Mrs. Frank Leon Smith has a door for sale. On the door are the autographs of about sixty people who in the early Twenties were important, famous, talented, unusual. Im telling you, this is a fabulous door....Want a door? Ask Mrs. Smith at 321 East 52nd Street, New York 22. —"Trade Winds" in the Saturday Review, 1960
This narrow pine door began its life in a flat at 11 Christopher Street once occupied by the novelist Floyd Dell. In late 1920 or 1921 the building was demolished to make room for new construction, but not before Frank Shay removed an interior door, carried it across the street, and hung it between the shop and its back office. As such, the door was a literal fragment of the great Bohemian scene of the 1910s, physically carried forward to the 1920s, for Dell had been one of the Village's prominent figures in the preceding decade, one who had his hand in many of its great experiments in literature and lifestyle.
In his memoir Homecoming (1933), Dell tells the story of the door's "rescue" (with some apparent difficulty remembering the proper date, since he himself visited the shop and signed the door):
In 1925, at Antibes, where I was severely ill with gastritis and was very homesick, I heard from some fellow-American that the little house at 11 Christopher Street had been torn down. The red-painted door of my upstairs apartment, I was told, had been piously rescued by Frank Shay, and was being kept in his book-shop across the street; he was using it as an autograph-'album', on which all the authors who came into his place were asked to write their names...so 11 Christopher Street was gone! And being gone it lived again more vividly in my memory.
The provenance, as described here, is credible: bits of red paint can still be seen around the door's latch where the later,vibrant blue has chipped away.
William McFee, in his novel The Harbourmaster, and Christopher Morley, in the essay "Wine that Was Spilt in Haste" (1931) offer their own versions of a single humorous explanation for their friend's absconding with the door. They explain that Shay enjoyed drinking in his office, and that when the shop first opened, the entrance to the office was covered by a thin fabric screen, through which visitors could see his silhouette as he tossed back a drink. The door was procured, they said, to provide greater privacy for this activity.
According to Morley, one day Shay's good friend Hendrik Willem Van Loon spontaneously signed his name, accompanied by a drawing of a ship with full sails, right in the middle of the door, and a tradition was born. Several signatures are dated 1921, but we do not know when the tradition began, nor when it ended. We do not know who was invited to sign the door or why. The vast majority of signers were well-known, others were local businesspeople, and more than fifty remain unidentified. We do not know which way the more heavily signed side faced; its layer of grime suggests that it may have faced into the office, where tobacco smoke would perhaps have filled the air. Perhaps signatures were added after a visitor had joined Shay in the back office for a drink and some literary conversation.
As the number of signatures grew, the door became a well-known curiosity, and by 1922, a visiting reporter from the Oregonian noted that "most everyone visits his shop to have a look at his queer door." Over the five years that the shop was in business, the door was covered with approximately 242 signatures, most in pencil. Shay likely added the blue "frame" before he sold the shop in 1924. At some point, varnish was added, protecting most of the signatures though some had already smudged or faded beyond recognition. In 1925, an advertisement for the shop in the Quill used the door as a marketing tool, stating "Come in and see our door" under the address.
When the shop closed in the summer of 1925, the manager (and perhaps owner) Juliette Koenig moved the door to her New York apartment. Koenig was a designer at the time, and in the intervening years married one Frank Smith and became a professional gift-wrapper. Some sources claim that the door passed into Christopher Morley's possession at some point, but this is not the case. In 1960, a notice of Mrs. Frank Leon Smith's intention to sell the door appeared in the "Trade Winds" gossip column of the Saturday Review.
In late 1960, the door arrived at the Center with the dealer's description identifying 25 famous signers and a 1925 letter from Christopher Morley to Juliette Koenig thanking her for saving the door. In 1972, University of Texas graduate student Anna Lou Ashby identified 25 more signers for an article in the Center's Library Chronicle, the only research published about the door to date.
During research performed from 2010-2011 for this web exhibition, 191 signatures were identified. Searches in online databases, digital manipulation of door photographs, and a crash-course in turn-of-the-twentieth-century penmanship have all been important to this effort. Also essential have been the Ransom Center's collections themselves, which are rich in signatures of American cultural figures of the 1920s, to be found in artifacts such as manuscripts, letters, and inscribed books. We encourage visitors to this site to help identify further signatures through the form provided and to inform us of any misidentifications by contacting us.