Metal shop tin men seem to be as American as L. Frank Baum’s tale of Dorothy and company in the land of Oz. Throughout this century, tin men have surfaced as a conspicuous folk art form, and because of their longevity within the genre an inquiry into the social, occupational and artistic concerns of their makers seem overdue.
Within cultural history, tin men must be understood as a product of the commercial context in which they are found. It is a simple fact the eye-catching objects draw attention to themselves and to their surroundings. Tin men—as commercial logos—have stood in front of sheet metal shops for nearly a hundred years. The earliest documented figures seem to have been fabricated in the first decade of the 20th century. Comparable figures are being made today and still perform promotional tasks similar to their predecessors.
As art, the figures need to be studied stylistically. The look of American sheet metal figures has changed greatly over time, even though their function as advertising “attention getters” has remained constant. The earliest metal shop tin men were elegant dandies—”gents” in formal attire (figure 1). Stylistically, they are related to the finely carved wooden figures that stood as signage in front of “Gas Light” era cigar stores, millinery shops and haberdasheries.
Tin men from the 1940s seem much more genial and whimsical then their dandy predecessors. Still later, in the 1950s and 60s, another generation of tin men appeared—this time in the form of robots and mechanical monsters. Today’s tin men come in a variety of forms. These changes can be accounted for if the stylistic aspect of tin figure production is found to correspond with the cultural exposures of the various generations of metalworkers who fostered their production.
Finally, as a craft history, the tin man story requires a look inside the sheet metal work place. For after all, it is from within a trade that tin men have always come. As surely as metalworkers styled their figures in response to the popular culture around them, they also found their inspirations in something peculiar to their occupational concerns. The vocabulary of shapes commonly found in a sheet metal shop has consistently suggested figural forms to workers with creative sensibilities. As the utilitarian shapes (elbows, ventilators, caps and take offs) evolved in a changing technology, new tin man forms emerged. Against a commercial, technical and cultural skin, the heart of a tin man pulsates with popular, technological and personal inspirations.
So, a study begins with an inspection of the metalworkers’ trade. Technical manuals in the profession abound with plans and shaped rife with latent figuration. Figure 2 is an illustration from a 1942 sheet metal text—a learning book filled with “how-to” diagrams. Typical manual illustrations present diagrams that aid workers fabricating the practical and the functional. To the creative eye, however, these illustrations hint that the strictly utilitarian might also become decorative, expressive, sculptural and artistic.
The sculptural vocabulary latent in the flange and elbow units photographed in the Rutzen-Cardon shop in Royal Oak, Michigan (figure 3) begs articulation as figurative art. Creatively considered, these units transform into feet and legs—the feet and legs of a tin man. In the mind of an artist/tradesman, the flanges, reducers, tubes, elbows and vents stocked in a shop combine and interlock to make a thigh that goes into a calf, a calf that goes into foot. A flared-box torso sprouts duct section shoulders; shoulders join tube arms; tapered forearms terminate in a tour-de-force breakformed hands. Voila! The great Chicago tin man—the 1940s Halstead Avenue tin man who should have been a Bears linebacker (figure 4).
Something else related to sculpture is particular to the sheet metal trade. On the job, sheet metal craftsman must translate information from flat patterns into forms in the round. Analogous translations are also made in a few other common trades. A dressmaker working from a flat pattern stitches, pleats and tucks cloth to produce a garment that will ultimately contour around a wearer’s body. Architects also expect contractors to take flat drawings and turn them into three-dimensional buildings. Looking again at a drawing form the metalworkers’ manual (figure 2), the system of breaks, folds and crimps prescribe the forming of sculptural elements all derived from circles, cones and cubes—the very shapes Cezanne believed to be the tectonic base of all form—the irreducible building blocks of the visual world.
Tools also play a major part, as the genesis of most tin men is the ordinary hand brake. Here is an implement that will fold a piece of metal into subtle pleated tube or into a radical right angle. Overbreaking a plate and then pressing it again, a brake operator achieves a “hemfold”—a fold that will lay a metal shape back on itself in the manner of a lapel. There is also the shear, the most basic shop tool—a toll that dictates the planar essence of the tin man. Next in importance is a machine called a beader. This simple hand-driven device creates a little raised ridge around a metal tube allowing it to interlock with other beaded units. Last, there is the crimper (figure 5). The crimper will texture material, but, more important, it will draw in the end of a tube—it will change a tube’s diameter so that it can fit inside another tube to form a duct system.
A close look at the shoulder connections on most tin men reveals a juncture executed on a crimper (figure 6). Improvising with such simple tools, a master sheet metal worker can modulate interlocked form from a square into round and back again. Orchestrating an assemblage of prefab and custom-made units, he sculptures an image.
Technique, however, is not all. What prescribes the character of the figure a worker might construct? What determines the “look” of a particular tin man? The style of a tin man—unlike its structure—does not come from inside a shop. It does not come from a parts inventory out behind a shop. It seems to come from the larger culture around the sheet metal sculptor—the popular images incumbent upon this life/world.
Thus, the turn of the century “tin-man-cum-dandy” reflected the concerns of a world where a dandy was something one aspired to be. The anonymous sheet metal worker who built the New York dandy (figure 1) sought to call attention to a shop and to demonstrate the shop’s technical capabilities all with a dapper sign figure built for display. A careful look at the old photo of this figure reveals that there are dozens of tiny crimps in the plate that folds around to become the dandy’s coat. This plate was not put through a roller; it was painstakingly faceted on a bending brake. The coat’s lapel, of course, is a clever hemfold. The dandy is a craft masterpiece fabricated by someone who really knew his stuff—some who could have written the sheet metal workers’ manual—and someone who certainly knew how to deck out a proper gent in formal attire.
All of this would change in 1939. The concept of tin men as dandies would fade from the scene. A new paradigm would emerge from a story that had been around since the year 1900, a story that became a movie in 1939, “The Wizard of Oz.” Starring Judy Garland as Dorothy and Jack Haley as the Tin Man, the movie almost instantly became American popular history (figure 7). Post-“Wizard” tin shop figures would be mechanical and whimsical in a way not seen before. In the best sense, they would formally express their essential constructivist nature as assemblages. At the same time, they would embody a spirit of fantasy and levity directly appropriated form Haley’s film portrayal in the land of Oz. It is interesting to note that even the early illustrations in Baum’s Oz book show the Tin Man as a rather funky, mechanical construction—complete with a metal funnel for a hat.
Tin men after 1940 became stylistically vitalized by a new permissiveness, which shifted the esthetic of folk, sheet metal sculptors away from craftsmanly fabrication and toward found object assembly. No doubt the Oz Tin Man had something to do with this, but it is also important to note that the high art permission for assemblage in emerging modernism had reached a popular audience by the 40s. Picasso’s 1931 metal sculpture Portrait of a Woman, sported a kitchen colander for a head. American modernists at mid-century experimenting with “junk” sculpture and the improvisional energy that Calder and other high art masters brought to their work began to find its way into American folk art—especially into the tin man maker’s art.
A 1950 tin man from Chicago kneels down to work on a section of duct pipe (figure 8). He holds a steel snip in his hand, another shear lies near his foot. Across his chest, soldered in high relief, are letters spelling out “I’M YOUR MAN.” The letters are perforated and a light bulb inserted in the figure’s torso makes them illuminate at night. Day or night, this busy fellow is ready for any task. As a final touch, this figure clenches a real pipe between his tin lips. Picasso and Frank Baum would both have appreciated the sculptor who conceived this wry, spontaneous gesture.
Tin men would change again in the 1950s and 60s. Metal shop folk sculptors in a changing world would respond to change. Outer space suddenly became big news and big entertainment as the second half of the century unfolded. American and Russians entered into serious space explorations and sci-fi writers and film makers were having a field day. Fearful, and at the same time fascinated, American speculated about the future and about what might be “out there” on other planets and in other galaxies. Upon one thing they popularly agreed: little green men always ran around in the company of metallic, mechanical monsters—robots. The era of the tin man robot had begun (figure 9).
Toys and movies in this period certainly affected the style of the tin shop figures. Japanese sci-fi toys were shipped to the States by the truck load in the 50s. Menacing, but at the same time entertaining, these robot toys inspired a style of tin shop figure that was both mechanical and fanciful. From Hollywood, shop workers also derived inspiration for sci-fi creations resembling the monsters in “Forbidden Planet” or the incomparable laserblasting robot destroyer in “The Day the Earth Stood Still.” In the sci-fi era, tin men became their own breed of mechanical King Kongs—oversized ventilator and duct work brutes who seem mutated from the evolution of their “dandy” ancestors.
More recent tin men evoke the reality rather than the fantasy of outer space. The Mercury astronauts made their way into orbit and returned home quite human. Their travels had, though, taken them far into a new world of technology where men and machines work as one. In the 70s the appearance of astronaut tin men signaled once again that tradesmen in metal shops draw heavily on their culture for the imagery they incorporate into their artistic work.
And what about the makers themselves? What do they think? What do they have to say about their creations? Bruno made the tin man hung on the front of the Duquet and Sons Heating Company in Highland, Michigan (figure 10). Asked where he got the idea to create his tin man, he replied:
I don’t really know. I was just fooling around the shop one day and started putting various parts we had there together. I thought to myself, ‘that kinda looks like a man,’ so I finished it up and took it out and fastened it to the front of the building. Do you see his hands? Well those are my hands. I drew around my hands and then cut them out and fastened them on him. I wanted him to sort of wave to people driving by.
Asked if he knew of other such figures at other shops, Bruno replied that he didn’t. He turned his conversation to the problem of the rust that was forming on his “Greeter” and then excused himself to go back to work. He and the others on his crew were busy with a big job putting duct work in an apartment complex. Tin men would have to wait.
Jim, at J & J Metal Products in Warren, Michigan, made his first tin man in 1984. He has made five more since and is very proud of his handy work. He is also adamant about the originality of his tin man concept:
You know, a lot of people stop by here and ask about those figures. It’s good for business. Quite a few have even tried to buy them. Can’t do that though, you know, insurance just won’t allow it. I’d love to let you borrow one of ’em for that thing over at Cranbrook but we just can’t risk it. I could bring them all over on a truck for the students to see but it would have to be on a Sunday ’cause that’s the only day I get off.
There is a lot of work that goes into one of those figures. I make all the parts myself. See those patterns back in the back of the shop? Well, they can help you lay out about any shape you want. I can read plans and fold up anything you could need. I’ve been in this business 40 years and learned it all the old way. We had to know how to read plans and draw things up because when I started out there weren’t so many readymade parts.
I’ve gone to a lot of trouble to protect my idea. We even paid a lawyer to get us a copyright on these figures. I invented them and if anyone copies them I can legally sue them. There was a guy over here in a shop on Mound Road who made one and we got our lawyer on him. Made him take it apart.
Jim has his big figures weighted and mounted on hand trucks. They won’t blow over in a high wind and he can wheel them into the shop every night to protect them from vandals. He has names for most of them and he even designates certain ones “summer figures” and others “winter.” His newest summer figure sports a pair of very cool sunglasses (figure 11). Jim’s favorite winter figure inspired the graphic logo printed on all the shop’s promotional flyers and catalogs.
Jim is most proud of the fact that a theater cast from one of the nearby high schools asked him to build a costume to be worn by the Tin Man in their production of “The Wizard of Oz.” Jim keeps photos from that “Oz” play in an album on his desk at the shop. As a metalworker and as a P.R. man, Jim is something of a wizard himself.
Looking on down the road, what else seems in store for the tin man? It is a pretty good bet that the 1977 film “Star Wars” will have a serious impact on the style of tin men of the 80s and the 90s—given the way in which popular culture affects the artistry of tin shop folk artists. The enormously appealing “Star Wars” robots, C3PO and R2D2, should influence the form of a yet unborn generation of tin men. Jim’s latest creation (figure 11) may indeed be a bellwether. Jim’s 1987 model goes glitz and high tech all the way. His amazing nine-foot beauty is 100% stainless steel. Flashing in the midday summer sun, this tin man shines as brightly as the golden Threepio. Checking out passing cars from behind his green rimmed shades, Jim’s friendly giant exudes a poise and charm that is every bit a match for that of George Lucas’s irrepressible extraterrestrials.
Elsewhere today, there is a new extended family growing from the tin man lineage. Folk artists in other metalworking trades are producing their own figurative assemblages. Since the 1970s, all manner of industrial extrusions and casting have been brazed and welded into imaginative forms by American tradesmen. Ray, a car mechanic in Cleveland, has surrounded his garage with figures he has constructed from coil springs and other automotive parts. Ray’s welded munchkin hold up signs promoting Ray’s professional services.
In Michigan City, Indiana, Joe the welded fabricated a vast array of figures and animals out of pipe and tank section. Joe’s whereabouts today are unknown, but his sculpture can be found in yards throughout his old neighborhood. His tour-de-force is his Uncle Sam mailbox holder. Currently, it marks the driveway leading to the summer studio retreat of artist Roger Brown. In Pontiac, Michigan, Bennie Acosta built a pipe figure to grace the front of the city sewer and water building. Holding a water pail in its right hand, it sprayed water of out a nozzle fitted into its left hand. With a hat made from a dayglow traffic detour cone, Acosta’s pipe man watered the plantings at the city water works. Recently, however, Acosta’s “gardener” lost favor with its bosses and was unceremoniously dismantled and tossed back into the boxes of fitting from which it had originally come. Today, only a faded polaroid photo witnesses its existence.
Perhaps the strangest mutation yet in the tin man family involves the transplantation of an old folk art tradition into the world of contemporary fine art. Sculptor H.C. Westerman recently built a wire mesh tin man that ended up in the Art Institute of Chicago. He titled his piece Jack of Diamonds, a pun referring to the diamond-shape perforations in the expanded steel mesh from which the figure is made. Wonder of wonders—Westerman has created art that doesn’t seem overly embarrassed about imitating life. His tin man could probably walk right into Jim’s sheet metal shop in Detroit and be among friends.
Returning to the subject of sheet metal shop figures, it is interesting to consider what lies ahead for the tin man after “Star Wars” and Westerman. Metal shop figures are already being collected as “antiques.” Are they destined to join the cigar store Indians of the 19th century in the world of collectibles and nostalgia? The answer may well have to do with technology more than with issues of creativity. Sheet metal workers have obviously kept the tin man tradition alive by creatively incorporating the changes in their trade and the changes in their times into their art expression.
As the figurehead carvers of the early 19th century became shop figure carvers with the passing of the era of sailing ships, so too have the tin dandy makers evolved into robot makers as technology ushered in the space age. But in the end, the days of the tin man, like the days of the figurehead and the cigar store Indian, may be numbered. Small sheet metal shops are closing down. Old skills are not being passed along as pre-fab modular ventilation systems standardize the heating and cooling business—the mainstay of the sheet metal worker’s livelihood. Tin men may all be off the streets by the year 2000. The best tin men today live in the outback (figure 12).
On the upside, meet the new kid on the block, Poly Vinyl Man (figure 13). In the film “The Graduate” Dustin Hoffman got the word: “The future is plastics.” The tin man has proven he has a heart but he may have reached the end of his yellow brick road. And that in itself may not be all bad because maybe he was never destined to enter the gates of the new mylar “Oz” that beckons Poly Vinyl Man. Technology may simply bar the tin man from the path leading through futuristic fields of a computer world. Or perhaps it is not so. Perhaps Poly Vinyl Man and the Tin Man may travel on together to explore an “Oz” that even the imagination of L. Frank Baum could never have reached from Kansas.
This article was originally presented to the June, 1987 conference of the Society of North American Goldsmiths at Cranbrook Academy of Art.
Michael D. Hall, an artist and director of the graduate program in sculpture at Cranbrook Academy of Art, is well known as a critic and collector of Americana. A book compiling his lectures Stereoscopic Perspective: Reflections on American Time and Folk Art has been published recently by U.M.I. Research Press, Ann Arbor, MI.
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