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1795 - 1895 One Hundred Years of American Commerce

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The Hardware Trade by Edward C. Simmons

In 1895 Chauncey M. Depew published a Historical Overview of "1795 - 1895, One Hundred Years of American Commerce".  It consists of one hundred original articles on commercial topics describing the practical development of the various branches of trade in the United States within the past century and showing the present magnitude of our financial and commercial institutions.

The article presented here was written by Edward C. Simmons, founder and president of Simmons Hardware Company, St. Louis, Missouri.


The Hardware Trade by Edward C. Simmons, President, Simmons Hardware Company.

Hardware is essentially a business that belongs to a new section of country.  It has been pertinently said by the pioneer, going into a new and unsettled district, that the first thing he wants is grub, and simultaneously with that something in the hardware line with which to cut and cook it.  Following this line of thought, it can readily be seen that the larger distributing centers for the hardware business would naturally be in the central western country, where for the past twenty years the United States has been so rapidly growing.  In the eastern part of our country, on the contrary, the necessity has been for improvement and enlargement rather than for pioneer development.  At the present time it is safe to say that there are larger distributors of hardware in the cities of Chicago and St. Louis than anywhere else in the world.

There is no other branch of manufacturing in this country which is so distinctly impresses itself: no other line that is so entirely free from imitation of the ideas of the Old World; no other line that has so quickly asserted its claim to its own birthright and turned the universal import trade into a great and constantly increasing export business.  All this has been done within the brief period of the last half-century. 

Prior to that, the American hardware trade was but in its swaddling cloths, struggling against the flood of cheap and ill constructed foreign goods, but with victory already in its grasp.  For, with far seeing ken, it had been founded on broad and deep principles of success.  Knowing well the temper of the people, it laid wake at night inventing and scheming for better and more economical methods, while the slow going makers of the Old World were content with the ways that their grandfathers knew.  Hardware is very comprehensive, for, at the present time, it embraces almost everything that is not, strictly speaking, assignable to any other specific line of trade.

At the beginning of this century it meant chiefly mechanics’ tools and builders’ hardware, whereas at this time it includes so vast a variety of goods as to make it difficult to enumerate them correctly.  Comprising, as it does, almost all the small articles made of metal that are patented and used in the construction of houses or for household purposes.  As well as tools for all classes of mechanics or professional men, it simplifies farm labor and economizes the time of the housewife; it covers all that could be classes as house furnishing goods for kitchen and dining room service, the product of the tin shop and of stamped ware manufactories, as well as tin plate, sheet iron, barbed wire, etc., and has within its range sporting goods, such as guns, rifles, pistols, ammunition, baseball supplies, in fact goods for all kinds of outdoor sports, not least among which are found bicycles.  An idea of its vast range is conveyed by the fact that one hardware house in this country alone has in its catalogue about 45,000 kinds and sizes of articles, all of which it carries regularly in stock.

Before the first commercial treaty with England, in 1795, all of our supplies in this line, substantially speaking, came from England and Germany. Emigrants could frequently be seen bringing with them their hoes, rakes, and forks upon which were strung their bundles of clothing. Later the German goods made great gain over the English. As will be seen by a more specific reference later on in this article, these goods were, as a rule, very crude, poorly made, and at all to be compared with the articles that were manufactured even at first in this country.

The genesis of hardware in the United States was undoubtedly in Connecticut, where the village blacksmith was the manufacturer of such goods (chiefly implements and tools) as were wanted, which he fashioned to order as best as he could.  A very important individual was this same village blacksmith.  He was, so to speak, an autocrat in the community; without him it was impossible to obtain the necessary implements for the cultivation of the soil.

But little progress was made in this line of manufacture until the last half century, so slowly did this industry take root in America.  In 1850 the manufacture of hardware, speaking generally, was commenced in the United States.  Until that time it is safe to say that an exceedingly large percentage-say, perhaps, four fifths of all that was used in this country-was imported from England and Germany.  The goods were still practically the same crude and rough products they were a hundred years ago.  No change worth noting had been made in the method of manufacture of these goods in Germany.

At the present time this country excels the rest of the world immeasurable in the manner and method of putting up hardware, as well as in the superiority of the goods in style, finish, quality, temper, and durability.  Who that was in business during the decade of 1850-60 cannot remember the spear and Jackson handsaw, made in Sheffield, England, the only then recognized only good saw in the world; and the stiff English paper in which these goods were wrapped, three of them constituting a shipping package; and what an ungainly seeming bundle it made after one had been taken out, leaving the remaining two to be done up as best as they could in this unmanageable paper?  Who can forget the old, and at that time the only good, horse nail, “Griffin,” with the letter G stamped upon the head of each nail, which came to us in twenty five pound sacks, with almost as many points sticking through the bags to lacerate our hands as there were nails in the package?  As who fails to recall the Butchers file, which came in paper bundles, three dozen in a package, with the sharp point of every file peeping out of its cover, as if trying to see what America looked like?

Small goods, such as padlocks, door locks, screwdrivers, scissors, and rules, etc. were all put up in rough but strong English paper, which, while substantial, was very clumsy and inconvenient.  All these goods, and many more, have long since ceased to be imported, and are made in this country of a quality so superior to foreign manufactures as to leave no room for comparison.  It must be borne in mind, however even at the risk of repetition, that the manufactures of this country particularly excel in their method of packing and putting up for the convenience of the retailer. Files we put in half dozen or dozen wooden boxes, with dovetail corners and slide lids, an immense convenience to the retailer.  Handsaws come in compact pasteboard boxes (four in a package), and the box looks as well on the customers shelf when partly empty or entirely so, as when filled.

Horse nails in wooden boxes have long since superseded the bag of sack of the English maker; and all small goods, even such common place and cheap articles as screws and tacks, are put up in the boxes of most convenient form and shape for the small dealer, yet preserving in fact, enhancing the neatness of their appearance on the shelves.

The makers of American hardware seem to have had one central idea at all times; that is, to produce the best, most suitable, most economical, and handsomest articles that could be manufactured, and then to incase them in the best possible package.  If it was an edge tool, it avoided the clumsiness and overweight of the English on the one hand, and the homeliness and poor quality of the German on the other; if a measuring tool.  It exceeded even the French product in accuracy and beauty; if a file, it was produced by machinery, insuring absolute regularity and evenness of cut, and produced at a cost, perhaps, of one half of the foreign hand made file.

All this time the introduction of labor saving machinery was continued, so that the foreign article could compete with ours neither in price nor in quality.  It has come to pass that our imports of hardware have almost entirely ceased, although there is yet some cutlery imported and each year our export business in hardware shows considerable and substantial gain.  As will be noted in the detailed items, which follow, we send out hardware all over the world, and in London, and even Sheffield itself, the birthplace of mechanical ingenuity, out American edge tools are advertised as special attraction.

Figures convey but a faint idea of the magnitude and extent of the business, but it will be interesting to the readers of this article to know that one wire nail factory in this country has a capacity of 1,000,000 kegs of horseshoes yearly.

There are enough screws and tacks made in this country, or at least there is a sufficient manufacturing plant to product enough to supply all the world and have a large amount left over to be gathered up like leaves and fishes.

The experience of the last few years has thoroughly demonstrated the fact that the hardware business and its kindred lines is the pulse of the country prosperity or depression; for so closely is it allied with the iron producing interests, as also with the railway interests that it shows more quickly than any other branch the first approach of storm, and recovers sooner from the effects of it.  When the hardware business prospers, so is the whole country prospering; when it is depressed, so also is every other line.  Hardware is essentially a business based on utility and necessity, and as it comprises goods that are not luxuries, they seldom go out of fashion; although in one of its branches, builder’s hardware patterns and designs are often quickly superseded by something more modern, which drives out the first product by reason of the superiority of the improvement.


 
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