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Bell Indian Trading Post history


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The Bell Indian Trading Post was a company born out of the imagination and entrepreneurial ambition of Jack Michelson and his wife Mildred Bell Michelson. Jack was born in St. Louis, MO in 1900. Jack made his way to Albuquerque, New Mexico sometime during the 1920s, which had a nascent Jewish community built around the jewelry trade. He soon met his future wife Mildred, who had also moved to Albuquerque from Kansas, in unique circumstances. According to their daughter Jacquelyn, “My mother, a registered nurse, met my father when assigned as his private duty nurse while he recovered from pneumonia at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Albuquerque.

 

 

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The Bell Indian Trading Post as the company was initially known, started off as most did, as a financial backer, distributor and retailer for local native American craftspeople. In this case, weavers and silversmiths primarily from local Navajo clans. At first, the store would supply raw materials for crafts people to make finished products in their local style and means. For the silversmiths, this was bench and handwork. Suggestions would be made about product types and designs that sold well. Benches and tools would be provided by the trading post to those who wanted to get into the trade. The Bell Indian Trading Post had a small storefront on Copper Avenue with a workshop in the back.

 

During the depression, Jack had to come up with innovative ways to keep the business growing, reducing costs and affordable to an increasingly interested public. Ever since the late 19thc, Fred Harvey and his tourist business cultivated a nationwide interest in the Southwest and in Indian culture in particular. His restaurants, hotels and tourist shops actively stocked native crafts. Jack started coming up with manufacturing and material innovations that allowed his products to continue native styles but be able to replicate them for fractions of the cost. He bought and taught local Navajos the use of drill presses, dies and tools and other modern equipment. He started making jewelry out of copper and “genuine solid nickel silver” which actually contains no silver (alloy of copper, nickel and zinc). This side of the business became heavily wholesale with catalogs and salespeople across the country.

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Starting in December 1941, Jack got the company involved in producing wartime insignia and metal work while also still supporting his domestic business of Indian jewelry. The business came to a crisis however as the US federal government control of price and supply of silver as strategic material meant an end to the Indian souvenir trade. According to an article in the Albuquerque Journal dated Aug 16, 1942, Jack Michelson predicted over 5,000 local silversmiths would be put out of work. The reason being that the US had taken over all silver stocks and was buying silver at 71.11 cents an ounce. The market price was 35 cents an ounce, which Jack and his cohorts were able to buy from foreign markets (mainly Mexican pesos to be used as bullion). But the US government was shutting this end-around off. As it turns out, a consortium of the Trading Post owners like Jack were able to convince to government to release a small portion of domestic silver stocks to the United Indian Traders Association to keep local smiths solvent.

 

With Indian jewelry frozen, Jack told the Albuquerque Journal at a big 1942 Thanksgiving dinner he threw for his native employees, “now the same craftsmen make wings for the air corps, and miniatures for their wives, mothers and sweethearts. Identification bracelets and all types of shoulder insignia with varied branch and rank marks are manufactured.” (AJ, 11/27/1942) He employed over 200 native workers and their families, saying, “they turn out good work which has been complemented by New York jobbers (probably for packaging and shipping).”

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The fact that Native Americans were now manufacturing military insignia caught the eye of Paramount news and a camera crew and director were sent out to the Bell Trading Post in 1943 to film the workers making wings. In an article about the filming, Jack Michelson talks about how he had to convert to different machinery and labor to make the new items. This included acquiring a 300lb drop press, making dies for the wings at the shop and training workers on how to make and run both.

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Once the war was over, Jack and Mildred were able return to native crafts and wholesale souvenirs with even bigger ambitions. In 1948, they completed an entirely new complex located at 1503 West Central Ave on what was the original Route 66 at the time. What was touted as a “Million-Dollar Investment” at the time by the Albuquerque Journal: “Four hundred employees, men and women eventually will be housed in the two-story Indian pueblo type building.” (AJ, 1/20/1946) Jack Michelson declared, “the new structure, when completed, will be one of the largest factories for jewelry production west of Chicago.” Western and Indian motif jewelry and souvenirs continued to boom with popular post-war culture and increasing car travel out west. Since the very late 30s through WWII and now post-war, the manufacturing and material innovations Jack implemented meant he could deliver inexpensive Indian jewelry in large quantities worldwide. Sales offices were around the country with a chief salesman in NYC and a staff of 8 traveling salesmen.

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Unfortunately, the boom times for the Bell Indian Trading Post were soon tragically cut short. In 1957, Jack Michelson died from his third heart attack and his wife Mildred died just two years later of her first heart attack. This left the three teen-aged children, J.T., Douglas and Jacquelyn with an unclear future. With the help of Leonard Bell (One of Mildred’s brothers and also in the jewelry business), the family pulled together and continued its operation while learning on the job.

 

Bell continued to do well with Indian jewelry, inexpensive southwestern souvenirs, charms and a line of souvenir spoons. In 1962, they filed their first trademark to establish legal ownership of the Arrow sign post with Bell sign mark. Most of their business was manufacturing and selling wholesale to the trade. They were able to expand starting in the early 1960s with a series of government contracts for military insignia in keeping with the US military expansion. This was a different and more procurement heavy business model than the WWII contracts. Competition was stiff and pricing and oversight were heavily controlled. But it grew the company’s revenue.

 

As indicated by the two different US department of defense tags on the jump qualification wings, one set was made pre-1971 (Bell Trading Post Inc.) and one was made post-1971 after the company was re-organized as Sunbell, with Bell Products being the new division that made military insignia.

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By the 1970s, foreign manufacturers started to encroach on Bell business with much more inexpensive and easily copied versions of native and southwestern jewelry and souvenirs. Retailers and buyers were not that discriminating and happily switched to the less expensive offerings. In a bid to keep growing and staying competitive, Bell reorganized into a holding company in 1971, taking a new shareholder and an infusion of capital. The new company was called Sunbell and featured a new logo, both of which were the brainchild of Jacquelyn Michelson. All three children were still running the company with J.T. as president and Leonard Bell as CEO.

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1975 marked the company’s 40th anniversary as it essentially ended its final association with its Trading Post origins, leaving the pueblo building downtown and moving to modern manufacturing facility in West Mesa, NM. The financial landscape for Sunbell continued to decline however and by 1981 the company closed.

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Very interesting story!  Thank you for the whole story of one of the more interesting military wing and badge makers.

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I wonder if the reference to taking on "New York jobbers" in the 1942 article might be referring to Bell taking on production for Walter Lampl making wings for his company (the so-called Juarez wings).

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2 hours ago, 5thwingmarty said:

I wonder if the reference to taking on "New York jobbers" in the 1942 article might be referring to Bell taking on production for Walter Lampl making wings for his company (the so-called Juarez wings).

Marty, I know you and Patrick have discussed this based on the similarity in findings. I have a file of notes on Walter Lampl. I’m still building his story. So far, I have found no published direct link between the two. However, from what I have read, Walter Lampl was a designer, not a manufacturer or retailer. He was a big brand name like David Yurman today. So he would have had to contract for his designs to get made. Also, note my comments about the OPA and that smiths were buying foreign silver to avoid price and supply controls. It was a short lived window. Also melting coins vs slugs to make product. This probably has some relevance to the time period when the "coin silver" wings were made. They were not made in Mexico, otherwise they would have to be marked accordingly.

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Thanks Chris. I appreciate that complement from another fellow determined researcher!


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Todd,

 

Beyond the similarity of the findings are the following:

  • Bell and Lampl wings can both be found in both Sterling and Coin Silver
  • Use of the same sterling stamp to mark both Bell and Lampl wings (with the upside down and backwards G
  • The 1-3/8" sweetheart wings can be found with both Bell and Lampl hallmarks

One of the greatest points from your research is documentation that Bell actually made their wings, as is it has often been suggested that they were just another company like Luxenberg selling goods produced by other manufacturers.  At minimum I think you have proved that Bell made the sweetheart wings for Lampl, and it appears much more likely that they made the full size wings for Lampl as well.

 

Marty

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Marty,

 

Bell was absolutely a very large manufacturer, no question, and made their own materials. I have not seen Bell wings made out of coin silver, that's new. I have contacted J. T. Michelson and hopefully we will connect and i can get some of the other questions answered.

 

Cheers,

Tod

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After a conversation with J.T. Michelson, son of founders Jack and Mildred and last president of Bell Trading Post, I unfortunately do not have more information about the WWII period wings and badges or any connection to Walter Lampl. It was simply before his time. He did confirm that coin silver pieces were made from melting Mexican pesos. He had more to say about later Vietnam pieces of which he had examples mounted on his wall of all pieces they made then. Also, none of the family was still in the business when it was dissolved in 1982. So no idea where the dies ended up. Here are the pictures that J.T Michelson sent of his Vietnam era Bell-made military insignia wall of fame.
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I was wondering about the Lampl connection as well.  I am convinced, based on your work in a large part, that the Juarez wings were probably made by the Bell Trading Co, as with the other "Bell like" pattern.  Over time, my thinking has evolved and I no longer think that Lampl was making wings in Mexico, although there was a number of "Mexican" connections, like the silver pesos and perhaps some shared workers/artists between the two countries.  Some of Lampl's work is marked Made in Mexico in fact, so their was clearly a Mexican involvement in one way or the other--at least enough to muddy the waters a bit about the wing badges.

 

My guess is at some point, someone may find a 3 inch Juarez wing with the Bell hallmark or maybe a 3 inch Bell pattern wing with a Lampl hallmark. Hopefully I didn't give some industrious faker an idea....

Good work Tod.  You rock.

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To help Tod illustrate Bell's WWII badge offerings, here is my Bell collection.  Included are examples of the 3" alternative pattern pilot, glider pilot, liaison pilot and service pilot wings that I believe are also from Bell, along with my Navajo bombardier wings which are believed to be from Albuquerque, and have the same pattern of attached bomb as the one made for my jeweler-modified alternative pattern bombardier.

 

Some of the 3" alternative pattern wings are coin silver and some are sterling.  Some of the 1-3/8" sweetheart wings are coin silver and some are sterling.  The one sweetheart observer on the non-Bell card is unusual in that it has no metal mark at all.  One of the sweetheart aerial gunner wings, one of the sweetheart naval aviator wings and the bracelet with the attached aerial gunner wing have Bell hallmarks (the word Bell inside a bell with the word sterling draped over the top of the bell).  I have never seen any other types of Bell wings with this hallmark.  I have found the same pattern sweetheart wings with Lampl hallmarks for pilot, glider pilot, observer, naval aviator and cadet collar insignia.

 

One of the full-size aerial gunner wings has the winged-bullet attached to an observer wing.  This wing is unusual in that instead of the more typical excised (raised) sterling mark on the wing, it has an incised sterling mark with the upside-down and backwards G as often seen on Lampl wings and the sweetheart wings.  I have never found a Bell observer wing with an incised sterling mark that has not been modified into an aerial gunner wing.

 

One of the 2" pilot wings and the 2" glider pilot wing also have incised sterling marks.  All of the other traditional pattern 2" and 3" wings have raised sterling marks.  Although the 2" pilot wings can be found with both incised and raised sterling marks, I have never seen a 2" glider pilot wing that had a raised sterling mark.

 

Although two-piece Bell full-size aerial gunner wings are not rare, I have never seen a two-piece full-size traditional pattern Bell bombardier.  The sweetheart bombardier wings can be found as both two-piece (observer background) or one-piece (target background) wings.  I have only found the sweetheart aerial gunner wings as one-piece wings, and all three sizes of the aerial gunner wings have observer backgrounds.

 

For the 2" wings, there are multiple versions for many of the ratings.  The more common are the slick-back versions with raised sterling marks.  Less common are hollow back versions with incised sterling marks.  I have found examples of the pilot, navigator, aircrew and bombardier wings in the hollow-backed versions.  These are not simply made with different striking plates, but made with entirely different dies as they also have significant font detail differences.

 

Wings for other ratings like command pilot and flight nurse are out there, but I believe they were all made by modifying standard wings like attaching the star in wreath to a pilot or a caduceus with an N to an observer.  The More Silver Wings Pinks and Greens book has a photo of a Bell balloon pilot wing where the balloon was attached to an observer, aircrew or navigator base wing. The only exception to this I have seen is a 2" gold naval aviator wing, which is hollow-backed and has the incised sterling mark.

 

For the novice collectors out there, please don't be fooled by the many offerings of "rare 1-5/8" 1920's to 1930's Naval observer wings" seen on ebay and various other military sales sites.  They are just Bell/Lampl naval aviator sweetheart wings of WWII vintage, worth no more than around $50 on a really good day.  Also, JoeW in Fortville, IN offers "museum quality replica" 3" observer wings in the Bell pattern.  I don't know that I have seen any of these outside of his website, other than his WASP wing replicas based on these observer wings.

 

Marty

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5thwingmarty

I have one of those too and also think that is what it is.  I like how it clearly shows the final Bell hallmark of a bell on a sign suspended from an arrow shot through a cactus.

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That logo, c1961, was literally the sign in front of the company. You can see it in the photographs.

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