For more than 100 years, area businesses have stamped their names on bottle stoppers and matchbooks, serving plates and even chicken catchers to draw and keep customers.
Now a new exhibit at the recently reopened Montgomery Museum of Art and History celebrates these freebies. “With Our Compliments: Historic Promotional Novelties from Montgomery County Businesses” uses these artifacts to trace the history of commerce in the county.
From a late 19th century shoe button hook given to customers of C. Lawrence & Sons general store in Riner to a matchbook cover from the long extinct Blue Moon Lunch counter in downtown Christiansburg, dozens of these artifacts “document businesses we might not otherwise know about,” Collections Manager Sherry Wyatt said.
Promotional items in America date back to 1789, when buttons commemorating the inauguration of George Washington were produced, according to the exhibit. A century later companies arose that specialized in producing these freebies for businesses across the country. They served as durable advertisements that also inspired loyalty, and local businesses used them extensively.
The Montgomery exhibit includes cheap, ephemeral items like matchbook covers and valuable pieces, such as a hand-painted serving platter and a butcher cutting board.
Wyatt pointed to a ring holder given out by Christiansburg Motor Company.
“The thing that really struck me is there is not always a relationship between the company and the product,” she said.
About half of the exhibit’s artifacts belong to the museum, Wyatt said. “We had never really realized that we had this pretty big collection of this particular genre of thing.”
The other half is on loan from longtime board member Bob Poff. He and his wife, Annette, and three other local business owners sponsored the exhibit, Wyatt said.
Ideal Cabinets Inc., with locations in Christiansbug and Roanoke, is one of those sponsors.
“We’re local and have been for 50 years,” co-owner Virginia Rakes said. They decided to support the exhibit to express their appreciation for the community and the museum, she added.
And Ideal Cabinets still gives out trinkets of appreciation, Rakes said. For their 50th anniversary, they commissioned celebratory caps, pens, satchels and other items.
The exhibit opened on Tuesday, on the first day the Christiansburg-based museum was able to welcome the public back since the start of the novel coronavirus pandemic closed cultural attractions in March. The long closure has taken its toll on many museums.
Executive Director Sue Farrar said the museum was able to keep their three part-time staffers employed using a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan. But recovery will be slow. It’s major annual fundraiser, the Heritage Day festival normally held in August, had to be canceled this year.
A retail gift shop the museum opened in downtown Christiansburg in December was doing well until it also had to close in March, Farrar said. It reopened this week, too, and she’s hopeful shoppers will return to buy the locally-produced arts and crafts.
Farrar said the museum is also hopeful that the upcoming GiveLocalNRV online fund drive set for June 24 will help. Held annually by The Community Foundation of the New River Valley, the event helps charities and nonprofits raise funds.
Montgomery Museum is one of more than 100 area organizations participating this year, according to the foundation website.
Farrar said she hopes to raise $14,000 through the program.
For open hours, information on other exhibits and ways to donate, visit https://montgomerymuseum.org.