Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 651
This is the grave of Henry Disston.
Born in 1819 in Tewksbury, England, Disston immigrated to the U.S. in 1833, where he, his sister, and his father was supposed to move to Albany, New York, bringing the rest of the family over later. His father was a skilled machinist and inventor. When he invented a way to manufacture lace machines, investors paid for him to come to Albany and start the first modern lace factory in the country. Alas, he died three days after landing in Philadelphia. Henry, alone in the new country except for his sister, was apprenticed out to a saw maker. Disston started his own saw making business in 1840. He was very good at making saws. This perhaps to modern eyes does not seem like a skill that would make one famous, but in an era where cutting down trees was a normal part of everyday life as the nation colonized the continent, Disston in fact did because America’s most prominent saw maker by 1850, when he founded the company initially called Keystone Saw Works. This would evolve into the world’s largest saw company. In 1855, he built a furnace that some claim was the first furnace for melting steel in America and produced the nation’s first saw steel. This gave him a huge advantage over other American competitors, who were importing all their steel from the U.K., though Disston still did import some.
Disston started challenging the English saw makers who were generally seen as superior. The Civil War helped. With a high tariff placed on imports during the war, Disston saws became comparatively affordable. He also got a bunch of contracts with the military, including providing steel for the Navy. Even though he did suffer a factory fire and had to rebuild, his brand grew significantly and so did his bankroll. In 1865, he changed the name of the company to Henry Disston & Son, to note that his son was now with him. He helped pioneer the idea of advertising in his industry, taking out multi-page ads in Iron Age to promote his products before anyone else did.
Disston was probably significantly less than honest about stealing other people’s inventions as well. There’s one case from 1874 where he traveled to Toledo to see a new saw-grinding machine. He made a deal to bring it to his factory. Then the next day he sued the inventor of it for a patent violation so that he wouldn’t have to pay him. That my friends is the Gilded Age.
To build up his enterprise, he encouraged emigration from England, just as he had done. There were lots of skilled workers there and he offered them a better wage than they received at home. He had to really because he had a constant problem with backorders. Basically, there weren’t enough skilled craftsmen in the U.S., he had to compete with other places such as the Pittsburgh steel mills, and it was too easy for them to go into business for themselves anyway.
Disston became highly interested in paternalistic industrial and urban planning as well. Like a number of capitalists, he saw himself as a father figure to his workers and wanted to improve their lot, so long as he retained control of the operation. He imbibed strongly in the Victorian values of the day and believed that property had some responsibility to workers. Part of this was developing what is now the neighborhood of Tacony, in northeast Philadelphia. He moved his business to a new factory in that neighborhood in 1872. He built company housing for his workers. To his credit, rather than maintain ownership of the homes for himself, he allowed the workers to take out relatively low-interest loans to buy them themselves. It actually took a full 27 years for the company to move all its operations out of crowded central Philadelphia to the new company town. He also built a medical dispensary that was free to not only his workers but other poor people nearby. The town basically became an English village because he and his family recruited so heavily from there.
But let’s be clear, this was a fully authoritarian structure, with Disston calling the shots and imposing his Presbyterian morality on the community. And that very much included no unions. There was a brief attempt to organize the factory in 1877. Disston had the lead organization canned immediately. A short strike followed but only lasted a couple of days before scabs were brought in. The strike didn’t have that much support and so collapsed. This is what disloyalty to Henry Disston would bring onto you. It was a personal affront to him and his family, who by 1877 were running more of the company.
Disston began to find other ways to make money as well. He was an early investor in Atlantic City, building a sawmill to cut the lumber to build much of the city. He then sold his shares in the city for huge profits. Moreover, most of the land from his company town was still farms. He was able to buy most of that up and sell it off at a significant profit to himself.
Disston’s health declined early. Soon after he moved to Tacony, he began to be sick. He engaged in a lot of charitable endeavors later in life, such as starting a homeless shelter. But he had a stroke in 1877. He went to Hot Springs, Arkansas to recuperate and returned to Philadelphia early in 1878. But he had another stroke soon after and died, at the age of 58.
Disston’s saws managed to remain some of the best on the market long after his death. In fact, there’s a little unincorporated town about 40 miles from where I grew up in Oregon called Disston, named after the man and his saws. Not surprisingly, this town is on the edge of the Willamette National Forest, where his company’s products were very much in use. The firm remained in the family’s hands until 1955 and other owners continued making saws under the brand name until 2013.
Henry Disston is buried in Laurel Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
This grave visit was sponsored by LGM reader contributions. Many thanks! If you would like this series to visit other Gilded Age capitalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. While I haven’t been able to see many graves lately because of COVID-19 shutdowns, I actually have a reason to take a driving trip next week and am going to make a bunch of grave visits along the way. Leland Stanford is in Palo Alto, California and Sanford Dole is in Honolulu. Previous posts in this series are archived here.