Antiquity in American manufacturing history and an honorable name are synonymous with a mention of the John Russell Mfg. Co., which became the oldest and largest cutlery establishment in the United States, having had its origin with John Russell, at Greenfield, about 1834, in the “Green River Works.” Built on the banks of the Green River, it later became the site of the tap and die pioneering company of Wiley & Russell Co., and eventually Greenfield Tap & Die Company, after 1912.
Before we can speak of the company, we must first introduce its great founder. John Russell was born in Greenfield in 1797 and died there Dec. 27, 1874. He demonstrated early an ability for business life and in 1816 went south, where he engaged in commerce, chiefly at Augusta, Ga., until 1830, when he returned to Greenfield. He dreamt of creating in this country a new source of metal tool products, of which Sheffield, England, had enjoyed a monopoly for many years. With this idea he built a small facility upon land west of the old railway station in Greenfield, near where the “Agricultural House” stood for many years. The energy he used to run the factory was steam power. These buildings were burned shortly after their occupation, and then, joined by his brother Francis, they proceeded to establish the “Green River Works”, using water-power from the river of the same name. Their first products were chisels and the place was for many years known as the “chisel factory.”
The co-operation of Henry W. Clapp, who had a large amount of available cash, then made a very strong house, and the business was planned upon a scale magnificent for its time. Skillful artisans were tempted out of England and goods rivaling the best quality of Sheffield work were soon in the market stamped with the bold legend, “American Cutlery.” Buyers were, however, skeptical and rather repelled by the name which confessed domestic origin, inexperience, costly labor and imported materials. This early claim of “Made in America” made business very difficult, but its creators were proud of their work and were determined to make good their name by improving manufacturing methods and quality.
The country’s financial disaster of 1837 retarded but did not ruin commerce, and as business eventually improved, great advances were made. New products were introduced, an efficient force of American mechanics had learned the skills of the cutlery trade, and many first-class Sheffield workmen were emigrating to the United States, lured by the promise of home ownership and the American style freedom to explore new ideas.
Then new danger came in the Sheffield manufacturers’ feeling against American competition. They always had everything their own way and resolved to crush American enterprise in the bud. They lowered their prices to a figure which left no margin of profit to the American manufacturer. The protection afforded by the tariff was very small and more than offset by the extra cost of tools, steel and iron and labor; so it seemed an easy thing to beat America when the accumulated English skill of centuries set about it. But the English master cutlers underestimated the genius of American mechanics, in their irrepressible disposition to invent machinery and methods to make cheaper products.
The most important competitive improvement was in the new use of power hammers ran by belting, for blade forging. From this it was but a step to abolish the labor intensive hand-swaging and to shape blades by trimming or stamping in dies. These inventions at once did away with all hand-forging in America, and the ring of the cutler’s anvil was music of the past. The Sheffield master cutlers could not then follow, because this innovation was one which the trade unions of Sheffield forbid in their labor contracts, and the Americans thereafter had things their own way, and illustrated anew the superiority of American genius in an unrestricted market. To understand fully the importance of the American inventions, take the example of the process called “swaging, or “was turning the “bolster ” — that part of the knife upon which the handle is fastened. Under the old English practice it was possible for two men to turn one hundred and fifty bolsters a day, while the American steam hammer by 1890 turned out 3,000.
In 1868 the Russells were “coming money” in the old “Green River” works at Greenfield. Col. Crocker and other capitalists became interested in developing the great water power at Turners Falls and made arrangements to take the cutlery-works there and to increase its facilities so as to make it the largest establishment of its kind in the world. Nearly four acres were set apart for buildings, and the immense shops, shown in the engraving below, were built. Taken altogether they were over 2,000 feet in running length, arranged in the form of a parallelogram, enclosing a middle building and yard. The two larger buildings are 600×50, rising two stories on the outer side and four on the inner. The work-rooms are high studded, fourteen feet, thus very comfortable to the workmen. New considerations for ventilation, by means of patent fans and blowers added to this modern facility. The building within the parallelogram is 300×40 and is used for the various smith shops. Altogether the buildings furnish employment for about six hundred workmen, but they could accommodate twice that number. The power is obtained from water wheels of 675 horse power and 700 tons of steel are worked up by means of them each year.
The works were finished and the machinery moved from Greenfield in 1870, after which the John Russell cutlery works grew steadily, upholding always the good name which the goods earned in earlier days.
Click the picture to view our museum’s incredible “deep zoom” view of the 1870 John Russell Cutlery
A digital exhibit of a large format photograph made by Greenfield photographers Horton and Davis.
In 1873 the John Russell Manufacturing Company was reorganized and the name changed to the more appropriate, John Russell Cutlery Company, with a capital of $450,000. Richard N. Oakman, Jr., a young man of marked executive ability and cashier of the Crocker national bank (and the later maker of the Oakman-Hertel automobile), was induced to take charge, and he at once inaugurated an era of still greater prosperity, which continued after he resigned his charge before 1890 to W. P. Dustin of Cambridge—and continued for years after, as the goods were known by their familiar brand, all over the civilized world.
The company manufactured over 2,500 varieties of goods and turned out between 2,500 and 3,000 dozen of cutlery each day. They became famous for their products requiring the best tempered steel, such as the druggists’ spatulas and painters’ knives. We might fill a large space in detailing how, with the improved machinery and methods already described, the John Russell company finally drove foreign cutlery houses from the field, one by one, and it is no more than fifteen years since the famous English Barlow knife was out produced in this country by the John Russell company and thus the last foreign claim of superiority taken away by an American company. The best of steel was wrought into fine cutting blades and an American Barlow placed on the market, with a strong but inexpensive handle, and the result was that the home Barlow pocket-knife soon drove the inferior foreign blade from the market and the company’s trade in pocket-knives expanded so to eventually offer over one hundred and fifty varieties.
Several departments were in charge of the best of skilled workmen, mostly men that grew gray in the service, and down to the minutest detail the most thorough workmanship was demanded and insisted upon. All work was carefully inspected at each stage of its progress, by experts, and inferior work was promptly rejected.
Its a challenge now to describe the different departments of the works. Look at the engraving we see that, coming down the stairway, beyond the cupola, a large office is entered. The three-story building to the right is used for finishing the pocket-knives. To the left are situated the packing rooms, the inspection rooms and sample rooms. The two story building, connecting the two main buildings at the center, is used for a machine shop, below, and above the work is counted and inspected. The etching of the trade-mark on the finer grades of goods is done in a room off from the counting room. In the long, low building in the center, the skillful work of tempering the blades is carried on by men of vast experience and good judgment of the nature of steel. In this building also were ten forges, where a variety of special work requiring hand-labor was done. At the end of the tempering shops,at the left, is the coal, iron and steel warehouse, where hundreds of tons of material were stored. Coming from this warehouse to the river building at the extreme left, the men were found at work with the bar steel in the first process of manufacture. In this building the steel was cut into suitable lengths, and thirty trip-hammers drew the metal out into a handy form to shape into blades. Then thirty ponderous drops conformed the steel to the pattern of the dies. In the same room were rolling mills, where blades of various descriptions were drawn out. In the next room, twenty cutting presses were used to cut the blades to form, cut the tines to the forks, and such work. The grinding room, 425 feet long, and 50 feet wide, well lighted, contained 150 huge grinding stones and 150 leather covered wheels on which the blades were polished. The finishing room, in the upper story of the same building, was 450 feet long, filled with busy workmen, sawing “scales” for handles out of redwood, ebony, cocoa, and other woods, riveting on the handles, grinding the handles into shape, grinding and polishing the blades, etc. In the building at the right, where the chimney is seen, the carpenter shop is located, also the boilers to heat the entire, buildings, and the gas-works, where an excellent quality of gas is made to light the shops. In the upper story, ivory, bone, horn, etc., were sawn into handles. In the lower story of the farthest building from view and the silver-plating rooms, where a large amount of superior silver plating was done.
This article should not be closed before inviting the reader’s attention to the reduced copy of a large advertising poster issued by the John Russell Mfg. Co., from around the 1850s. As a specimen of the engraving of that time it is an elegant piece of work, so far as the scroll border is concerned, and the antique center-piece, enlarged upon the ninety-fifth page, has a peculiar interest to those who take pleasure occasionally in “looking backward.” Perhaps even more spectacular is the Turners Falls era butcher knives advertisement, beautifully printed by the Milton-Bradley Company.
Adapted from the C.H. Bailey & Sons “Bird’s Eye” map of Turners Falls MA, 1877. Colorized in 2018 by Chris Clawson
Main article adapted from “Picturesque Franklin” , Wade, Warner & Co. , Northampton MA 1891