A rare view of the Bruce Carriage Company

Last year I wrote about the Bruce Carriage Company and told the story of a family business that made carts, cars, buggies, surreys, phaetons – just about anything that could be pulled by horse or mule, it seems.

Thanks to my friend, Melody Birdsong, who collects Neat Old Things, I was also able to share one of the company’s sales catalogs from the 1800s with you, so you can see for yourself just how operation was extensive, operating out of a building on Monroe. Take a look at this story right now; I will await your return.

Although I thought I had done a half-decent job talking about the company and its various owners, I always felt bad that I couldn’t show you the company buildings – until now. And I can only do it because an eBay seller from Dallas offers that Bruce Bill of 1899which includes a detailed illustration of the property as it was in its heyday.

As you can see, Bruce operated out of a five-story building on Monroe, with an incredibly detailed facade. Look closely, and you can see “Bruce” at the very top of the structure, but you didn’t have to look that high to figure out what was being sold here. A huge sign painted on one side of the building told customers it was a “car depot” and also offered wholesale saddlery, iron and heavy hardware.

The poster itself shows that the company was separated into three departments. The Carriage department offered “every style and every quality” (as I mentioned in my previous article). The saddlery department included saddlery and harness jobbers, as well as “collars, bridles, and straps.” And the Iron Store department was made up of “iron and heavy hardware jobbers”. How heavy is it? Well, not only did they sell transport and wagon materials, but they even apparently sold anvils.

My God, how the hell did they fit all that extremely heavy and bulky merchandise into that building in Monroe?

The bill listed a variety of items sold to RH Norris in Childress, Texas – further evidence that the Bruce Company’s trading territory stretched far and wide from Memphis. Frustratingly, however, is that the handwritten sales list (scribbled in pencil, even) is too difficult to read – and it’s all abbreviated, so I can’t tell exactly what Mr. (or Mrs.) Norris actually bought. I can tell “rim” and “clips” and “bdls” apart (which I assume are flanges), but that’s about it. The total bill, it seems, came to $23.74.

The Bruce Carriage Company, as I said earlier, was a large, successful and long-lasting business that remained in the Bruce family for decades. But when the latest automobiles hit the streets of America, they faced competition that stopped them. Looking at the magnificent building here, however, it is amazing that no trace of it remains today.

The eBay auction for these items ends Tuesday afternoon, so if you’re interested in this old bit of Americana, hurry up.

Vance Lauderdale

Vance Lauderdale is a history columnist for Memphis magazine and Inside Memphis Business. The dramatic story of his life is so well known that school children are taught to recite it for extra credit.

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March 13, 2022

6:00 p.m.

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