Friday, March 31, 2017

Vanished Tool Makers: Armstrong Bros. Tool Co., Chicago, Illinois

Below, Armstrong Bros. tools in my shop.  First, a 1/2" tool holder:

Below, a thread-cutting tool and a boring bar holder:

My lovely No. 2 planer jack:

My 3/8" drive ratchet:


Lathe wrenches:

Open-end wrenches, including Whitworth ones:

A spud wrench:

With first names evocative of the Beatles roughly a century later, four Armstrong brothers, Hugh, John, James & George, founded the Armstrong Brothers Tool Company in Chicago in 1890.  Starting off with parts and tools for bicycles, in 1895 they came up with a tool holder for lathe cutting bits, a remarkable innovation that we still use today.  

Profits from that invention funded the construction of a factory at the corner of Francisco Avenue and Carroll Avenue in 1900:

Iron & Machinery World, July 1905

and then expanded to another new factory five years later.  

317N Francisco Avenue, Chicago

Drop forged wrenches were added to the product line in 1909.  The "arm and hammer" or "strong arm" trademark was first used in the October 1899 issue of Locomotive Engineering, but not officially registered until 1914.

In the 1930's, the Armstrong catalogue carried the following quote from Thomas Carlisle:

In 1948, the company moved to new headquarters at, appropriately enough, 5200 West Armstrong Avenue.  In 1974, the company opened a second plant in Fayetteville, Arkansas. It wasn't until 1983 that Armstrong offered a ratchet for its sockets. In 1994, the company was absorbed the the Danaher Corporation, which is now part of the ginormous Apex Tool Group.  Armstrong became its Industrial Hand Tools division.

In 2015, the Armstrong company celebrated 125 years of production.  This year, Apex has announced that it will be ceasing production of both the Armstrong and Allen brands by March 31st, 2017 and laying off 170 workers at their Sumter, South Carolina plant. (Ironically, earlier the APEX Tool Group was named the Manufacturer of the Year by the Greater Sumter Chamber of Commerce.) The company intends to rationalize its product line and focus on their GearWrench brand. The original West Armstrong Avenue headquarters was demolished, and from Google Earth is now just a large truck trailer parking lot. As near as I can determine, the building that replaced the former headquarters on N. Francisco Avenue is unoccupied and for sale, in the middle of a run-down neighbourhood.  Below, from Google Streetview:

According to Wikipedia the company laid off 170 workers at the Sumter South Carolina plant and retired the name. The timeline of the tool company, dies with the company but there is discussion of the end of the company here. Sad.

Below, ads from over the years:


1922.  Source: Antique Machinery


Popular Mechanics, October 1943

Popular Mechanics, January 1952

1959.  Source:  Factory Whistle


Goodbye, Armstrong.  


John Garner said...

Armstrong made ratchets long before 1983, using a mechanism having two pawls (one to drive the "ratchet wheel" and attached socket clockwise, another to drive the wheel and socket counter-clockwise. In the early 1980s, Armstrong designed a new-to-them ratchet mechanism similar to those used by Snap-On, J H Williams, Duro-Chrome, Indestro, and Easco (the manufacturer of Craftsman-branded ratchets for Sears) which used a single pawl. The new-design Armstrong ratchets were introduced to the market in 1983, in 1/4 inch, 3/8 inch, and 1/2 inch drive sizes . . . the old two-pawl design ratchet remained in production in 3/4 inch and 1 inch drive sizes.

Mister G said...

Thanks for the info on the ratchets, would you know when production of the tools might have started? I see that both timeline links in the post are dead. Hard to keep up.
Your input is appreciated. Gerald

Don Armstrong, Jr. said...

I enjoyed looking through your site. My great grandfather was John Armstrong, one of the original founders, and my grandfather John O. Armstrong was president of the company in the 1960s and early 70s. It was fun to see some of the old catalog pages that I had not seen before. Thanks for preserving some of our family history.

Donald Armstrong, Jr.

Mister G said...

Thank you! I enjoy the history and welcome any info I can find to add to the story.