eBay Tuesday: Humphrey-Cornell Advertisement

Wholesale grocer's warehouse was the first to burn in the aftermath of the Hurricane of 1938

Though we can blame the weather more than the business, all sources do point to the wholesale grocers featured in this week's auction item as the source of a massive fire in downtown New London.

This advertising blotter, offered by user 82bid of the eBay store Now and Then Odds and Ends, touts the quality of the Grandmother's food line, namely the jams, pie fillings, and mincemeat. Produced by the Whipple Food Company of Natick, Mass., the products were sold locally through the Humphrey-Cornell Company.

The Humphrey-Cornell Company originated in Providence, R.I. in 1857 when Marius Sidney Daniels began a grocery business there with Sylvester G. Martin and later James Cornell. Daniels' son-in-law, Charles B. Humphrey, also joined the business while Howard P. Cornell kept the Cornell name involved. It is unclear when exactly the Humphrey-Cornell Company opened a warehouse in New London, but the earliest reference I could find is a 1903 advertisement for tea. The comapny assured readers that "every leaf is pure and full of virtue...every infusion is delicious and entirely harmless to the most sensitive nerves." The tea, maybe; I'm not so sure about the sealed lead packets it was sold in.

In early 1911, the company broke ground for a three-story building on Sparyard Street. The warehouse would serve the company until disaster struck the city in the form of a devastating hurricane on Sept. 21, 1938.

The first damage to befall the structure occurred when the storm surge hurled the five-masted ship Marsala onto land, striking the corner of the Humphrey-Cornell building. The storm also flooded the basement, which in turn short-circuited wires and started a fire in the afternoon. The fire department arrived to find the blaze well underway, with the entire building in flames within five minutes of the call. Firefighters soon had to abandon the structure to its fate.

The Humphrey-Cornell fire marked only the beginning of the troubles for the fire department. Flames soon spread to nearby furniture, coal, and grain companies, moving out from Sparyard Street so quickly that a great deal of hose put down to fight the initial fire was lost. Wind whipped embers from the burning warehouse to other downtown buildings. Telephone communications went out, making it impossible to call other communities for assistance. Fallen trees made it difficult to reach fire scenes. By the time the fire was contained, it had destroyed 25 buildings, seriously damaged 21, and done slight damage to another 43.

Its role as the epicenter of the great fire of the Hurricane of 1938 seems to be the last one Humphrey-Cornell played in New London. The Grandmother's food brand was more successful. The Whipple Food Company, started in 1899, continued as a private company until it was sold to Allied Old English Inc. of Port Reading, N.J., in 2004; the famous Grandmother's mincemeat is still available for sale.

The asking price on the advertising blotter is $12, with free shipping. It measures six inches by three and one quarter inches. The auction ends at about 5:56 a.m. on Wednesday.

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