Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Vanished Tool Makers: Barcalo Manufacturing Company, Buffalo, New York

Below, my small collection of Barcalo "Double Grip" wrenches.  I'm assuming they were called this because the inside of the opening is shaped like the side of the hex to better fit the bolt head or nut, rather than just curved as in most open-end wrenches. The designer, J.M. Vallone, was assigned a patent for the design in 1938.

Back in the day, my assortment of wrenches would have been worth almost a dollar!  Barcalo also produced wrenches with other distinctive designs:

Below, pliers made by the firm:

In 1890, at the tender age of 20, Edward Joel Barcalo (1870-1963) came to Buffalo, New York, seeking his fortune.  He found employment as a book-keeper for the Buffalo Brass and Iron Bedstead Company.  A short six years later, he bought the assets of the company to found the Barcalo & Boll Manufacturing Company.   (His partner, Charles S. Boll, was a successful Baltimore businessman who owned, among other enterprises, the Boll Brothers Manufacturing Company of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania the largest American producer of mattresses, spring beds and brass and iron bedsteads.  Maybe he and Barcalo met at an exhibition of their companies' respective wares?  It's possible.  While pre-dating Barcalo's ownership of his company by 11 years, a description of an 1885 exhibition states the following:

The Boll Brothers Manufacturing Company, with its brass and enameled bedsteads and splendid display of mattresses, was in a reserved seat as far as trade was concerned, and booked many new orders. The old customers, it goes without saying, stuck by it and merely came in and pointed out the duplicates they required.  
The Buffalo Brass and Iron Bedstead Company showed a line embracing the cheapest iron as well as the finest brass bedsteads, and the same was received with every evidence of satisfaction by the watchful retail visitor. )
In any event, Edward Barcalo was both an astute businessman and an innovator, holding patents for a bed spring, canned synthetic snow, and mint-flavoured ice cream. His company originally made a wide range of metal products including beds, cribs and outdoor furniture.  


Over the next two decades, the company grew substantially, spreading to 8 buildings.  

(Barcalo Manufacturing also made beds in Welland, Ontario under the Quality Beds name from 1904 to 1914.  The firm occupied the premises of the Cleveland-based Frost Wire Fence Company which had set up shop in Welland in 1898 before relocating to Hamilton which offered a greater tax advantage. At its height, Quality Beds was producing 3000 brass beds a year!)  

Welland Public Library

In 1914 the acquisition of the Charles E. Hall company led to the addition of hand tools as a product line, supplying Curtis-Wright and the burgeoning aviation industry.  This was a good business move since the wartime demand for metal ended the American production of iron beds in 1915.  During World War I, 90 percent of Curtiss Wright's aviation forgings came from the factory.  After the Great War, Barcalo began supplying tools to the Ford Motor Company, and also selling them through the Larkin Company's mail order business.  Below, that company's factory, with administration building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, demolished in 1950:


(As an aside, I found the following on kunstler.com: "At its height of success a hundred years ago, the Larkin Company provided a stupendous bounty of social support services for its 4,500 employees: a dental office at nominal prices, dedicated rooms at local hospitals, an on-premises branch of the city library, subsidized night school classes, gyms, lounges, sports clubs, a credit union, insurance plans, and more.")

In the early 1940's, Dr. Anton Lorenz entered the picture.  Born in Budapest, Hungary, Lorenz (1891-1964) was something of a Renaissance man. Starting off as a history and geography teacher, he then accompanied his opera-singer wife to Germany in 1919 where he worked in the lock industry.  He entered the furniture business in 1927 and formed his own company two years later. His specialty was the design of tubular steel furniture. (The steel tube divan with waxed thread covering "LS 22" from 1931 was his most famous design.)  When war broke out in 1939 he happened to be on a business trip to Paris.   In a clearly wise decision, Lorenz fled Europe to America where he presented his ideas to Barcalo.  In 1940, Barcalo bought Lorenz's patent for a "scientifically articulated" motion chair which he had based on adjustable hospital beds and, according to the advertising copy, by studying photographs of people floating in water.  Initially, the design was used for wheelchairs for injured World War II vets.  In 1941, the first metal and canvas "Just-It" adjustable outdoor reclining chairs went into production and in 1946 the company had produced the first "BarcaLoafer", soon to be re-named the "BarcaLounger."

Life, January 1953

It went head-to-head with the older La-Z-Boy, first made in 1927 by Ed Shoemaker and Ed Knabusch of Monroe, Michigan.  In the contest between the two brands, the BarcaLounger had the advantage of incorporating a built-in footrest.  In 1947, Barcalo merged with Chandler Industries, a maker of upholstered furniture which occupied Barcalo's original factory in Black Rock.  By the 1950's the company was employing 550 workers, but Edward Barcalo was over 80 and began to back away from the day-to-day operation of the business.  On his death in 1963, the tool division was sold to Crescent Niagara which had already acquired Crescent Tools and Billings & Spencer, and which would add the Bridgeport Hardware Manufacturing Company to its fold the following year.  The Barcalo identity and brand name soon disappeared.  In 1968, Crescent Niagara itself was absorbed by Cooper Industries, at the beginning of the trend towards giant corporate ownership of formerly independent tool companies.   

As for the parent company, two years later it was sold to Mohasco Industries, which relocated manufacturing to Rocky Mount, North Carolina.  In 1989, it became Barcalounger Inc.  In 2005, the company was acquired by Hancock Park Capital which, one year later, bought American of Martinsville, Virginia from La-Z-Boy and merged the two companies.  In 2009, the North Carolina factory was closed and production was consolidated in Martinsville.  One year later, the Martinsville plant was closed without warning and the company sought bankruptcy protection.  The firm was bought by HPC3 Furniture Holdings, a Hancock affiliate, which moved production to China.    According to a company executive, in 2015, production was returned to the U.S. at an undisclosed location in North Carolina.  Barcalounger itself is headquartered out of Morristown, Tennessee.  

As an interesting aside, the Barcalo company claims to have been the first U.S. company to institute a coffee break.  In the early 20th century, most employees came to work by bicycle or trolley, starting work at 8 a.m. and working until lunch break at 12:30.  This seemed a long stretch so, in 1902, a 10 o'clock break for coffee was agreed upon, as well as a mid-afternoon break.  In 1912, the company also started the very first in-house hot lunch program for its employees.  All very progressive!  And the original factory building still exists:  http://www.preservationready.org/Buildings/255LouisianaStreet

Reading about the employee benefits pioneered by companies like Barcalo and Larkin, you can't help but wonder how modern, presumably more enlightened businesses and corporations have gone in the other direction, driving down wages, eliminating benefits, and removing the kinds of job supports and security that were possible a century ago in a less affluent age. Progress is fine...

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