Grandpa Millard

NEIL A. GRAUER

February 04, 1993|By NEIL A. GRAUER

The demise of Sears, Roebuck and Company's fabled, 97-year-oldgeneral-merchandise catalog causes personal regret, not just because it was a rich piece of Americana but because it once provided desperately needed employment for a down-on-their-luck Baltimore family -- mine -- by making my great-grandfather the star model in a before-and-after advertisement for toupees.

Born in Baltimore in 1856, my great-grandfather was named Millard Fillmore Grauer (hold the snickers, please). The year 1856 was when former President Fillmore ran for the White House again as a candidate of the Know Nothing Party and carried only one state: Maryland. Why my great-great-grandfather, Ignatius Grauer, was such an ardent Fillmore fan is a secret he took with him to his grave in the Har Sinai Cemetery on Erdman Avenue.

As an adventurous 5-year-old, Millard Fillmore Grauer got caught up in the April 1861 riot that erupted along Pratt Street when troops from Massachusetts, responding to Abraham Lincoln's call for volunteers following the Confederate attack on Fort Sumter, traveled through town on their way to Washington. Family history does not record on which side he participated and at whom he threw rocks, if anyone. For a 5-year-old, it probably was just an extraordinarily exciting melee, devoid of ideology.

As an adult, he worked in various retail businesses, eventually becoming manager of the Phoenix Pad Company, which made shoulder pads and other accessories for men's suits. The firm ''blew up,'' as H.L. Mencken would have put it, when a 1907 New York Stock Market crash caused a severe national depression that no one today remembers.

Then as now, it was tough finding a job. Employment prospects in Baltimore were especially grim, so in 1910, Millard Fillmore Grauer and his family left their home at 1029 North Broadway and the city in which the Grauers had resided since the mid-1830s and moved to Chicago, where opportunities were said to be better.

There his eldest son, my grandfather, Albert L. Grauer, got a job writing advertising copy for the Sears, Roebuck and Company catalog. One of the ads he was called upon to compose touted the benefits of Sears' ''splendid'' toupees, costing between $14.50 and $17.75. (''Extra shades,'' such as ''gray mixed'' or ''extreme blond'' were more expensive.) The price included the ''plaster'' needed to paste the hairpiece down on the wearer's head.

And who better to exemplify a satisfied customer than his own father? Bald since early middle age, Millard Fillmore Grauer had habitually worn wigs, being a salesman ever interested in making a good impression.

So he posed sporting a toupee and without one, willingly lending his picture to the endorsement: ''Takes years off my appearance.''

Millard Fillmore Grauer had a mischievous sense of humor and evidently did not take himself or others too seriously. My father, Dr. William S. Grauer, now 77, vividly recalls how his foxy Grandpa Grauer would slyly offer him slices of Limburger cheese at Sunday breakfasts, then laugh uproariously as his young grandson recoiled in horror at its pungent odor.

Grandpa Grauer also enjoyed what passed for risque humor in that innocent age. He owned a wonderful pocket watch -- alas, long-lost -- that had on the inside of its case a revolving series of pictures showing Victorian pin-up girls in various states of undress. And clearly he was not too proud to let the millions of subscribers to the Sears catalog know that the hair on the top of his head was not his own.

Grandpa Grauer died in 1919 in Chicago, and is buried in the Rosehill Cemetery there. Families fortunate enough to possess photographs of their forbears usually have stiffly posed, formal portraits that offer little insight into the individuals' personalities. We have some pictures like that of Grandpa Grauer. But we also have this Sears, Roebuck toupee ad -- and of all the photos we have of him, these are the ones I like the best.

Neil A. Grauer is a Baltimore writer and caricaturist who still has most of most of his own hair.

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