Monday, January 6, 2014

Vanished Tool Makers: J.H. Williams & Company, Brooklyn & Buffalo, New York

Over the years I've picked up a few Williams "Superrench" wrenches.  Recently I found some more, which got me thinking about this company.  Below, "ribbed wrenches":

Below, plain "alloy" ones:

According to the very authoritative and exhaustive Alloy Artifacts website, the tradename "Superrench" was first registered in 1925.  Information on their site also indicates that my plain "alloy" wrenches were probably manufactured sometime between 1942 and 1947, and the "ribbed" wrenches were made between 1952 and 1959.

The company also used the "Superrench" name (although no longer in quotation marks) on box-end and combination wrenches:

The Williams company apparently liked the prefix "Super", also offering "Superjustable" wrenches, "Supersockets," "Superratchets" and, if you had the cash, an entire collection of tools in a "Superchest."

S.F. Krar & J.E. St.Amand;   Machine Shop Training, 2nd Edition.
Toronto:  McGraw-Hill Co of Canada Ltd., 1967.

They made tools for other companies, such as the 629 Special below made for Airco:

They also made pliers, both in the U.S.

and in Canada, specifically St. Catharines, Ontario:

Over the years, their tools were identified by various trademarks and logos:

For a pdf copy of this catalogue, go to the Internet Archive.

James H. William was born in Fort Plain, New York in 1845. As a young man, he became a partner with his cousin E.W. Bliss in the firm of Bliss & Williams, which eventually became the famous industrial machine tool company of E.W. Bliss (notable especially for their production of torpedoes for the U.S. Navy in the Spanish-American war and in both world wars).  In 1882, he started his own business in Flushing, Long Island under the name Williams & Diamond.  In 1884, it moved to Brooklyn and became J.H. Williams & Co.  Incorporation followed in 1885.  

Map and information on the early history of the company from Maggie Blanck..

The company was among the first to offer mass-produced drop-forged tools, the 15-degree angle wrench, and heavy-duty slugging wrenches (back in the day when this kind of fisticuffs was legal).   Williams operated a very clean factory, with dripping oil being caught in cans and recycled, fire extinguishers and sprinklers throughout, a factory fire department and, in 1893, even installing shower baths to promote health and cleanliness in his workers.  A very enlightened employer for that era, he also instituted a mutual aid society into which employees could pay, and out of which funds were dispersed in the event of sickness or a death in the family, an early form of what we today call "employee benefits."  Williams died tragically in 1904 from  what was then called "apoplexy" or what today would be called a stroke.

In 1909, the company employed 400 people, a sizeable workforce. The company subsequently built a factory in Buffalo (on Vulcan Street!) around 1914, and then moved its corporate headquarters there in 1919. (The site is now occupied by one of GM's plants.  For more on Buffalo's industrial boom years, see Plant 5:  Farrell-Birmingham & the Rapid Reversing Gear Engine.)

J.H. Williams Buffalo factory in the 1950's

Somewhere along the line the company was acquired by United Greenfield, but I can't find any information on exactly when this occurred.  Williams had arrangements with another large tool maker of the time, Whitman & Barnes of Akron, Ohio, as shown by the markings on the monkey wrench below:

In 1880, Whitman & Barnes established a Canadian division by purchasing  Collinson, Burch & Co. of St. Catharines, Ontario. 

In 1902, it sold this factory to J.H. Williams.  According to the ad below, they made hammers there:


The picture is a little muddied, though, as the 1921 hammer ad above indicates that Williams was "formerly the Canadian Division of The Whitman & Barnes Mfg. Co."  At some point, United Greenfield also owned Whitman & Barnes, so it's anyone's guess as to how the tangled ownership of these companies worked.  In any event, United Greenfield was in turn acquired in 1968 by the aerospace giant Thompson Ramo Wooldridge of Chicago, better known as TRW.

Sometime during further corporate shakeouts in the ensuing decades, Williams disappeared for a while before being sold to Snap-On in 1993.  As of 2011, the J.H.Williams Tool Group was renamed Snap-On Industrial Brands.  So, although Williams no longer exists as an individual tool manufacturer, the name lives on as one of Snap-On's  brand names.  


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