees, all aged between 16 and 20. Two days later, the victims were found dead in a Johnson County field. Two of them had been stabbed, while the others were shot execution-style. Never solved, the “Burger Chef murders” remain one of Indiana’s ugliest cold cases. The gruesome 1978 killings came just over a year after one of the state’s most notorious mass murders electrified angry Hoosiers and the Hoosier press. The 1977 Hollandsburg Massacre near Raccoon Lake in Parke County, committed by the Drollinger gang, who were said to admire Charles Manson and “killed for kicks,” also left four teenagers dead. (I grew up surrounded by stories of the Hollandsburg kilings, since my grandparents lived right next door to Detective Loyd Heck, the Indiana State Police’s principal investigator on the case. I lived across the yard from Heck until I was six.)
In 1968, General Foods, mostly known for manufacturing breakfast cereal, bought Burger Chef from Frank and Donald Thomas. The fast food company hit its high-water mark in 1972, when it had about 1,200 restaurants nationally. Though ad campaigns in the late ’70s took Burgers Chef onto TV screens and capitalized on the mass-market appeal of movies like King Kong and Star Wars, General Foods lost interest in 1982 and sold the subsidiary to Hardee’s. (General Foods was also based in Indianapolis when it briefly moved its headquarters into one of the futuristic Pyramids off of I-465.)
The last Burger Chef, in Cookeville, Tennessee, closed in 1996. By then, many locations had been converted into fast food joints like Arby’s, Hardee’s, Chinese and Mexican restaurants, and banks. Seventy-two of the locations are documented on Waymarking.com. RoadsideArchitecture.com maintains another page dedicated to these old fast food joints.
A renewed spike in interest occurred in 2014, when part of an episode of AMC’s Mad Men was set in a Burger Chef. The scene was shot in a vacant building in Rialto, California, dolled up by the show’s producers. The Mad Men episode prompted Time magazine to do a flashback piece on this restaurant that most Americans would have recognized just a few decades ago.
Our arteries are probably glad it’s gone. But since Burger Chef had Hoosier roots, our taste buds salute it.
(Hoosier State Chronicles, newspapers.com, and other digital archives have lots of interesting old ads for Burger Chef and other companies. You can also watch a “complete collection” of Burger Chef TV commercials on YouTube.)
An entry in Hyman’s Handbook to Indianapolis recently caught my eye. A strange masked man stalks this great guide to the old and now mostly vanished architecture of the city in 1909.
My thoughts raced to Jules Verne’s deep-sea divers, Renaissance plague doctors dressed like bizarre birds, steampunk fashion designers, and of course the epic villain, Darth Vader. Even the name of the company that once manufactured this pioneer fireman’s oxygen mask in the Hoosier State had a science-fiction ring to it: the Vajen-Bader Company.
Smoke, sulfur, and ammonia pose problems similar to those faced by divers and even doctors wading into disease-ridden “miasmas” (the “bad air” mentioned in old medical manuals). So it should come as no surprise that the invention of smoke helmets is part of a much bigger history. The tragedy is that the protective devices used by groundbreaking medical men, underwater explorers, and firefighters evolved into the gas masks used in the chemical warfare that made World War I so uniquely terrifying at the time.
In 1893, Indianapolis hardware salesman and inventor Willis C. Vajen earned his place in the history of masks and life-saving.
Vajen (whose name, I believe, is pronounced “Vie-en”) came from one of the capitol city’s most prominent and wealthy families. His father, John Henry Vajen, emigrated from Bremen, Germany, to Baltimore with his parents in 1836, then moved west with them to Cincinnati, Ohio, and eventually Jackson County, Indiana. (John Vajen, Sr., had been a professor in Germany, a talented organist, and a Lutheran minister, and served as pastor of a large log church near Seymour.) Vajen, Jr., went into the hardware business and made a small fortune in trading and banking. During the Civil War, J.H. Vajen became the thrifty Quartermaster General of Indiana and was known as Governor Oliver P. Morton’s right-hand man. He died in 1917.
Willis Vajen ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps. After attending a seminary in Hamburg, Germany, Earlham College in Richmond, and Wittenburg College in Ohio, he, too, went into the hardware business. His sales knack probably had something to do with his skill in design. (Vajen filed patents for tools and machinery, like this plumb bob and a rein support for horses.) “Vajen & New” was located at 64 E. Washington St., offering Indianapolitans the best selection of lawn mowers, saw vises, rubber hoses, fishing tackle, fly-screen doors, White Mountain Ice Cream freezers, garden rakes, rubber hoses, and roller skates.
No mere humble merchants of garden tools and sporting goods, the Vajens married into great families. Willis Vajen was wed to Anna Claypool, daughter of the wealthy Connersville businessman Edward F. Claypool. (Ironically, the majestic Claypool Hotel, named for the inventor’s father-in-law and once one of the great landmarks of the city, was destroyed by arson in 1967.) Vajen’s sister Fannie Belle married Charles Stewart Voorhees, son of Senator Daniel Voorhees. (Charles Voorhees represented Washington Territory in Congress.) The Vajens often vacationed at their summer cottage on Lake Maxincuckee in northern Indiana, loaning it to the Hoosier novelist Booth Tarkington and his wife Laurel Fletcher in 1902.
Yet Willis Vajen’s claim to fame is the “smoke protector” that he perfected with William Bader in 1893. Apparently one or both of these men had witnessed a tragic hotel fire where rescuers were unable to reach the fourth floor due to smoke, the inspiration for their efforts at invention. A German immigrant, Bader was a piano maker by profession and may have come up with the idea first. Testimony from a lawsuit filed in U.S. Court in 1899 has it that Vajen first saw a photograph of the device in the music store where Bader worked, and the two worked together to improve efficacy of the mask, meanwhile helped along by Dennis Swenie, Chicago’s fire chief. A clip in the Los Angeles Herald suggests that “William Baders” was the real genius, Vajen only “furnishing the capital for the enterprise.” The court’s verdict, however, was that Vajen deserved most of the credit.
The struggle to perfect a mask that can ward off the assault of smoke, water, noxious fumes, and even the plague goes back centuries. News articles heralding the Vajen-Bader Patent Smoke Protector often remarked that it looked like a sea-diver’s helmet. This, too, was a new invention. English brothers Charles and John Deane had been inspired to invent their famous copper diving helmet in the 1820s after witnessing a fire at a smoke-filled horse stable. When the Deanes attached a leather hose to pump fresh oxygen into their firefighting helmet, scuba-diving took a great leap forward. (While wearing such an outfit in 1836, John Deane discovered Henry VIII’s long-lost warship Mary Rose, sunk off the Isle of Wight three-hundred years before.)
Another fascinating European forerunner of the Vajen-Bader mask was the plague doctor’s costume. While these seem like creatures of the fantastic imagination to us today, in the 17th century doctors venturing into epidemic-ridden cities sported masks resembling bird beaks, along with heavy protective suits that they believed gave protection from “miasmatic air.” Filled with scented herbs and spices like ambergris, myrrh, mint, cloves, and rose petals, the doctor’s elongated “beak” was designed as a kind of air filter. Credited to the Parisian doctor Charles de l’Orme, these ornithologically-inspired plague garments were in use as early as 1619 and later became a feature in the Venetian carnival.
When Willis Vajen and William Bader undertook work on their smoke helmet, other innovators had already tried out an array of devices, ranging from primitive sponges and lightweight “respiratory veils” to more sophisticated contraptions, like the one invented in the 1870’s by Irish physicist John Tyndall, who incorporated a cotton filter saturated with lime, charcoal, and glycerin. A different device was the respirator pioneered by Bernhard Loeb, who attached metal air canisters to the mask’s mouth.
Some two years ago Willis C. Vajen, an Indianapolis inventor, brought me a smoke helmet or protector and asked me what I thought of it. He will himself, no doubt, admit that it was a crude and cumbersome affair. The principle material in its construction was sole leather, and its window was of a single thickness or pane of glass. It did not have facilities for enabling the wearer to hear, and the tank for the compressed air was fully six times larger than was necessary.
However, it was clear that the inventor was on the right track. . . As it stands now, the weight of the helmet is practically nothing, resting upon the shoulders. The protector is made of asbestus tanned horsehide and is securely fastened by means of two straps which pass from the back under the arms and snap into rings in front. Its top is padded and is also re-enforced with transverse seams of the hard leather, which stand up to the height of about an inch. This makes it capable of withstanding a very heavy blow and forms an almost perfect protection against falling bricks and small stones.
Directly at the back of the neck is a small air tank, which can be filled by means of an ordinary force pump such as the bicyclists use for inflating their pneumatic tires. It will hold 100 pounds of compressed air and has a tiny gauge attached which registers the pressure of air within. The first five or ten minutes at a fire generally determines the result, and the total capacity of the air tank is sufficient to last a man for 40 minutes.
“Delicate mica diaphragms” for the ears and eyes helped with vision and hearing, as a did a double-paned window. “Both eye and ear pieces are protected by strong wire guards. . . On the front exterior, where it may be easily reached, is a signal whistle, which does not consume any of the pure air from the reservoir. The operation of the signal, which is loud and sharp, makes no drain upon the breathing resources of the fireman.”
An article in Fire & Water Engineering in 1906 adds: “It is neat; it weighs only six pounds; it can be put on as easily as a coat. . . There is no hose attachment which is liable to kink or break and thus impede the movements of the wearer.”
The Vajen-Bader Company’s life-saving invention caught on fast. Praise came not only from American fire chiefs, but from international clients. Operating out of a space on the second floor of the old Indianapolis Public Library a block north of Monument Circle (and later at a factory in Richmond, Indiana), the company filled orders from customers as diverse as meatpackers, mining and gas companies, breweries, and the British and Chilean navies. Overseas agents in Johannesburg, London, and Yokohama marketed the smoke protector around the globe. In 1897, fire fighters from Dublin, Ireland, to Wellington, New Zealand were “using them with entire satisfaction.”
The masks sold for $100, a large investment for some municipal fire departments, but Hyman’s Handbook claimed that “during the first year an estimated $3,000,000 worth of property was saved by the use of this new device.”
A contemporary article from the Los Angeles Heraldtouts the value of the smoke helmet in preventing minor fires from turning into major ones.
Often a fire of insignificant proportions causes such a dense volume of smoke that it is quite impossible for its location to be discovered, and it smoulders thus until it has gained such headway that it is impossible to extinguish it.
When Willis Vajen attended a firefighters’ convention in Salt Lake City, Utah, in 1896, his cutting-edge device was the star of the show. The Salt Lake Herald reprinted testimony from the fire department in Kansas City, Missouri, which had already put the mask to a rigorous test. As KC’s Fire Chief George C. Hale (a great innovator himself) wrote, firemen found a house “which had a cellar underneath, with no ventilation whatsoever.”
In the cellar was dug a hole, in which was placed one of the worst smelling conglomerations of combustibles ever heaped together — sulphur, feathers, tar, wooden and cotton rags and burlap sacks. Hardly had the match been touched to the pile, until a dense volume of smoke began to roll up out of the single trap door that led down into the cellar. When the penetrating fumes of sulphur set everyone to coughing, there were many who shook their heads and said no one could possibly live five minutes in the cellar. The smoke pushed its way up the brick wall and was coming out at the crevices.
Second Assistant Chief Henderson was selected to wear the helmet. The cylinder was filled with air until there was a 100-pound pressure. The whistle was tested to see if it would sound. The helmet was dropped over Henderson’s head and strapped around his body.
“If you grow weak or begin to suffocate,” said Chief Hale, “blow your whistle vigorously and we will come after you.”
The rap door was then raised and the fireman disappeared into the sickening, penetrating smoke. The door was shut tightly. Not a breath of pure air could reach the man in the helmet.
Then the crowd began to wait. Watches were looked at and after a couple of minutes had elapsed without hearing any sound from the fireman, several began to grow nervous, thinking that the sulphur fumes might have gotten in quick work and strangled him. The door was partly raised and Chief Hale called to Henderson to blow his whistle. A far-off sound came from the cellar, telling that Henderson was in good shape. . .
The smoke continued to grow denser and blacker, and the odor more vile. Henderson’s whistle sounded frequently and no uneasiness was felt. Eighteen minutes had elapsed from the time when he had gone into the cellar, when he knocked on the door. . .
“How did you stand it, Alec?” queried everybody.
“Stand it! Why, I could have stayed down there all day. It was dark as midnight, but I could breathe as easily as I do now. . .”
When the pressure gauge of the air cylinder was examined it was found that only ten pounds of air had been used, ninety pounds being left.
Firemen wearing the novel smoke helmets came to the rescue after an ammonia explosion at Schmidt’s Brewery, a subsidiary of the Indianapolis Brewing Company, nearly killed a number of workers on the night of September 31, 1896. The Indianapolis News reported:
The fire that started in the second story of the building in the malt mill was subdued by the fire department. It was a hard fire to reach as the fumes of ammonia were strong, and it was almost impossible for a man to get near the building. The firemen say that this is the first difficult fire they have had since the Vajen-Bader smoke protector was adopted by the department, and that these helmets made it possible for the men to enter the building and reach the fire with the chemical engines. They say that although the fumes of ammonia were strong enough to render an unprotected fireman unconscious, the men wearing the helmets suffered no inconvenience from the fumes.
Aged 49, Willis Vajen, who suffered from life-long anemia, died at his home at 23 E. Vermont St. on July 22, 1900 and was buried at Crown Hill. In one of history’s bizarre twists, all the houses on Vajen’s block were demolished around 1921 to make way for the mammoth Indiana World War Memorial, the city’s enormous Egyptian-inspired temple to the veterans of World War I.
These soldiers, of course, were the first to use the terrifying invention whose evolution was partly due to the Vajen-Bader smoke protector. Early in the 20th century, the gas mask wove its way into sickening nightmares, both dreamed and awake, as Europe — and then the whole world — caught on fire.
Hoosier State Chronicles is getting ready to upload a large run of issues of the Indianapolis Journal from the mid-1890s. Dominating the front page of Sunday editions in those days are massive, elephantine ads for one of the most colorful clothing stores ever to exist anywhere in the U.S. This was downtown Indy’s great shopping emporium, The When.
In the days before parking garages and flight to the suburbs plunged downtowns into decline, urban cores all over America were a fascinating architectural wonderland. Panoramic images of Indianapolis 120 years ago often leave me wondering if I live in the same town, so devastating has been the toll of the wrecking ball, the termite, and (yes) bad urban planning. Before the auto, pedestrians walked or were funneled down to the business district on trolleys or carriages from neighborhoods not very far out. And amid the amazing visual spectacle that met shoppers’ eyes at the turn of the century, there stands the ingenuity, humor, and incredible marketing smarts of John Tomlinson Brush.
Born in upstate New York in 1845 and orphaned at age four, Brush was raised by his grandfather, went to business college, then served in the 1st New York Artillery during the Civil War. Moving from Troy to Indianapolis in 1875 at age thirty, he purchased a brand new, Napoleon the Third-style building at 36 N. Pennsylvania St. and planned to open a branch store of a New York City clothing wholesaler there.
Brush kept changing the opening date. Probably as a tease to drum up interest, in February 1875 he hung a huge sign outside the store with the simple word (more an exclamation than a question) “WHEN?” Advertisements in the local newspapers also carried just that one-word tease. The name stuck, and the lavishly decorated clothing outlet became an instant consumer hit, soon ranked as the biggest of its kind in Indiana.
John T. Brush (some thought his name was John “Tooth” Brush) was gifted with an ample sense of humor and, I hear, was also a clever cartoonist, though I haven’t seen any of his illustrations. His knack for marketing was far-reaching. Not only did he see The When “elegantly appointed” with iron balustrades, gas lighting, and a courtyard, he also outfitted it with an array of unusual attractions meant to lure shoppers. The When had a baseball team, called The When Store team, and a resident brass band, The When Band. Brush’s musicians played in a second-floor band shell and gave Saturday evening concerts outside on the street and even up on the roof. As we’ll see below, other colorful attractions also greeted shoppers.
Brush got rich quick in Indianapolis, but unlike many capitalists with Eastern roots, he stuck around for good. And in the 1880s, The When’s owner became a prominent pioneer of baseball both in the Hoosier State and around the country.
Originally conceived to drum up business for the store, the Indianapolis Hoosiers were a short-lived local baseball team bankrolled by the clothing merchant. In 1882, he financed the creation of a ball park, Seventh Street Park, also called Tinker Park, at a site now occupied by Methodist Hospital. The Hoosiers played in the National League from about 1885 to 1889, when they folded. Brush later bought the St. Louis Maroons, the Cincinnati Reds, and eventually the great New York Giants, which he owned from 1902 until his death in 1912.
Baseball historian Bill Lamb writes:
Local legend has it that Brush first became enthusiastic about the game after reading a Spalding Guide confiscated from an idle store clerk. Or that Brush’s interest stemmed from acceptance of stock in an Indianapolis ball club as payment for a debt. The facts are more prosaic. Brush was first exposed to baseball while working at company stores in upstate New York, a hotbed of the early game. Later he seized upon baseball as a vehicle for advertising The When Store. In 1882 Brush organized a municipal baseball league, building a diamond with a grandstand in northwestern Indianapolis for league games and engaging Jack Kerins as player-manager of the When Store team.
As a kind of New Year’s gift to his loyal shoppers in 1895, Brush helped bring a clever attraction to downtown Indy: a pair of leopard cubs. The adorable creatures, named Carl and Amanda, were loaned from the great Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus, which wintered in its home base of Peru, Indiana. The cubs spent about a week as a window attraction at Brush’s store while the circus performed at English’s Opera House nearby.
On January 9, the baby leopards got a letter from a bear — and from their mother down the street. (Mrs. Puss Leopard was quite the gossiper.) The feline correspondence was featured on the front page, in The When’s usual space:
John Brush lived to see the New York Giants play in three World Series and was married to stage actress Elsie Lombard. Suffering from a nerve ailment after 1902, he died in his private railroad car near Louisiana, Missouri, in 1912. He came home to a lavish funeral in Indianapolis, attended by many of the greats of the baseball world.
The When Building, which also housed Indianapolis Business College, was sold off to C.S. Ober in the 1940s and came to be known as the Ober Building. Like much of the city’s former architectural splendor, it was demolished by a wrecking ball and is now the site of a parking garage.
Though the When is “Gone With the When,” it’s worthy of our deepest praise. Here are some of my favorite advertisements from Way Back When.