Fate decrees that mortals be unable to complete certain tasks, and that characters like Sisyphus – punished by the gods – must labor at them ceaselessly but futilely. Those who seek completion, control and closure of such monumental undertakings are doomed to disappointment. In their Battleship Desk Reference compilation of cancels used by companies on Spanish-American War proprietary revenue stamps, Mustacich and Giacomelli posited that the known universe of cancels encompassed the pharmaceutical industry and allied trades. Having examined still-extant masses of the millions of proprietary battleship revenues cancelled between 1898 and 1901, as well as meticulously scoured contemporaneous source material, they estimated that there were some 6,000 manufacturers of patent medicine and about 40,000 retail druggists. Self-admittedly incomplete, their tome enumerated 18,000 listings. Some listing paired known cancels with known manufacturers, distributors or retailers of pharmaceuticals. However, most listings simply juxtaposed identified letter cancel combinations with known company names. Lacking empirical evidence to conclusively link them, the authors were obliged to leave those names essentially arranged in long lists of parallel columns, one column being the letter cancels and the adjacent column being a list of companies whose initials might fit the letter combinations.

MerchantsFreezingCo-3RV2     MerchantsFreezingCo-3RV4


Once in a while, as battleship proprietary revenues turn up among philatelic offerings, an interested observer views a cancel which completely confounds expectations. The stamp pictured at the top of this column is such a cancel, since it reveals enough of a company name to suggest a proprietary stamp revenue user who operated outside the known universe created by Mustacich and Giacomelli. Its existence hints that there were other users of the battleship proprietary revenues, such as freezing and cold storage companies, whose principal business lay outside the pharmaceutical world and whose connection to that world, if any, was tangential. The appearance of such a cancel seems to demonstrate that, even taking into account their ambitious 18,000 listings, Mustacich’s and Giacomelli’s view of the businesses which cancelled proprietary revenues is far too narrow, and further, that any quixotic attempt to circumscribe the entire universe of battleship revenue proprietary cancels in order to describe them all is utterly impossible and doomed.




Of course, there is an easy explanation for the existence of this stamp, and Occam’s Razor demands that it be offered. Perhaps the stamp was simply used incorrectly. The value pictured immediately above is similarly a 2¢ proprietary revenue. Since 2¢ was the amount of documentary tax paid to negotiate a bank check, and there was a red 2¢ documentary value, which was likewise intended to be cancelled with the name of the user to prove payment of the tax, the explanation for that pictured stamp’s use may be no more complex than that a proprietary tax stamp was substituted on a company bank check for a documentary tax stamp, either in error or out of necessity because of the lack of documentary revenues. Both such circumstances are known to have occurred and examples of incorrect uses exist.  A larger view of the stamp shown immediately above, pictured as found, proves that nineteen days after the imposition of the tax, A. L. Howe’s initial cancel on that stamp in his capacity as Assistant Treasurer of the Arkansas Construction Co. was actually an incorrect use of the proprietary revenue stamp in place of a documentary revenue stamp:




Positive identification of that stamp as an erroneous use can only be made, however, because the entire document on which that stamp was used happened to survive. Without at least part of the check remaining with the stamp, the proper context of the cancel could not be established.




The more intriguing explanation is that the stamp was used correctly to pay the proprietary tax imposed on wine, which was its intended use. Sale of wine containers over a pint required payment of 2¢ tax. While admittedly unlikely, perhaps the company had a stock of such wine in its warehouse when the tax was imposed and stamped it to allow the wine to continue in commerce. Another user of proprietary stamps already profiled in this column, Clayton W. Holmes, found his way into the refrigeration business as an adjunct to the proprietary cosmetic he was producing. Maybe the connection between the cold storage business and the pharmaceutical business was more natural than has previously been considered. While one can idly speculate, until another example of the cancel turns up, either on a company check or on some wine bottle, such thoughts must remain conjecture.

MerchantsFreezingCo-7RV     MerchantsFreezingCo-8RV1


Improbable as its existence might be, the stamp has survived, and, like other proprietary cancels featured in this column, its presence offers an opportunity to explore yet another facet of life in the Gilded Era in the United States. The story of the Merchants’ Freezing and Cold Storage Co. is yet another tale of Nineteenth Century ingenuity, not unlike the tales which have been chronicled previously in this column tracing the origins of today’s pharmaceutical industry. The company was the brain child of Israel Bowen Mason, President of I. B. Mason & Sons of Providence RI, who conducted a thriving and successful pork slaughterhouse (the cattle slaughtering business having already moved west), but was known to by his contemporaries as a “manufacturer and dealer in pork products.” It was he who first envisioned the potential for public rental of cold storage space in Providence.


I. B. MASON & SON AD, 1889

Born in East Killingly, CT in 1832, Mason had settled in Providence RI in 1850, married in 1854 and raised five children there. He lost his business in a devastating fire in 1869 and rebuilt it bigger and better. In 1877, after he brought his older son Edward into his business and changed the name of the business to I. B. Mason and Son, he left Edward in charge and, to rebuild his health broken from his exhausting endeavors, vacationed across the United States and in Europe in 1877 and 1878, using the time in Europe to cement connections with his European buyers. He lived luxuriously and the interior decorator of his house casually dropped his name in the decorator’s own ads.






He acted as an incorporator of a homeopathic hospital for the poor in 1878, and then served as a Republican representative for several sessions in the state assembly from 1879 to 1883. In 1888, he brought his other son, William B., into his business, and changed the name of the business to I. B. Mason and Sons. He was a trustee of his Unitarian church as well as landlord in 1892 to a Jewish synagogue. By 1889, Mason was also director of one local bank and President of the newly organized Rhode Island Mortgage and Trust Co. In short, I. B. Mason had grown to the stature of a pillar of his community.


I. B. MASON IN 1907

After experimenting for a year or two around 1890 with public rental of the cold storage space in his own pork plant, I. B. Mason realized that advances in refrigeration technology could help him exploit Providence’s location to make it the largest central warehouse and cold storage depot for produce and products traveling in, out and around New England outside of Boston itself. Using his positions as bank president and bank director, Mason enlisted several other banking colleagues, together with local dealers in fresh produce, as well as his sons, to raise the necessary financing to realize his idea. The Merchants’ Freezing and Cold Storage Co. was established in 1893. It functioned as a quasi-public utility, since its charter forbid it from dealing directly in the lines of goods or produce for which it provided storage services, and thus it never competed by self-dealing with the businesses of the clients for whom it provided storage space.  (This restriction in its charter, common to such warehouse businesses, might rule out the possibility that the proprietary stamp cancellation was anything but an improper usage.)



Rather than converting older warehouse space, Mason had the new company’s storage building specially designed and constructed to make the greatest use of newly developed refrigeration technology. The building was planned with its normal warehouse storage on the outer side, the elevators and receiving area in the middle, and the cold storage and refrigeration areas on the other side of the receiving area segregated by corridors from the outside walls of the building to prevent heat radiation. Next to that refrigeration area were the building offices as well as the tanks that held the salt brine which circulated as the cooling agent through the refrigeration area. Beyond the tanks and offices was a separate, slightly smaller building that housed the latest, powerful engines that drove the refrigeration machinery itself. Thus the refrigeration machinery, driven by boilers which generated heat, was completely isolated from the refrigeration area. Depending on the temperature deemed necessary and appropriate to keep it fresh, the arriving produce was assigned to a particular area in the building, either higher or lower in the building, nearer or further from the refrigeration machinery, such as the “apple”, “egg” or “butter” room. Considering that the floors of the building were projected to carry a load of 400 pounds per square foot, the site was specially prepared by driving 3000 piles into the ground each having a bearing capacity of ten tons, and Portland cement concrete was used to pour the foundation. The main storage area was constructed almost entirely out of wood and brick to avoid the much greater heat radiation which metal frame construction would allow. Mineral wool insulation, made by the then recently invented process of blowing hot air through molten slag or rock, was layered into the walls in a manner that created air pockets to trap heat and did not settle onto itself in a solid mass. The building was situated with one side located on a company-owed siding of the New York, New Haven and Hartford Railroad and the other side opening on to a main commercial street so as to provide ease of loading and unloading. No sooner was the original building erected and functioning than demand forced the company to expand the facilities. The company continued to expand the building several more times until 1910.



In 1910, the company changed its name to the Merchants Cold Storage and Warehouse Co, although the principals remained the same. Israel B. Mason died in 1916, but the company carried on. In 1916, Moody’s Railroad Manual offered a brief financial profile of the company:


After I. B. Mason’s death, his son, William B. Mason (1868-1945), acted as the company’s representative to warehouse trade groups. This W. B. Mason is not the William Betts Mason, who founded the W. B. Mason office supply company in 1898 in Brockton, MA. Rather, this W. B. Mason’s particular achievement is that he chaired a warehouse association committee that analyzed the costs of building and operating a million cubic foot cold storage plant in 1920 and offered a model pricing structure to standardized charge for storage services predicated on these costs. The report received acclaim within the industry at the time and still can be read verbatim on the internet today.



But, while W. B.’s father was lauded and profiled by his own business contemporaries in the kind of civic booster books filed with sketches of noteworthy individuals published by every American town and society during the Pre-World War I era with the purposes of both stimulating commercial interest in growing and competing communities as well as instructing and morally edifying the poor but aspiring masses, much less is discoverable about this W. B. Mason’s life at approximately one hundred years removal in time. Puff books describing the virtues of prominent businessmen disappeared at the same time as women’s bloomers, as World War I damped the belief in the constant progress of civilization that had prevailed before the Great War. Much of the minutiae from which profiles of notable citizens might otherwise be adduced remains cloaked by copyright law which operate to check free reproduction of material published after approximately 1925. While census records do reveal that W. B. Mason was married, had two daughters and was widowed late in life, only odd echoes and shadows of his life barely flicker at the edges of the discoverable records. On August 31, 1908, he received a ticket in Jaffrey, New Hampshire for operating his “automobile without sounding [his] horn,” an event apparently uncommon enough at that time to be recorded in the New Hampshire Secretary of State’s report to the legislature for 1908. In 1924, he took a trip to Bermuda, returning on the passenger ship Empress of Britain on February 24 through the Port of New York. In 1936, an article in the sports section of the New York Times names him as a member of a fishing party that reported a “good catch” of salmon on the Tabusintac River in New Brunswick, Canada, “despite high water and unfavorable conditions.” All in all, this W. B. Mason remains much more indistinct as a personality than his father, I. B. Mason.



I. B. Mason’s building remained a landmark in Providence, RI for nearly a hundred years, even as railroad traffic declined and its centrality as a storage depot faded. The warehouse, originally built as the exemplar of the most advanced technology in 1894 by Merchants’ Freezing and Cold Storage Co, remained, as expanded, an active cold storage site until 1992, when it was finally and permanently defrosted. In 1980, the U.S. Library of Congress documented and photographed the building as an engineering historical site because of its pioneer status in the refrigeration field. However, neither its clever and sturdy construction nor its acclaim as an engineering marvel of its age saved it from urban redevelopment. The building was dismantled between 1998 and 2000, and a condominium now occupies the former site of the building.  Local architectural websites seem to decry the change, and all one can say is sic transit gloria mundi.



©  Malcolm A. Goldstein 2016


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