120 years before Carrie Fisher rolled up in front of the shop to greet the Blues Brothers with a rocket launcher and 40 years before the famous L train tracks forming Chicago’s Loop rose overhead on Van Buren Street, Solomon Stebbins opened his hardware store in Chicago the same year Illinois native son Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Although Stebbins Hardware pencils like this one date to post-WWII rather than the Civil War era, they definitely saw the skyward growth of downtown Chicago and were handed out to any of a number of construction workers and contractors that visited Stebbins for specialty tools that weren’t readily available anywhere else.
Made between 1943 and 1963 when Chicago still had single digit zip codes, It’s easy to imagine this Stebbins Hardware pencil sharpened with a box cutter or pocket knife to make lists, marking twice before cutting once, adding up cheezeborger orders from Billy Goat Tavern, or how the crew takes their coffee from Lou Mitchell’s.
By the time this pencil came on the scene, Stebbins’ grandsons had already bought and converted an old burlesque theatre called the Trocodero in 1922 to expand to three floors plus a basement, complete with tin ceilings and newfangled linoleum floors, and the area remained iffy -- full of “men only” hotels like the Plymouth (across the street), pawn shops (around the corner) and delicatessens (attached to the bars). Nevertheless, it was heralded as downtown’s very best hardware store for decades.
It also had the dubious distinction of being downtown’s very last hardware store: ironically the store that handily survived the Chicago Fire, the Great Depression and competition from the huge national chains provided the actual tools for its own demise. Condo developments and other nearby construction built with Stebbins nails and screws ultimately made the city-owned land where it sat more coveted. In 1985, Chicago’s planning director suddenly claimed the building was becoming dilapidated and refused to renew Stebbins’ lease, all the while denying the city had any plans for the land, even though the Chicago Tribune noted that it was being eyed for a main library. Stebbins was forced to close that fall, and the last Stebbins son to run the place, 51-year-old Wallace Jay Stebbins Younger, quit the hardware business entirely and ironically decided to try his hand at real estate.
Only a few months after the red neon “Stebbins Hardware” sign went out for the last time in 1985 under the L tracks, the City of Chicago would announce its block was to become the site of the new Harold Washington Library, which was ultimately built in 1991.
Next time you are in Chicago, visit the Van Buren side of the Washington Library and think back to a time when Stebbins Hardware’s creaky 1904 building stood there, keeping 50,000 hardware items in countless tiny drawers” and countless simple white business pencils in stock for decades of tradesmen that built the modern Windy City.