Saturday, March 21, 2015

We used to make things in this country. #183: Office Specialty Manufacturing Company, Toronto and Newmarket, Ontario

Above, the head of a 2-hole hanging clipboard I picked up years ago.  An earlier clip under the "Shannon" name was patented in 1878 by the Yawman & Erbe Company of Rochester, New York and advertised as the "Shannon Single Arch File No. 1, Office Specialty Manufacturing Company, Rochester, New York, 1897."

Early Office Museum

Yawman & Erbe model.  From eBay

The Yawman & Erbe Company of Rochester New York was founded in the 1870's by Philip H. Yawman and Gustave Erbe, two former employees of Bausch & Lomb.  Along with the Globe-Wernicke Company of Cincinnati, Ohio and the  Art Metal Construction Company of Jamestown, New York, Yawman & Erbe were among the first American manufacturers of vertical filing cabinets. It seems that the company changed its name to the Office Specialty Manufacturing Company in the early 1880's, although the Yawman & Erbe name may also have been retained for use on other products. Under the new company name, the initial product was a filing device to facilitate the collection of invoices and other records.  Hard to believe, but this was a revolutionary concept at the time, as the ad below from one of their competitors indicates:

(For a fascinating academic discourse on the evolution of office furniture, read Terence Uber's 2014 paper, Intersections: Office Furniture Design--Technologies, Aesthetics.  The image above is taken from this paper.)

In 1885 (or 1888, depending on the source), they opened locations in Toronto and Montreal. 

In 1896 (or 1895, or 1888, depending on the source), they opened a factory in Newmarket, Ontario. 

Located along the Holland River, the firm quickly became Newmarket's largest employer, and eventually the largest manufacturer of filing systems and office furniture in the British Empire.  Their 1903 catalogue featured 39 different filing cabinets (with one model containing 60 drawers!) and the “Rapid Roller Copier,” an early version of today’s photocopiers. 

The Toronto head office fell victim to the 1903 fire in that city that destroyed 139 businesses, but a new office building was constructed.  Their product line expanded to include snow shovels, an essential item for store owners back then and good source of profit, as each shovel grossed over half a cent.  In 1920, the Newmarket location became the head office for the corporation, while regional offices were continued in Halifax, Quebec City, Ottawa, Hamilton, Winnipeg, Calgary, Regina, Edmonton and Vancouver.  Like most office furniture companies, they made the transition from wood to steel (for fire safety reasons), although the steel products were initially shaped and finished to look like wood.  Here's how one 1949 article described operations in the factory:

Over the next few decades, they introduced a line of aluminum "Super Chairs," "Herbarium Cabinets" for storing dried plants, and the Ferris Wheel-like Diebold Power Files.  Reportedly, in 1943 the Rochester owners of the company declared bankruptcy, and a workers cooperative bought the firm at public auction. Whatever the American ownership situation, the Canadian company soldiered on and by the late 1940's had three plant divisions (Metal, Wood and "Paper" (presumably veneer)) and was employing 600 people in Newmarket plus a cadre of salespeople in 12 company retail stores across the country. At that time, they took an order for the largest conference table ever made in Canada:  29 feet long, capable of seating 42 people!  

Newmarket Era and Express (Newmarket, ON), 30 Jun 1949

The 1950's were not kind to the company, which declined through the decade and was finally sold in 1961.  A huge fire in 1971 destroyed much of the Newmarket factory.  What was left was eventually rebuilt into housing units, while another part became a police station.  The northern section of the complex housed the city museum at one point.  The Office Specialty building and 15 acres of land was bought by the Town of Newmarket in 1987 to provide access to key lands along the Holland River and to provide building space for municipal and business use.  The building and 2.6 acres surrounding it were sold to a private developer in 2003, who agreed to return the 91-year-old facade to its original design.  The building is now called "Specialty Lofts."

As for the company itself, Office Specialty underwent a successful Initial Public Offering in 1997 and officially adopted the operating name Inscape two years later.  It is still in operation although, from what I can determine, manufacturing no longer takes place in Canada.



Anonymous said...

Hi Duke,

I have acquired a three piece accountancy drawer, along with the stamp above.
Where could I get this valued?

Anonymous said...

I have a desk by named company stamped # 7253.. How can i find its value??

Mister G said...

Sorry, can't really help. We have generally found things the on the blog at garage sales and the like and have no idea of their real value. Your best bet might be a antique dealer?

Anonymous said...

I picked up a pair of "vertical transfer case" style B no. 86 1/2. They're in great shape and appear to be date from 1935. They're temporary file folders made of paper. Something that IKEA would make. I use them in my office. Functional and cool.


Jeremy said...

Very interesting website. I have one of these Office Specialty Mfg Co. cabinets and a few of the clip boards made around the turn of the century however I have had one heck of a time finding one of the missing Shannon Clips. I'd like to find original marketing/promotional literature from the company from that period to put with my set. Back when quality and made in canada was a good thing....

Mister G said...

Thanks for the comment! Let me know if you find anything, flea markets and junk shops are where I find things like that. Really hit or miss though.

Unknown said...

Awesome site! Really enjoyed your commentary and research! I was looking for some storage ideas for my workshop and found a four drawer metal filing cabinet at the state 'dump' (really where they just sell old state owned stuff). Almost all of the cabinets were the plain jane tan or grey Staples/Office Depot clones but I found one Yawman and Erbe four drawer cabinet painted in Army green. Got it home and had to take it apart so I could move it upstairs as it weighs a ton. Turns out it's built like a battleship! It's fantastic! I could turn it into a bomb shelter! Rollers are made of stainless wheels with ball bearings! Truly magnificent piece. Oh - it cost me $20 LOL! I think I'll post some photos and stuff on my site like you do. This was made back when we CARED and made stuff to last. Such a shame.

Mister G said...

Thanks for the nice comments and story. Congrats on the find!

Rhonda said...

I have a 9 drawer filing cabinet with the clips inscribed with Office Specialty Mfg. Co. Toronto, Canada, Genuine Shannon. All drawers still have the advertisement page and most still have the a-z paperwork behind it. Can anybody tell me when this was manufactured. I believe it may have been the top part of a desk. It was my grandfather's.

Anonymous said...

Just preparing to sell an old office chair when I noticed the company logo and decided to research it. It’s price point has now increased! Great history! Such a well made piece. I think I’ll hold on to it!

Unknown said...

I just purchased a Banker's chair from the Office Specialty Compa y in Newmarket, Ontario as a gift for my girlfriend's office.....would love to know more about it....any suggestions?
Thank you.

Mister G said...

If you send a pic to I'll add it to the blog, maybe someone could help?