Frank Simmons Books, Stationery and Art

Simmons Books, Stationery and Art about 1888. Adults pictured, left to right, are brothers Louis and Harry Coe, Simmons employees who would go on to found Coe’s bookstore; owner Frank Simmons; and an unidentified police officer (Courtesy State Journal-Register via the Frank B. Simmons Collection)

The Frank Simmons stationery store commemorated the 100th anniversary of George Washington’s inauguration as president with a unique and potentially lucrative certificate:

If someone paid $100 on the anniversary date, April 30, 1889, the certificate said, the store would repay the investment at 8 percent interest 100 years later, on May 1, 1989.

The certificate didn’t specify whether repayment would be as simple or compound interest. At simple interest, the payoff a century later would have been only $900 ($8 a year plus the initial $100). Not such a great deal.

One of the Washington centennial certificates (Simmons Collection)

Compounded annually, on the other hand, the certificate would have returned almost $220,000 in 1989.

Whichever, no one is thought to have bought a Simmons certificate, nor was anyone expected to. It was an advertising gimmick, designed to draw attention both to the anniversary and to Simmons Books, Stationery and Art.

The store operated in downtown Springfield for almost 90 years. Its inventory changed over the period, and so did the name, somewhat, but not the ownership: when the owner wasn’t Frank Simmons (there were three of them), it was Mrs. Frank Simmons.

Founder Frank Simmons (SJ-R)

The first Frank Simmons (1849-1911) pulled himself up by his bootstraps. Simmons was 13 years old when he got a one-week tryout as a “bundle boy” in a local bookstore, moving goods around the store and sometimes making deliveries. It was the lowest rung on the business ladder. According to the 1881 History of Sangamon County, Illinois (Interstate Publishing):

He remained in that store seven years. Upon the death of his father (in 1865) he was obliged to assume the position of head of the family and provide for the household. He commenced business on his own account in 1873, with about $50 capital, on the northeast corner of Monroe and Sixth streets.

The Simmons store moved to 124 S. Sixth St. a few years later. Simmons Books relocated again in the 1920s to 626 E. Adams St., where it would stay for 30 years.

Simmons originally sold mainly reading material, though the inventory included a few specialty items – “books, magazines, newspapers, stationery, and notions of every conceivable kind,” a 19th-century newspaper ad said, adding, “He has a new stove polish, so neatly put up that one can almost imagine it belongs to a place on a lady’s toilet table.”

Frank R. Simmons when named city comptroller in 1909 (SJ-R/Simmons Collection)

Stove polish was no longer part of the inventory by 1935, when another advertisement boasted:

(T)he present store includes a complete stock of office supplies of all kinds, stationery, specialties, as well as all kinds of books and school equipment. Another part still is the always inviting line of novelties, games, greeting cards and party favors which are kept for the convenience of customers.

The founder’s son, Frank Robinson Simmons (1876-1936), who served with the National Guard  during the Spanish-American War, later made a name in politics, winning three elections for Capital Township supervisor. He was appointed city comptroller in 1909. “He is one of the most prominent young business men of the city,” the Illinois State Register said when Simmons was named comptroller. The younger man took over the store in 1910 and operated the business until his own death.

Frank Robinson Simmons’ wife, Jeanette Bair Simmons (1883-1956), managed the store from 1936 to 1943, when poor health forced her to retire. Her son, Frank Bair Simmons, (1916-2003) then operated the business.

Frank B. Simmons, 1954 (SJ-R)

Jeanette Bair Simmons, 1943 (Simmons Collection)

Simmons Office Supply & Equipment Co. moved off of Adams Street in the 1950s, but continued to sell office, school and art supplies into the early 1960s. The company was at 302 W. Edwards St. when it closed about 1964. Frank B. Simmons, a World War II veteran and a Democratic precinct committeeman for more than 20 years, went on to work for state government’s purchasing agency and the Illinois State Library.

Hat tip: To another Frank Simmons – the son, grandson and great-grandson, respectively, of Frank B., Frank R. and the original Frank Simmons – for suggesting this topic and providing material from his father’s collection of Simmons Book Store memorabilia.

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One Response to Frank Simmons Books, Stationery and Art

  1. William Furry says:

    Pretty cool. Never heard of the store, however.

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