Thursday, February 25, 2016

Vanished Makers: Swing-A-Way Manufacturing Company, St. Louis, Missouri

Above, my two Swing-A-Way can openers from decades ago, both of which continue to give good service.  In contrast, most of the current (Chinese-made) ones on the market are terrible.  They often fail to pierce the can, they roll off of the rim, and generally are frustrating and ineffective to use.

Idus Rhodes started out selling his Kriss-Kross shaving blade sharpener that was endorsed by baseball Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, but the advent of the penny disposable blade ended that enterprise.  Legend has it that he took someone's suggestion to make can openers, despite his initial reaction that "there isn't a can in the world you can't open with an ax."  He came up with his Swing-a-Way in 1938 as a wall-mounted can opener with a bracket permitting the unit to be, well, swung away when not in use.   In 1945, the company pioneered a gear-driven cutting wheel that revolutionized can opening. By the 1950s, new homes built for the families of returning GIs lacked the solid wood pantries of an earlier era. With no place to hide the hand-cranked, wall-mounted opener, Rhodes wondered who would buy it. The company responded with the first heavy-duty, hand-held can opener, the legendary Model 407, that incorporated the best features of the wall model. Soon after its January 1954 launch, it became a hit: between 1954 and 2005, the company sold 200 million of the devices. The opener has carried the Good Housekeeping Seal for decades, and was the first in space, selected by NASA for Skylab (although why they'd send heavy tins into space is beyond me, but I'm not a rocket scientist). In 2005. HFN, the New York-based home products newsweekly, named the Swing-A-Way one of the 75 most important household products in 75 years.

In a 2005 article, it was reported that:
Swing-A-Way Manufacturing Co. has a simple recipe for surviving in a global economy while subscribing to an almost old-school, quaint focus on high quality and customer service. 
"We try to be incredibly efficient," vice president Mark Packer said, "and we try not to be greedy." 
Analysts say most U.S. manufacturers of kitchen gadgets have been purchased and incorporated into larger housewares companies that have outsourced their production -- at great cost-savings -- to China. Swing-A-Way resists that trend, Packer said, because it can't guarantee the quality of something it hasn't made.
Swing-A-Way, whose 1948 plant is in an industrial and working class neighborhood of south St. Louis, inspires about 50 fan letters a year, Packer said, from loyal customers as far away as Australia and Czechoslovakia. 
Still, the company, which has 70 employees, has to "fight the cost battle on a daily basis."

The company was family-owned for decades.  The last member of the family to run it was Pierce Rhodes, the nephew of the founder. Pierce had added the magnetic holder to the can opener, and invented machinery to streamline the manufacturing process. The Rhodes family fought the good fight, trying to keep their business going in St. Louis.  With 80 employees, it was the largest manufacturer of can openers in the U.S.  It also made other household products such as ice crushers, jar openers and cork screws.  However, Pierce Rhodes passed away in 2003 and in 2005 the company was sold to Focus Products Group of Vernon Hills, Illinois.  In 2009, the St. Louis plant was closed and all production was moved to China.  Swing-a-Way is now a brand of AMCO (and the logo now has TM after it).  Online evaluations are generally not kind.  I've read, however, that the John J. Steuby Company of Hazelwood, Missouri, makers of the EZ-Duz-It can opener, bought all of the St. Louis machinery, which it now uses to produce its own brand of can opener. It's the only American-made can opener available today.  The reviews on Amazon are extremely positive.

Better Homes and Gardens 1974.  Christmas Ideas.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your research and report. $2.59 in 1974 is $12.50 today they kept up with inflation and is also useful.

Anonymous said...

For an American(?) company, Swing-A-Way makes some real crap. My hand-held Swing-A-Way can opener is less than 6-months old, and it is covered with rust. Yes, I clean it often, by hand, and dry it, before stowing it in a drawer. It appears Swing-A-Way uses cheap steel and cheap chrome plating in their manufacture of this door stop. My home is quite dry, as I live in the NE part of the USA. Humidity levels never exceed 35-40%, so it's not the humidity in the air. The Swing-A-Way worked fine for a few months, now, it's coated in rust. what a piece of crap. I go out of my way to buy American made producrs, but this POS really sucks. Never again!

The Duke said...

You apparently didn't read my post. Swing-a-Way products have been manufactured in China for the last few years. If you're unhappy with your recent purchase, then buy an American-made EZ-Duz-it.

About Steve Smart said...

Thanks for writing about this. Back in the late 70's I made the cutting wheels for Swing-Away. Coincidentally, in the early 90's I was in machine tool sales and sold a surface grinder to Pierce Rhodes. I really liked him, and enjoyed watching the assembly process.

Nancy Willims said...

I worked at Swing-a-way from 1994--1996. I enjoyed working there. The quality of material used was good at that time. We had to make sure each opener worked like it was supposed to before it got sent down the line for packing. I believe if it wasn't at least a "good" opener the company would not have manufactured as many as they did for so many years.

Anonymous said...

After reading this info some time ago. I bought an EZ Duz It. It works like a champ. It is bullet proof. It is Made in USA and anazingly it was only a couple of bucks more than the Chinese made Swing Away.

Anonymous said...

Where did you purchase your EZ Duz It can opener?

Anonymous said...

Saw them online at sierra valley trading co. - all USA made products