Fire-proof safes have an interesting and recent history. Until the 19th century, valuables were stored in wooden strongboxes, which might have deterred thieves but offered little protection from fire or other natural disasters. In the mid-1800s companies started producing safes lined with tin-plate and sheet iron, with a composition of sawdust mixed with alum. High temperatures melted the alum, which then prevented heat from reaching the interior of the safe.
In 1825 Jesse Delano, an iron chest manufacturer from New York City, patented a fireproof safe. His design included a coating of clay, lime, graphite, lye and alum.
Designs using hydrated plaster of Paris were also very effective. The turn of the 20th century became the golden age of safes. Every business needed one and new lock designs offered better security. Fire-proof safes were very expensive and often included custom shelving, carpets and beautiful hand painted lettering and scenes to fit the office décor.
One of these safes was donated to our collection in 2017. It was manufactured by the Detroit Safe Company in 1878 and purchased that year by Thomas E. Stephens, an Auburn grocer.
The sale was facilitated through an agent for the Detroit Safe Company, W. G. Williams, whose Sacramento office was on the corner of 4th and J Street.
The purchase of the safe was noted by the Placer Herald newspaper, as it was one of the “fire-proof and burglar-proof safes; its weight is 3,200 pounds and is complete in all its arrangements. The safe is a good piece of property and if it is what it is professed to be, will enable Mr. Stephens to control the proceeds of his business with some degree of certainty.”
Stephens formed a partnership with Joseph Maguire and opened a Grocery and Provision store in 1862. According to advertisements in the Placer Herald the store specialized in groceries, feed, tobacco, liquors, hardware and a general assortment of goods.
The partnership was short-lived and by the end of 1862 Stephens was conducting business on his own at a new location.
After Stephens passed away in 1892, the store was taken over by G.P. and J.M. Lowell.
J.M. Lowell’s sons Marshall Z. Lowell, Arthur C. Lowell, and Orrin J. Lowell would later establish the law firm of Lowell, Lowell and Lowell and practice law in Auburn. In the 1940s a man named John Couzens worked at the firm and when it closed, he purchased the safe from the Lowell estate. He later donated it to the Placer Sierra Bank, and in 2017 it was donated to the museums.
The safe is currently on display in the hallway of the historic courthouse in Auburn.