Industry through the 1980s

From the Encyclopedia of Cleveland History

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INDUSTRY. Within 60 years of Cleveland’s founding, industry, especially the making of iron and its products, began to dominate the economy of the city and its vicinity. To a large degree, Cleveland’s growth has been determined by its industrial base. The term industry in its economic and technical sense refers to the organized production of goods for the market. Historians also use the term industrialization to refer to the rapid increase in the size and number of industries in Europe and North America over the last 300 years. The U.S. was an early leader and Cleveland a major center of industrialization. Modern industry is associated with the factory system of production, in which workers are gathered in one place to work under centralized direction with the aid of powered machinery. Cleveland’s factories have usually mass-produced standardized products such as clothing, iron shapes, or automobiles. Cleveland industry developed under favorable economic conditions. Primary among them was excellent TRANSPORTATION. The development of shipping on the Great Lakes, the completion of the OHIO AND ERIE CANAL in 1832, the later construction of RAILROADS, and the more recent construction of majorHIGHWAYS and airports have allowed Cleveland to receive a large flow of raw materials and to ship out finished products. In addition, exceptional businessmen and inventors have developed and promoted Cleveland’s industry, and the city’s workers have been recognized for their skill and productivity.

In its first 4 decades, Cleveland was an agricultural village and a regional center of commerce. Examples of manufactured items included farming tools, barrels for shipping salted meat, flour, and other food products, and household furnishings. These were made by craftsmen in small shops rather than in factories. In 1820, for example, a Cleveland newspaper contained advertisements for a wagonmaker’s shop located near the courthouse on PUBLIC SQUARE, and a 2-story shop containing a shoemaker and a saddlemaker. With the coming of the canal, Cleveland’s markets expanded. In 1837 the city was reported to have 4 iron foundries making steam engines and other products, 3 soap and candle works, 2 breweries, a window-sash factory, 2 ropewalks, a pottery, 2 carriagemakers, 2 millstone shops, and a large flour mill under construction. The CUYAHOGA STEAM FURNACE CO., just established, was probably the largest single industry. It had a blast furnace that made iron from ore, charcoal, and limestone brought by canal, and had a foundry to make the iron into usable products. Over the next 40 years, the company made a variety of goods which were representative of Cleveland’s flourishing iron trade: steam engines, locomotives, stoves, and iron for building construction. At the time of the U.S. manufacturing census of 1860, the most valuable industrial product of Cleveland was iron, while the manufacture of items made from iron was also very important. Like many other Great Lakes cities, Cleveland had a large flour-and-gristmilling industry (ranking 2nd in value of product), which served the productive Midwest farms.

Cleveland’s history from 1860-1930 was mostly a record of heavy industrialization, not commerce in agricultural products. The Civil War gave immediate impetus to Cleveland’s iron industry, and by 1880 the making of iron and steel represented 20% of the value of the city’s manufactures. In part this growth was due to enterprising Clevelanders, who in the 1850s began exploiting the mineral resources of the upper Great Lakes and shipping the ores to Cleveland. Leaders in the iron industry after the Civil War included the Otis Iron & Steel Co. and the Cleveland Rolling Mill Co. in NEWBURGH. The latter began making Bessemer steel in 1868, and Otis instituted open-hearth steel manufacture in 1873; both technologies were importations of recent European innovations. Along with some other Cleveland companies, Otis and the Cleveland Rolling Mill eventually joined the U.S. STEEL CORP., formed in 1901. The making of machinery and other iron and steel products, such as ore vessels for the Great Lakes trade, continued to grow, along with the production of iron and steel. Machine-tool companies such as WARNER & SWASEY CO. and Cleveland Twist Drill made lathes, planers, drill presses, and similar devices or parts for them. Sewing-machine manufacturers (for example, the White Co.) and other machinery companies were major purchasers of machine tools. In turn, the Cleveland clothing industry, already the city’s 3rd-largest producer of goods (by value) in 1860, became a major consumer of sewing machines. This industrial interconnection (iron and steel, machine tools, sewing machines, clothing) is one example of how growing industries benefited by linking to one another. Such interconnections were crucial to the development of Cleveland’s industries.

Another contribution to industrial growth in the later 1800s came in the form of entirely new industries. The petroleum-refining industry developed rapidly after the first American oil well was drilled at Titusville, in northwestern Pennsylvania, in 1859. Although Cleveland was no better located with respect to the new oil region than Pittsburgh or Buffalo, young Cleveland businessman JOHN D. ROCKEFELLER† became the most resourceful organizer of the oil market. Bringing oil to Cleveland by railroad at low prices, Rockefeller built or purchased almost all of Cleveland’s refining capacity in the 1870s and made the city the center of the American refining industry. By exercising a virtual monopoly in the industry, and attempting to control an enormous network of shipping, refining, and distributing enterprises, Rockefeller became a pioneer in modern corporate forms. He experimented by establishing in Cleveland theSTANDARD OIL CO. (OHIO) of Ohio (1870), and then the Standard Oil Trust (1879). While Rockefeller’s methods of business control were ruthless, and his industrial combinations were eventually broken up by court action, he was one of the first businessmen in the U.S. to recognize that rapid industrialization required new forms or organization.

Cleveland’s CHEMICAL INDUSTRY arose in part out of the refiners’ need for sulfuric acid. The Grasselli Co. of Cincinnati established a Cleveland works in 1866 specifically to supply sulfuric acid to refineries, but in succeeding years it supplied a wide range of industrial chemicals. Relying in part on petroleum products for their raw materials, Cleveand’s large paint and varnish companies were founded in the 1870s. Henry Sherwin and Edward Williams joined in 1870 to form a paint-manufacturing company (SHERWIN WILLIAMS CO.), and 10 years later they introduced a ready-mixed paint, which found immediate success. Francis H. Glidden organized his company in 1875 and based its sales on varnishes and enamels. Electrical equipment was another new industry of the later 19th century. Although telegraphy had become the first viable electrical technology in the 1840s, its power and apparatus requirements were low and did not stimulate major industrial development. Clevelander CHAS. BRUSH† pioneered in new electrical technology in the 1870s by developing an effective dynamo to generate large amounts of electricity, and an outdoor arc-lighting system to consume electricity. First put into continuous use on Public Square in Apr. 1879, Brush’s dynamo and arc lights were soon installed in major cities throughout the world. In 3 years they could be found in San Francisco, London, and Shanghai, among others. Brush pushed his company into the production of batteries and streetcar equipment as well, before it was absorbed by GENERAL ELECTRIC CO. in 1891. Other electrical businesses were founded by persons trained in Brush’s company, includingNATIONAL CARBON CO. and LINCOLN ELECTRIC CO., while Brush’s personal influence continued to be felt at the Brush Laboratories. The success of Brush’s business soon attracted numerous other firms to the electrical industry.

The AUTOMOTIVE INDUSTRY was the final major industry to emerge in Cleveland. The automobile was brought to a workable form by European inventors of the 1880s and early 1890s, but when Americans took to the “horseless carriage” after 1895, it was still not clear whether it would be gasoline-, electric-, or steam-powered. Cleveland boasted 3 of the earliest manufacturers of each type: ALEXANDER WINTON† (gasoline), WALTER BAKER† (electric), and ROLLIN WHITE† and the White Co. (steam). A Winton sold in 1898 is often claimed to be the first American automobile made for the open market. The Cleveland automobile manufacturers mostly specialized in high-quality and luxury cars. Baker’s electric vehicles, for example, were favored by wealthy women for quiet, pollution-free driving. White specialized in heavy touring cars, a tradition that served the company well when it decided to make only trucks. Other well-known Cleveland luxury cars included the Stearns, Jordan, and Peerless. In spite of having several hundred brands of automobiles made in Cleveland up to the 1930s, the city lost the leadership of the auto industry to Detroit as early as 1910. Henry Ford, whose vision of a car for the common man carried the day, chose to concentrate his efforts in what became the Motor City. However, Cleveland remained one of the most important assembly and parts-manufacturing centers in the U.S. Major automakers continued to build and operate new facilities in the Cleveland area after the mid-1900s. Several smaller industries arose in conjunction with automobile manufacture, including diesel engines, construction and industrial vehicles, and aircraft parts.

Cleveland’s industry came to the end of its period of rapid growth by 1930. Cleveland was then second only to Detroit among American cities in the percentage of its workers employed in industry. This dependence affected society in a variety of ways. The public schools, for example, provided industrial training for their pupils, and in 1930 the city’s Industrial Development Committee reported that industrial training could be found in all school grades. Moreover, thousands of workers were enrolled in the public schools’ adult-education classes. Trade and industrial unions were also a means of accommodating industrialization. The city early acquired a reputation for strong trade and craft unions, which joined workers of similar skills to maintain or improve wages and working conditions. In the 1930s Cleveland workers were also receptive to the formation of industrial unions, especially the UNITED STEEL WORKERS OF AMERICA and the UNITED AUTO WORKERS, which crossed over trade or craft lines. A sit-down strike at the General Motors Fisher Body plant on Coit Rd. in 1936 was a catalytic event in unionizing the automobile industry. The consistent training of Cleveland’s workers, and the unionization of important industrial sectors, made the city attractive both to job-seekers and to businessmen, and did much to promote Cleveland’s industrial growth. In 1931 the U.S. Census of the Cleveland metropolitan area (including Cuyahoga and Lorain counties) ranked it 8th nationally by the number of industrial employees, and 7th by value of its products. This ranking held essentially the same through the economic depression of the following decade, and through the ensuing war years. During World War II, manufacturers and workers strained the city’s productive capacity. Cleveland Twist Drill’s outstanding record earned it the first Army-Navy Star Award in the nation. Several Cleveland firms, including HARSHAW CHEMICAL CO., Victoreen Instrument, Brush Beryllium, McGean Chemical, and H.K. Ferguson, contributed materially to the Manhattan (atomic bomb) Project. Nevertheless, the concentration of Cleveland industry on producers’ goods, such as machine tools or construction equipment, which made it a wartime arsenal, also made it especially susceptible to economic fluctuations. Measured by national averages, Cleveland workers suffered more during depressions and recessions but did better in times of economic growth. Cleveland’s industry entered the 1950s with its boom years in the past and no obvious directions for change. The census of 1954 indicated that its traditional leading industries were essentially in the same positions as before the Great Depression. In terms of employment and value of products, the Cleveland area’s leaders were transportation equipment (1st, 1st); machinery (2nd, 2nd); iron-and-steel making (3rd, 3rd); metal products (4th, 4th); and electrical machinery (5th, 6th). During the next 3 decades, these industries remained the leaders (though their rank order varied) and accounted for more than 60% of the city’s industrial employment. By the 1980s, some sources of future change were visible. Most notably, the international iron and steel market was adverse to American industry as a whole and Cleveland in particular. The impact was symbolized by the dismantling of the U.S. Steel blast furnaces in Cleveland, and severe fluctuations in production levels at REPUBLIC STEEL CORP., the JONES AND LAUGHLIN STEEL CORP. (CLEVELAND WORKS), and other iron and steel companies. In the late 1970s, Cleveland’s decline in manufacturing was led by its basic steel, motor vehicle and equipment, and metalworking industries, with aging facilities, mismanagement, and outside ownership among the reasons for their departure. Challenges from Japanese and European automakers and drastic increases in gasoline prices changed American automobile buyer’s habits and required shutdowns or retooling of many Cleveland plants. By 1986 blue-collar employment represented only 29% of the total employment in Cuyahoga, Lake, Medina, and Geauga counties.

Few new industries seemed likely to take a major role in Cleveland soon, although the making of instruments and medical equipment grew significantly during the post-World War II years, and the manufacture of chemicals and plastics and the printing and publishing business remained strong. As Cleveland looked to the future, organized research seemed likely to assume a major role in new industrial development. From the establishment of the National Electric Lamp Assn. laboratories at NELA PARK (1911) and the National Carbon industrial research facility at about the same time, Cleveland business supported research leading to new technologies. Later the federal government’s Lewis Laboratory (1941) and the facilities of Case Institute of Technology became important sites for pioneering development. By the mid-1980s, the Cleveland area had over 200 corporate industrial research laboratories.

While Cleveland became a major American industrial center during the century after 1830, dependence on an industrial economy has brought periods of high unemployment and air and water pollution, among other problems. Nevertheless, Cleveland area industry appeared to be stabilizing in the 1980s, with numerous new small manufacturing companies forming, and major employers such as FORD MOTOR CO., General Motors, and LTV STEEL making substantial investments in their existing facilities.

Darwin H. Stapleton

Rockefeller Archive Center



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