Museum Artifact: Silver Coffee Pot (Sheridan Plaza Hotel), 1920s
Made by: Albert Pick & Company, 1200 W. 35th Street, Chicago, IL [Bridgeport]
“The Sheridan-Plaza Hotel Cafeteria operates from 8 o’clock in the morning until 12 o’clock at night and is always busy. The management of the Sheridan-Plaza, having made thorough study of conditions in the surrounding neighborhood, knew that a cafeteria operating all day and night would be a success. Their next problem was to find equipment that would stand up under heavy strain. Albert Pick & Co. solved this problem for them.” —Albert Pick & Co. advertisement, 1921
I suppose you could say that Albert Pick & Company were in the “hotel business,” or that they were one of Chicago’s great “merchandising houses” (back in the time when that phrase was widely used). But the advertisement quoted above really hits things more on the nose; Pick & Co. were problem solvers. For more than 100 years, this massively successful enterprise helped furnish and ultimately set the course for much of the American service industry—from the swankiest restaurants and lodgings to your everyday soda shops, billiard halls, and hospital / school / factory cafeterias.
Inside Pick’s cavernous warehouse in Chicago's Central Manufacturing District, an army of workers would sort and pick through endless stacks of inventory; a proto-Amazonian collection of goods shipped in from all over the country, covering any and every conceivable facet of their clients’ needs. For the hotel owner, this meant not only furniture, bedding, curtains, rugs, lamps, janitorial supplies, and bellhop uniforms, but the totality of their cafe/bar/kitchen requirements: from stoves, fryers, and fridges to chinaware, glassware, and fine silver.
[The former Albert Pick warehouse at 35th Street and Racine has been marvelously repurposed in recent years as the home of the Bridgeport Art Center and the Chicago Maritime Museum]
The item in our museum collection, which Pick provided for guests of the Sheridan-Plaza Hotel in Uptown back in the ‘20s, is one of those silver relics. With a hinge-top lid and a mere 8 oz. capacity, it certainly looks like what we might identify as a creamer or sugar bowl, but in fact—as revealed by Pick’s 1926 catalog—this was an “Individual Silver Coffee Pot”—a compact carrier for a shot of premium Jazz Age joe.
“Made of finest 18% nickel-silver, heavily silver plated,” the catalog states, “all parts soldered together with sterling silver, making a thoroughly reinforced and long wearing pot, able to withstand the abuse of public service.”
Quality didn’t come cheap. Just a single one of these baby coffee pots cost $8.90 in 1926, which comes out to more than $120 after inflation—not even counting extra costs for custom etchings like the “S-P” emblem on our Sheridan-Plaza artifact.
Part of that price tag was merely a consequence of Pick’s role as a middle-man distributor. Like many of the company’s products, our coffee pot did not originate in a Chicago factory, but instead came from one of the many far-flung subsidiary manufacturers that Pick & Co. had absorbed during its rapid expansion in the early 1900s. In this case, it was the E. H. H. Smith Silver Company, which was based in Bridgeport, Connecticut. Just about all of Pick’s silver was manufactured in Bridgeport, then shipped to the Chicago neighborhood of the same name, where it joined the other slate of goods in the Pick warehouse.
Bringing mountains of goods in by rail or ship was standard operating procedure for merch houses of the day, be it Sears-Roebuck or Hibbard, Spencer & Bartlett. But Pick, more so than those other giant institutions, had itself a wealthier niche clientele.
[While Pick's central warehouse was located in Chicago's Bridgeport neighborhood, its silver was coincidentally manufactured in Bridgeport, Connecticut]
History of Albert Pick & Co. - I. "Little Things in a Big Way"
The first Albert Pick Company was organized way back in 1857, when a young Austrian immigrant—the original Albert Pick—opened “a little china and glassware business” on Randolph Street in what was then the frontier town of Chicago. “It was not a pretentious affair,” the company stated in a press release some 60 years later. “Nothing in the merchandising world was pretentious in those days, so far as Chicago was concerned.”
Pretentious or not, the Pick business was quite profitable—right up until the Great Fire of 1871 swiftly reduced it to rubble like so many others. Albert, being a proper dedicated Chicagoan, dutifully rebuilt [as evidenced by the goofy newspaper ad posted here from 1874, listing the business's new State Street address], but it was his younger brother Charles Pick who largely carried the ball from there, eventually purchasing the store for himself and re-naming it Charles Pick & Co. It was only when Charles’s son took over the business in the 1890s that it reverted back to its original name. Reason being: Charles’s son had been named after his uncle, and thus, was also an Albert Pick.
In 1896, the first year of Albert Pick II’s reign, gross sales totaled $90,000. Twenty years later, they topped $7 million, with a workforce of more than 1,000 men and women employed at the company’s home office (208 W. Randolph St.) and a constantly expanding Chicago warehouse (35th Street and Racine).
“The great factory and operating plant contains more than thirteen acres of floor space in the Central Manufacturing District in Chicago,” Monotype magazine reported in 1920.
“Here are the warerooms containing entire outputs of other factories. The building is a model of convenience and utility; it has every device which will facilitate the rapid handling of merchandise. Through a complete system of lowerators, chutes and conveyors, and an organization trained to hair-trigger efficiency, Albert Pick & Company are able to prepare goods for shipment in a remarkably short time. The merchandise is loaded into the cars from private shipping platforms, adjacent to private switch tracks, that will accommodate fourteen cars at one time. They also have private docking facilities on the Chicago River—the busiest waterway in the country.”
Having grown up in a post-fire Chicago with fewer ties to the Old World and its sensibilities, Albert Pick II seemed to lead the 20th century version of the firm with a new American sense of ambition, taking pride not only in conquering the big things, but in doing the little things “in a big way.”
“There is an art in furnishing hotels, just as there is an art in painting of writing,” read a 1919 Pick advertisement, now sounding thoroughly pretentious at last. “Everyone cannot paint a masterpiece or write a successful book—neither can everyone completely furnish a hotel. Sixty-one years of actual experience have shown us what is right in furnishings. We not only know what furniture should enter into the 100% efficient hotel—we know just what should be left out.”
As Hotel World magazine put it, “Pick’s take a hotel as it comes from the contractors and equip it complete from the barbershop in the basement to the garden on the roof with everything in harmony.”
II. Pick of the Litter
With any large-scale business employing hundreds of people, it’s not always easy to say which individuals were truly most responsible for its success. As the nephew of the founder and the man with his name on the sign, Albert Pick (1869-1955) clearly was the one under the most scrutiny, but if you can believe the industry trade magazines of the day, he lived up to expectations more times than not. Hotel World, for example, while probably not the most unbiased source in the world (of hotels), wrote that “Albert Pick personally supplies an inspiring example of huge success coming to a man at middle age. Mr. Pick is a thinker—also an exceedingly active doer. He will not be ruled by impulse but he can size up the essentials of a proposition with amazing swiftness. Once he makes up his mind he acts with precision and exceeding boldness.
‘“I never saw a man with such a memory,’ one of his co-workers declares. ‘Tell him a thing or read it to him and you can depend upon it that he will not forget it.’
“A brilliant mind, industry without end, and unusually attractive and forceful personality, pleasing geniality and executive ability of the highest order—all these has Mr. Pick.”
Gosh, why don’t you just marry him already, Hotel World!
Anyway, the facts do seem to support some of these assessments. Case in point, Pick took extra care to keep his workers happy in an era of violent labor unrest, even setting up programs for employees to purchase their own stock in the business. Similarly, the company had an “Industrial Service Department” set up for its clients, offering counsel and assistance in securing capital for growth and expansion.
Albert Pick went far beyond the “merch house” model established by his father and uncle. He planted roots, and they spread quickly.
[Stock holders gather at Chicago's Hotel LaSalle on March 26, 1919, to mark Albert Pick's acquisition of Chicago's Burley & Tyrrell Co. The two firms had been rivals in the china and kitchenware trade for decades, but would now work under one roof.]
III. Big Business, Small Coffee Pot
The silver coffee pot from our museum collection, in its own small way, represents Albert Pick & Co. right at its most significant transitional period. Just after World War I, the company bought out its biggest Chicago competitor, the Burley & Tyrrell Co., and by the mid ‘20s, that move was dwarfed by an uber-merger with New York’s L. Barth & Company, forming the “World’s Largest Hotel Restaurant, and Institution Supply Business.”
Together the East-West alliance of the "Albert Pick Barth Company" owned the outfitting contracts on hotels from Seattle to Miami, including icons like the Roosevelt and Ritz-Carlton in New York, and Chicago’s Drake, Blackstone, Palmer House, and Congress, not to mention the good old Sheridan-Plaza.
During the same period, Albert Pick (the man) was starting to invest more of his time and money into the real estate game, and his son Isidore—who preferred to be known as Albert Pick, Jr. (these folks had some confusing name situations)—was back from army service and eagerly learning the ropes of the family business.
Much of Pick & Co’s work before the Barth merger had involved game-planning around the new reality of Prohibition, and our coffee pot is emblematic of that effort, as well.
Today, having a self-service cafe or coffee counter inside a hotel is practically standard operating procedure. Back in the ‘20s, though, it was fairly new ground.
“The Sheridan Plaza Hotel cafeteria, Chicago, is a good example of how public opinion has changed in comparatively short time,” according to a 1921 article in Hotel World. “Less than five years ago, every manager and proprietor of a first-class hotel throughout the country felt sure that a cafeteria not only would ruin their cafe business but would cheapen and injure the good name of their hotels. Even later, with prohibition rendering useless large bar-rooms and grill-rooms ideally located for conversion into cafeterias, they still hesitated."
[Pick's work on the Sheridan Plaza Hotel's kitchen and cafeteria was clearly a point of pride in the early 1920s, as several ads, like the ones above, specifically used the results as selling points]
Once again, it was Albert Pick who was widely credited for being on the forefront on this issue, aggressively encouraging hotel clients to jump on the cafeteria and soda fountain bandwagons.
“It is characteristic of Pick’s progressiveness and courage that after they had arrived at the conclusion that the country inevitably would go dry, they boldly and bluntly spoke their sentiments,” Hotel World wrote.
Showing hotel owners that they could actually earn more money by replacing old bar rooms with more diverse alternatives, Pick also “went a step farther. They developed the cafeteria plan for the hotel also. This was kicking tradition over with a vengeance. . . . It takes just a little bold thinking and courageous application once in a while to rout out a lot of useless tradition and timid hesitation and thereby do a great work in behalf of net-profits.”
[View inside the Sheridan Plaza Hotel cafeteria, 1921]
Our friends at Hotel World magazine were kind enough to include photos [above] of the Sheridan-Plaza’s then brand new Pick-equipped cafeteria in 1921, giving us some fuzzy views of the very room in which our surviving coffee pot might have spent its formative years. If you squint at the table tops in these images, you can nearly see our artifact—or perhaps its siblings—eagerly waiting to help a line-up of groggy North Siders shake out the morning cobwebs.
“Coffees and tea are served in silver pots with cream on the side,” the accompanying article states, adding that “silver and china are not of the plain variety; each is decorated and bears the crest of the hotel.”
The Sheridan-Plaza, located at the corner of Sheridan Road and Wilson Ave., was right up there with the Edgewater Beach Hotel as a preferred hangout for high-rollers on the North Side in the ‘20s and ‘30s—positioned near the Uptown entertainment district (including the Uptown Theatre, Riviera, Aragon Ballroom, and Green Mill), the lake, and Wrigley Field (visiting players routinely booked rooms).
The building eventually fell out of favor and into disrepair by the 1970s, but it’s since been rehabbed into an apartment complex—a nice place, but not “etched silver coffee pot” nice.
IV. Pick of Destiny
After the sale of the original business and merger with Barth in 1926, a new chapter for the Pick family really began, with third generation president Albert Pick Jr. (1895-1977) taking the lead.
For all his well established wisdom, Albert Sr. hadn’t fully anticipated the financial collapse of 1929, and his side project, the Randolph Investment Company, began to suffer as a result. Fortunately, the nut hadn’t fallen too far from the proverbial hotel magnate, and Albert Pick Jr. was soon using his own considerable talents to guide the investment business though the Depression and into substantial post-war success as the "Pick Hotels Corporation."
Part of the business still involved equipping other facilities, but after all these years, Albert Jr. felt it was high time for the company to start owning and operating its own hotels, not just teaching other people how to do it.
“I don’t mean to be egotistical,” Albert Jr. said in his later years, “but I don’t think there is a name in the hotel business, nationally or internationally, that’s better known.”
Indeed, he might have been right for a while. During the 1940s, Pick Hotels Corp. gradually acquired an impressive roster of high-end hotels under its own banner (mostly in the Midwest), including Chicago’s famed Congress Hotel. Later into the ‘50s, the company jumped into the motel business, recognizing the popularity of more affordable accommodation options along America’ expanding highway system.
[Pick's "Hotels of Distinction" (above) included many of the great high-rise accommodations from the Golden Age, while their chain of motels, like the one in Nashville below, represented an attempt to adapt to a highway-centric America in the 1950s]
As late as the 1960s, Pick still represented one of the largest hotel/motel chains in the U.S., and Albert Pick Jr. was using his influence for plenty of good in his hometown, particularly in the form of support for the La Rabida Children's Hospital and his alma mater, the University of Chicago (a hall at UC is still named in Pick’s honor).
The only trouble ultimately, as ever, was Father Time. In a rare bit of short-sightedness, the Pick company wasn't fully prepared when its turn-of-the-century hotel properties—the same elegant buildings they'd furnished in the good old days—began rapidly declining. In the swinging '60s, out-of-date hotels with deteriorating features didn't quite hold the same appeal for businessmen or vacationing families. And while Pick's far more modern roadside motels would seem to fill that void, the juggling act became a struggle.
Albert Jr. did his best to keep things going, remaining active in the business up to the age of 81, when he finally sold the Pick Hotels Corp. to a Texas oil company, Bass Brothers Enterprises, in 1976.
“Hotels have been my life,” he said at the time. “I will miss it. However, I’m not a child anymore. It may have been wiser to have sold out when I was younger and taken things a little easier, but that’s not my nature.”
Albert Pick Jr. died the following year. In the half century that's followed, the Pick name has sadly been mostly forgotten, right along with the attention to detail that once defined the American hotel industry.
[This ad from 1937 finds the Albert Pick Co., Inc., in its mid Depression form, just before a shift into hotel acquisition and operation. The listed warehouse at 2157 W. Pershing Road, also in the Central Manufacturing District, was first leased in 1936]
"Albert Pick Jr." - Accuracy Project
The Indestructible Crown: The Life of Albert Pick, Jr., by Judith Barnard, 1980
"Pick, Hotel go together like Horse, Buggy" - Chicago Tribune, Oct 9, 1976
"The Cafeteria a Profitable Adjunct to Hotel" - Hotel World, Vol. 93, No. 25, Dec 17, 1921
"The Albert Pick Co." by Mike Prero, Matchpro.org
"Albert Pick Jr., Hotel Chain Founder, Dies" - Chicago Tribune, Dec 12, 1977
"Busy From Morning Til Night" - Albert Pick ad, Hotel World, Vol. 93, No. 10, Sept 3, 1921
General Catalog of Equipment, Furnishings, and Supplies for Hotels, Restaurants, Club and Institutions, Albert Pick & Co., 1926
"The Monotype Made It Possible" - Monotype, Vol. 8, No. 2, May 1920
"Consolidation of Two Great Hotel Supplies Houses" - The Hotel Monthly, April 1919
"Albert Pick & Co. Expand Facilities" - The Hotel World, Vol. 89, No. 2, August 2, 1919