Editor’s note: “In the Archives” is a biweekly series on local area history.
“The nature of my invention,” wrote Ypsilanti tinsmith Mathias Stein in his 1876 patent application, “consists in the construction and arrangement of a machine for heating sad irons and roasting coffee, either simultaneously or at different times, as will be hereinafter more fully set forth.”
Mathias’s intricate 6-part invention, about the size of a large desktop printer, was a tabletop stove. Over a well of coals, it simultaneously roasted coffee and heated solid metal flatirons for ironing clothes, called “sad irons” – one old meaning of “sad” is dense or solid.
Mathias probably had high hopes for his two-in-one cast iron gadget. Shortly after his patent was granted, at age 31, he married the 28-year-old Josephine and the couple settled on Ballard Street just south of Washtenaw Avenue.
Mathias’s device was patented in a heady decade of fervent invention.
In the 1870s, Edison created the phonograph and the efficient “duplex” telegraph. Bell created the telephone. New electric street lighting caused a sensation in London, but wouldn’t come to Ypsilanti for another decade. Closer to home, Mathias was not the only Ypsilantian to get a patent in the 1870s. African Canadian Ypsilantian Elijah McCoy patented one of his railroad lubricators, Presbyterian minister George Tindall invented a tellurian globe that measured the tilt of the Earth’s axis, John Gilbert patented his locking coffin designed to foil grave-robbers, and Thomas Sheears patented an “Improvement in Stilts.”
Mathias’ invention failed to become a household staple.
Perhaps because of this disappointment, around 1883 he changed careers from tinsmith to cigar maker. He opened a small cigar shop at 15 ½ North Huron Street. He and Josephine moved to an apartment at 11 North Huron, probably over the shop.
An 1867 immigrant from Luxembourg, Mathias likely earned enough income to support his independent shop by making top-quality hand-rolled cigars. The wooden cigar mold, introduced in Germany in the 1870s and resembling a pair of narrow washboards, was associated with cheap, poor-quality cigars and required only semiskilled labor. By 1888, Mathias was one of 3 cigar makers’ shops in town, in addition to 3 retail stores selling cigars and tobacco. Around this time, Josephine appears to have died.
In August of 1890, Mathias married again. His bride was Anna Marie Schneider, who had immigrated from Luxembourg two years earlier. The cigar market continued to grow; two years later, in 1892, Mathias was one of 4 cigar-makers in Ypsilanti, in addition to 5 retail tobacconists.
Some of the tobacco shops, unlike Mathias’s, were fancier cigar bars. George Richel’s 1894 “sample room” offered “choice wines, liquors and cigars; imported and domestic; all kinds of cold lunches.” Mathias’s shop was plainer, but it was profitable. He employed Henry Jacquemain as a “stripper,” a worker who removed the stem and central vein from cured tobacco leaves. Mathias was also able to buy a house at 214 River St. It was an exquisite small Greek Revival home that had been a onetime stop on the Underground Railroad. Jacquemain boarded there. In 1896 Mathias, at 47, and Anna, 35, had their first child, Elizabeth. A year later, their son Matthew was born.
By the turn of the century, the craft of cigar making began to decline locally. In 1901, Mathias was one of 2 remaining cigar makers, in addition to 6 retail shops, which increased to 8 in 1903.
Both thrifty and skilled, Mathias continued to earn a living as an independent craftsman who owned his own store, as local large-scale industrialization began. Mathias read in the 1908 papers about Henry Ford’s first assembly line in nearby Dearborn. The line was so successful that in 1913 Ford built an entire factory, Highland Park, around an immense new assembly line.
Back in Ypsi, small independent stores were still the norm. In 1916, Mathias’s next-door neighbor to the north was the barber shop of his friend Charlie Seeger. His neighbor on the other side was Shaefer Hardware. From his shop, Mathias could look across Huron to see the Ypsilanti Mineral Water & Bath Company, as well as the little White Laundry and Hutchins’s Notions.
After serving in WWI, Mathias’s son Matthew returned to clerk in his father’s shop. It may be that Mathias hoped that Matthew would become a craftsman like himself, with the dignity of autonomy and the pride produced from creating tangible and useful items. In 1926 Matthew married Susan and the couple bought a tiny house at 217 Lincoln St., in a poorer section of town.
Mathew’s father Mathias died the following year, at age 78. His pallbearers were Charlie Seeger, future Ypsilanti mayor Matt Max, printer Joseph Forbes, janitor William Dolph, painter Eugene Erity, and Ypsilanti Lumber and Coal Company bookkeeper Mark Rust. Mathias was buried in St. John’s Catholic cemetery across from Highland Cemetery.
Matthew did not take over his father’s shop and carry on his name. It was sold. Matthew became a gas station attendant at Standard Oil, switching to Austin Oil a year later. The age of independent cigar craftsmen in Ypsilanti ended in 1930, when the city’s last remaining cigar-maker, James Hart, closed down.
Matthew remained a gas station attendant for another quarter century, apparently never saving enough to buy his own station. His mother, a stenographer for the Ford Company, helped get him a job at Ford as a tool crib attendant.
The old family home on River Street was sold. Matthew chose not to, or perhaps could not afford to, buy the house. It was divided into apartments in the late 40s. After decades of maintenance by Mathias, the home slowly became decrepit. Anna died in 1953, and was buried with Mathias in St. John’s cemetery.
The River Street home continued to decline, leading the city and a health inspector to confront the new owner about necessary repairs. The owner said it would cost too much. The city razed the historic home in 1965. The next year, Matthew retired from Ford. He lived the last few years of his life in an apartment on Congress Street.
The cigar maker’s son died in 1978, a century after the patenting of a young man’s dream.
This biweekly column features a Mystery Artifact contest. You are invited to take a look at the artifact, this one from the Ypsilanti Historical Museum, and try to deduce its function. Take your best guess in the comment section; I’ll keep an eye on comments and might even drop a hint! Good luck!
“In the Archives” is a biweekly series written for The Ann Arbor Chronicle by Laura Bien. Her work can also be found in the Ypsilanti Citizen as well as the Ann Arbor Observer. She is the author of “Stud Bunnies and the Underwear Club: Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives,” to be published this winter. Bien also writes the historical blog “Dusty Diary” and may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.