What Did Memphis Look Like 150 Years Ago?

Back in 1868, Memphis looked quite a bit different than it does today. Just a few years after the end of the Civil War, Memphis lacked many of the things we love so much about it now.

Looking to rebuild its local industries after the war, Memphis’ economy began to improve, allowing for new companies to come onto the scene. One of those companies was Marx & Bensdorf Real Estate and Investment Company. Founded in 1868 by Max Marx and Herman Bensdorf, the company set out to sell and buy homes and land for people across the Mid-South area. Little did Herman and Max know, their commitment to people – creating lasting relationships and trust within the community – would keep their business alive for 150 years.

Memphis, TN – 150 Years Ago

150 years ago, the Memphis we know and love today was very different.

Memphis was not known as a music capital. Some of our favorite landmarks had yet to open, such as the Peabody Hotel (1869, current building 1925), the Memphis Zoo and Overton Park (1906), and the Orpheum Theatre (1890, current building 1928). Even the culture of our famed Beale Street had yet to emerge – it was simply a residential and commercial street at the time.

1870s Beale Street, Collection of George Whitworth. Image from historic-memphis.com

Built upon the success of river trade, the cotton industry, and the plantation economy of the time, Memphis was struggling after the end of the Civil War to find its place. Race riots were common, and the social unrest was growing.

In fact, in 1868 – the same year Marx & Bensdorf opened its doors – the Reconstruction Act and the 14th Amendment were instated. This time of transition spurred the cultural significance of our city, allowing emancipated slaves to bring rich diversity, music, and food that would forever change Memphis’ legacy.

First front-page Marx & Bensdorf advertisement, December 9, 1873, The Memphis Daily Appeal

Can you picture what life was like during these times? Here are a few facts about living in 1868:

  • The presidential election of 1868 elected President Ulysses S. Grant
  • Horse drawn carriages, steamboats, and railroads were the most efficient modes of transportation
  • The lightbulb was not yet invented, and wouldn’t be around until 1879
  • The fastest mode of communication for long distances was through the telegraph; telegrams were common well into the 1900s, although the telephone was invented in 1876
  • As part of the Victorian Era, the fashions of the day included large, long skirts for women, coupled with long hair, corsets, gloves, and parasols for shade. Men often wore gloves, hats, large-lapeled waistcoats, and ties or cravats
  • Still on the heels of the Gold Rush years, 1868 was influenced by a desire to explore, do new things, and create a new life; perhaps this spirit helped Marx & Bensdorf get started on the company they envisioned!

Main Street Memphis in 1870, Collection of George Whitworth. Image from historic-memphis.com

Growing in Good and Bad Times

Looking back, Marx & Bensdorf probably could not have picked a more difficult, yet exciting time to start their work.

The spirit of beginning anew and strengthening new areas of the economy – as manufacturing and other automated processes began to thrive – gave hope to many after years of war.

In the first (that we know of) real estate listing that Marx & Bensdorf published, you can sense the many possibilities available for a new life in a new South. The listing (below) reads:

“A large building, suitable for a manufactory; a store in good locality; two nice two-story dwellings, and a number of vacant lots to lease on good terms. Apply to Marx & Bensdorf …”

First Marx & Bensdorf real estate listing, May 27, 1870, The Memphis Daily Appeal

During Reconstruction, the Memphis area was reacclimating itself back into the union, finding its place in a post-war economy. Several years later, the Yellow Fever epidemic swept across Memphis, wiping out a large portion of the population.

Into the 1900s, Memphis experienced growth, welcoming some of our favorite landmarks, museums, hotels, schools, and department stores to the area. Still, the inevitable pressures of war, scandal, and economic downturns hit the area, and the rest of the country, hard.

From the race riots and turmoil of 1868, to similar social and political unrest 100 years later in 1968, the Marx & Bensdorf firm has kept its focus on serving the Mid-South, whether in moments of hardship or prosperity.

Much like the city of Memphis itself, Marx & Bensdorf has demonstrated the results of creative problem solving, dedicated focus, and the benefits of finding opportunities at every turn. The company continued to invest in Memphis, finding its own real estate for the business around town.

From the first advertised location at No. 7 Madison Street, to the next location at 152 Madison in 1905 (now The Brass Door restaurant and pub), and on to 149 Monroe (now the Cadre Building), Marx & Bensdorf steadily climbed to become not just the oldest, but also the most respected professional real estate firm in the area.

149 Monroe office, built in 1928. Image from historic-memphis.com

The Key to 150 Years

While exploring the history and context of Marx & Bensdorf’s beginnings, it is important to think about how this 150-year legacy was possible. As our staff celebrates this impressive and exciting anniversary, we reflect on what being 150 years old means.

Quite simply, we all have the same answer: the people.

From the two people who began this company, Herman and Max, to the people who have served as agents and staff each day since, to the customers who have turned to us time and again – it is the people, our relationships with them, and our common love for Memphis that have made this business grow.

For instance, take this ad from the Memphis News-Scimitar, which ran on Christmas Day in 1919.

Advertisement, December 25, 1919, Memphis News-Scimitar

Although this ad ran in the newspaper nearly 100 years ago, our business still recognized the same principles we do today. We would not be where we are,150 years later, without our friends.

“In 1868 and now, our debt of gratitude strengthens with each year. The spirit of the holidays prompts an acknowledgment of our debt of gratitude to each of our friends.”

Knowing where we have come from, what our values are, and how important the people of the Memphis area are to our firm: these are all reasons we have survived and thrived for 150 years. This year, we will continue to think about our past and where we can go in the future.

While the next 150 years will bring even more unexpected changes, our future is in good hands because of the people who make up our firm, and the people who entrust their real estate transactions to us. We thank you all for being part of this amazing journey!


Header image: Birds-Eye View of Memphis, 1870. Image from oldmapsofthe1800s.storenvy.com

Posted by David Tester at 7:58 AM
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