Saturday, April 6, 2013

Vanished Tool Makes: Carlson & Sullivan

Below, my Carlson "Chief" tape measure made by Carlson & Sullivan:

Flexible tape measures first started appearing around 1930, following Hiram Farrand's 1922 patent for his "Farrand Rapid Rule" and Stanley Works' purchase of his Berlin, New Hampshire company in 1931 for a firesale price brought on by the depression.  These quickly began to replace the more awkward and fragile boxwood and and zig-zag rulers in the bottom of carpenters' toolboxes.  Initially in 6- and 8-foot lengths, tape measures slowly grew to 10- and 12-feet by the 1950's and eventually to 16- and 20-foot lengths by the 70's.  Companies like Mayhew, Lufkin, Master Rule and Baldwin all offered versions before the Second World War, and companies like Evans and Carlson & Sullivan entered the market following the conflict.

Fred O. Carlson of Monrovia, California was awarded a patent for a tape measure in 1950, which he assigned to Carlson & Sullivan Inc. of the same city.

The company advertised their "Chief" series of steel tape rules in Popular Mechanics:

Popular Mechanics,  November 1949
Popular Mechanics, October 1951
Early in the 50's, they took another tape measure manufacturer, Bigelow & Dowse of Boston (already owned at the time by Stanley) to court over alleged patent infringement because of a similarity in the way the steel tapes were held in the casing.  In 1953, their case was dismissed, with the court's judgement stating that " purpose of patent law is not to grant a monopoly for every “shadow of a shade of an  idea;” it has to “amount to a substantial enough innovation to amount to an invention.”  

At the same time, H.K. Porter of Pittsburgh was also offering tape measures:

Porter had started out in the locomotive business in 1866, but was played out by 1939 when Thomas Mellon Evans bought it at a bankruptcy sale and turned it into a holding corporation.   Through H.K. Porter, Evans began buying up struggling American manufacturing firms, eventually taking over 80 US companies.  Unfortunately, Evans was one of the pioneer corporate raiders, called by his biographer "the white shark of Wall Street."   

Porter bought Carlson & Sullivan in 1955, the same year they also acquired the old Phildalphia tool firm of Disston.  Carlson was subsquently rolled into Disston, as the box below indicates.  (Interestingly, Porter may also have had a manufacturing plant in Acton, Ontario, although perhaps this was only a distribution centre for products made in the U.S.).

Disston was an example of a once great American company that had prospered up to and through the Second World War, but which had not modernized its factories and consequently began quickly losing ground to Japanese and German competition after the war.  Through Porter, Evans began selling off Disston's assets and using it as a tax shelter, while using Carlson & Sullivan as one of his cash cows.  

Since you can't squeeze blood from a stone, all of this had to end sometime.  Porter sold the Disston Division to Sandvik in 1978, which divested it six years later to the investment firm of R.A.F. Industries of Philadelphia where it remains today as Disston Precision Inc. The Disston Company has its own website, but it is not clear if it is the same as Disston Precision.   (R.A.F. also owns U.S. Tape, another old American maker of tape measures which traces its history back to the founding of Justus Roe & Sons in 1886 in Patchogue, New York.)  

At some point, H.K. Porter was acquired by Cooper Tools, which is now part of the Apex Tool Group (which also owns the old American rule-making firm of Lufkin.)  They still use H.K. Porter as a brand name.

Somewhere along the timeline of all of this buying and selling, the Carlson and Sullivan name dropped off the map.


lbgradwell said...

Excellent stuff!

Anonymous said...

Fred Carlson incorporated Carlson Sullivan in January of 1945 in Monrovia, CA. They were producing tape measures in 1945. The swing tip was added somewhat later, though I do not know when it was, certainly by 1948.

Anonymous said...

According to the above ad, in 1951, when the 10 foot tape was introduced, it also had the "new convenient swing tip". This would indicate that the swing tip was introduced in 1950 or 1951, to be new for this ad. I have also read that H. K. Porter did in fact purchase Disston in 1955, but not Carlson Sullivan. In the book, "A Place to Live and Work" page 178 it is stated that H. K. Porter purchase Carlson Sullivan and put it in with Disston in 1958. At the time C+S was making a million tape measures a year.

Outlaw831 said...

Dose anyone know if they are worth anything?I have a few

Jim Wahlgren said...

I was cleaning my friends grandmother's yard and dug the 10ft tape measure out of the ground cleaned it up and use it about everyday in my home remodeling co. Great tool!

Anonymous said...

Amazing! Good tools.

Unknown said...

Would someone like (for free) a Carlson & Sullivan 8-foot Chief that is in good order except the metal tip is broken off the end of the tape (which is still all inside)?

I'll mail it to you. Contact me: