Historic Memphis Front Street Historic Front Street Memphis

                     ...in Vintage Photos and Post Cards


Cotton!  Cotton!  Cotton!  By the late 1840s, riverboats loaded with cotton lined the riverbank at Memphis and cotton became a very important item in the economy of the city.  The cotton market had actually begun as early as 1826 when 300 bales made their way to town, and by the start of the Civil War, nearly 400,000 bales a year were sold in Memphis.  In 1880, 3/4 of the nation's cotton found its way to the Memphis Bluffs.  By the 20th century Memphis was the largest inland cotton market in the world.  All this cotton led to the development of Front Street - the first City Street above the riverfront.   Front Street became the heart of the cotton trade and the center of the Memphis economy for more than a hundred years, and the street earned it's nickname "Cotton Row".


Many small cotton companies opened on Front Street, and the vast majority of the buildings on Cotton Row were built between 1848 and 1928.  In addition, the cotton industry generated numerous other activities in the area - hotels, grocers, dry goods, mule trading - all in support of the Cotton Row brokers.  As buildings began to rise, the architecture of Cotton Row had a "sameness" to it.  They were all brick buildings with wide entrances on the ground floor, so large cotton bales could be moved in and out.  And they needed large windows and skylights on the top floors where the classing of cotton took place.  The buildings were generally sturdy, but unpretentious.

Vintage Photos of Front Street - Click on small photos for an enlargement

   1850s - Commercial Hotel

1862 Ohio Troops enter Memphis




Early photo

Early Photo

1883 Schwill Seed Co





1906 - 18 Poles

1906 - Garbage Dump




1910-Reichmann-Crosby Bldg



Front lumberyard

 Front Junkyard  1910 1910




1910 - 427 S. Front .  Barnes-Miller Hardware

Rare view of Customs House 



Front Esplanade       

Fire Engine

1913 - Flood

1913 Flood - looking North


Poplar Train Station      Central Fire Station Fire!




Reichman-Crosby c. 1930s 1924-Conf Vets Reunion Falls Building

1937 Flood -


1931 Hellman's Mayonnaise

1939 - Snakes

1939 Midway

Dunscomb House



Cotton Brokers

Cotton Exchange





1954 -Gypsy Rose Lee



Cotton Grading:  The busy season in Memphis was October through January.  During this time Front Street would be a beehive of activity.  Cotton would be piled high on the sidewalks and tufts of cotton would float though the air like snow.  The cotton bales had been brought up the riverfront cobblestones by mule wagons and delivered to the merchants on Cotton Row - where the cotton would then be graded.  A grader ("classer") had to know the 9 different grades of cotton - 7 different cotton colors - and 17 staples of cotton.  The inspection process was an art-form and made for nearly 1000 possible classifications. 


Old Exchange 1900

The Cotton Exchange:  The Memphis Cotton Exchange has been an important institution since 1873.  It established uniform rules relating to the trading of cotton and provided arbitration services to members and non-members.  This provided a central location where cotton farmers could bring their annual harvest to sell to traders who, in turn, sold it to textile manufacturers world-wide.  It was the heart of the cotton economy and a place where fortunes were made and lost.   The first Cotton Exchange Building was at 2nd and Court dating from 1883-85.  It was demolished in 1910 to make way for the Exchange Building, where the Memphis Cotton Exchange would occupy a portion of the building until they built the current Cotton Exchange Building at Union and Front in 1924


After cotton had been graded at one of the Brokers, word would be sent to a cotton trader who would look for a buyer either on the "floor" or in the street outside.  If the seller were lucky, he might find more than one person to "bid", driving up the price.  The "Exchange" was a members-only club.  Cotton farmers stayed outside - so there had to be a real sense of trust.  Ironically, most sales were agreed to by a handshake.

New Cotton Exchange 1925

Now:  Cotton Museum


Vintage Post Cards of Front Street


c.1900 c. 1905 1905 1907


1910 Barnes Miller Hardware


Cotton Grading c.1900


    Fire Station c.1900

Cossitt Library-Customs 1908

Cossitt Library-Customs 1915

Customs House - 1909


Cotton Exchange c.1900


Reichman-Crosby Bldg c.2000

c. 2005


The "middle years", and the decline of Cotton Row -   Sometime in the mid 50s,  the "electronic age" started the decline of Cotton row.  Fewer and fewer people were needed to handle more cotton.  It eventually became possible for one person to literally run a cotton business from a small office with just a phone and a computer.  By the 80s, like the rest of downtown Memphis, Front Street became a boarded up ghost town.

Paint Store

Liquor Store

Barber Shop



The Front Street Cotton Carnival Midway -  When Front Street was originally developed, the city planners kept "open spaces" not only for views of the river, but for use in various community functions.  During most years of the "Memphis Cotton Carnival",  in addition to all the parades and formal festivities, there was always a "Royal American Shows" carnival midway for the public and it was set up along Front Street - with all the rides, games, and side shows.

Though not official, the "Memphis Cotton Carnival" was for all intents and purposes, for whites only.  In 1935, Dr. R.Q. Venson, founded what would become the "Cotton Makers Jubilee", reflecting the contributions of African-Americans to the cotton industry. It opened with a big parade on Beale Street and ran concurrently with Cotton Carnival.   W.C. Handy routinely returned to Memphis for the event each year. In 1982, Cotton Carnival and Cotton Makers Jubilee joined together to become "Carnival Memphis".  This now runs concurrently with the more popular "Memphis in May" Festival.




Johnny Cash - June Carter

Gypsy Rose Lee Show 1949   Gypsy Trailer  -    Poster 1936 Midway - Front Street

          Midway Poster

Cotton Candy - Midway Rides

Side Shows

Midway - Rides

Front Street memorabilia:

Schwills Seeds 1909

Schwills Seeds 1908

1909 ad for Pure Food Liquor Co

1891 Invoice



Cotton Office Desk      

1884 Receipt

1909 Envelope

1934 Seed Co. Business Card


1872 Grocer-Wine Bill




The Historic-Memphis website does not intentionally post copyrighted photos and material without permission or credit.  On occasion a "non-credited" photo might possibly be posted because we were unable to find a name to give credit.  Because of the nature of our non-commercial, non-profit, educational website, we strongly believe that these photos would be considered "Fair Use.  We have certainly made no monetary gain, although those using this website for historic or Genealogy research have certainly profited.  If by chance, we have posted your copyrighted photo, please contact us, and we'll remove it immediately, or we'll add your credit if that's your choice.  In the past, we have found that many photographers volunteer to have their works included on these pages and we'll  also do that if you contact us with a photo that fits a particular page. 

The "Historic-Memphis" website would like to acknowledge and thank the following for their contributions which helped make this website possible:  Memphis Public Library, Memphis University Library, Memphis Law Library, Memphis Commercial Appeal, Memphis Press Scimitar, Shelby County Register of Deeds, Memphis City Schools, Memphis Business Men's Club, Memphis Chamber of Commerce, Memphis City Park Commission, Memphis Film Commission, Carnival Memphis, Memphis Historical Railroad Page, Memphis Heritage Inc, Beale Street Historic District, Cobblestone Historic District, Memphis Historic Districts, Vance Lauderdale Family Archives, Tennessee State Archives, Library of Congress, Kemmons Wilson Family, Richard S. Brashier, Lee Askew, George Whitworth, Woody Savage and many individuals whose assistance is acknowledged on the pages of their contributions.  Special thanks to Memphis Realtor, Joe Spake, for giving us carte blanche access to his outstanding collection of contemporary Memphis photos.

We do not have high definition  copies of the photos on these pages.  If anyone wishes to secure high definition photos,  you'll have to contact the photographer  or the collector.  (To avoid any possibility of contributing to SPAM, we do not maintain a file of email addresses for anyone who contacts us).