By Earl Lifshey
Copyright © The National Housewares Manufacturers Association
Reprinted with permission.
"This is the story of Landers, Frary & Clark and its service to the American home. For more than a century three able men, active in the industrial, political and cultural life in New Britain and in Connecticut, were the principal actors in our little story. But the real theme is the changing pattern of American living in the past 100 years and of the company's contribution to this changing pattern, because Landers has been making products for the American home for nearly twelve decades and its success has been due to ability to change products with the changing times."
Those were the words with which Richard L. White, then chairman of the board of directors of Landers, Frary & Clark, began a speech on his company's history at a meeting of The Newcomen Society in Noank, Connecticut, August 12, 1955. (Mr. White resigned as chairman in 1958. B. C. Neece continued as president of the company. The following year he was named chairman but retired in 1960. Harry T. Silverman, who had been president and was then elected chairman, was the last to hold that post.)
In 1965 though, this great company, once one of the best known and most prestigious in the housewares and hardware business, closed its doors permanently. The unbelievable had happened. While rumors of its impending doom had long been zig-zagging throughout the marketplace, the final reality came as a shock to the thousands of retailers who had known and dealt with the company for so long.
On May 17, 1965 its illustrious "Universal" trademark along with the remaining assets, inventory and equipment were acquired by the General Electric Company's Housewares Division, though not until after some rather frantic last minute meetings with government officials in Washington who wanted to satisfy themselves the acquisition involved no "monopolistic" aspects.
The number of products manufactured by Landers over the years was enormous and their scope amazing. They made stainless steel bull-nose rings and electric ranges, kitchen scales and vacuum bottles, window hardware and ice skates, mouse traps and percolators, can openers, cutlery and aluminum cookware, and thousands of other products. And somehow, almost until the very end, it seemed to work out profitably.
Landers, Frary & Clark traces its start to the time George Landers, age sixteen, arrived in New Britain, Connecticut in 1829 looking for a job. He soon went to work for Josiah Dewey who, seven years earlier, had started a small foundry making cupboard latches and other hardware. After Dewey's death, it became Landers & Smith Manufacturing Company in 1853. As president, Landers' salary was seven hundred dollars a year.
In 1862 the small but prosperous company made another of the many acquisitions that were to mark its history and growth in future years. It acquired the firm of Frary, Clark & Company, of Meriden Connecticut, the company name changed to Landers, Frary & Clark, which it retained for the next full century of its existence.
Probably the most important item introduced around this period was a household scale, "the first product designed particularly for the American housewife," White explained in his speech.
The company and the extent of its line continued to grow...now it had added meat choppers and sausage stuffers, screw eyes and strap hooks, door handles and floor scrapers, molasses gates and faucets, meat hooks and harness hooks, cast iron match boxes and curry combs, fancy brass hat hooks and eyes with porcelain knob ends--and even toys.
In 1870, George Landers, having turned fifty-seven, decided to retire from active management, but to stay on as vice-president and director. His son was now secretary of the company.
In the 1890s the trade name "Universal" was adopted for the company's products. And it was in the same period that it introduced a series of quite revolutionary household products that were to help establish it as a leader in the housewares field.
One of these, explained Richard White to the Newcomen Society, was the "Universal" bread maker.
In those days breadmaking was a common household chore...the days of baker's bread were still far away. In the "Universal" bread maker, dough was prepared in the evening, left in the machine to rise overnight, ready for baking in the morning. That business was one of the mainstays of the company.A stock clerk named Charles F. Smith had gone to work for Landers in 1882, and in 1900 on the death of Charles Landers, son of the founder, he was elected president. Until his death in 1938, Smith was responsible for the tremendous growth of the company. Beginning with a patent it received in 1908 for the development of an electrical unit to be used on percolators, the company moved head-on into the appliance field.
The second product to become a household necessity was the "Universal" food chopper. Choppers were not new, but this one ground not merely meats but vegetables as well....Odds and ends could be turned into hashes and casseroles with ease....The identical model food chopper first produced in 1897 is an active item in our line now in 1955--58 years later. The third, and to us, the most important invention of the period was the "Universal" coffee percolator (first produced in 1905). Here was a brand new method of brewing coffee below the boiling point, with resultant improvement in clarity and flavor....Today percolators outsell other types of coffee makers. This percolator of the nineties was a simple one, heated on the stove. The day of electricity was only dawning.
The first "Universal" appliance appeared in 1912 when a "thermo cell" electric iron was introduced. Percolators, toasters and ranges soon followed. By 1915 it was already making electric ranges. Then came World War I when all production was devoted to military needs.
After the war the company greatly intensified its entry into electrical household products, an era Richard White referred to as the second or "electrical phase" of its development. "Today , while Landers is manufacturing many non-electrical products for the home, its principal products are in the electrical field," he said.
It is noteworthy that in the early 1920s Landers, in order to exercise more complete quality control over its appliances, adopted a policy of making all its own parts as far as possible. At the time it claimed that six out of every ten homes in the country had at least one "Universal" product. Its capitalization in 1923 had reached $10.5 million and it employed over three thousand people.
In 1919 the Barnes & Kovell Company and the next year the Columbia Heating Pad Company were added to produce its own "Universal" line. In 1940 it acquired the O-Pan-Top Manufacturing Company, producers of a top-opening carpet sweeper.
Throughout the many years of its growth Landers had developed a conservative, intensely quality-minded image; here, it seemed, was a company so solidly rooted "it'll go on forever." So in 1950, when it announced the discontinuance of its cutlery division after eighty-four years of operation, the trade was shocked. Landers, they would tell you, acquired businesses--it didn't drop them.
But the next few years saw acquisitions. In 1954 Landers bought the Dazey Corporation with a big line of can openers, juicers, and other items. The following year it bought the Electric Steam Radiator Corporation, Paris, Kentucky, adding the name "Electresteem." In 1958 the Standard Products Company, Whitman, Massachusetts, was purchased and its line of portable appliances marketed through a new subsidiary, Handy-Hannah Products Corporation under the "Handy Hannah" brand. The same year a Canadian firm, Ever-Bright Limited, was bought. It made copper-clad utensils and portable appliances. To house the operation making private brand merchandise, Landers bought a big new plant in Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the Eastern Metal Products Company. In the next couple of years Landers also brought out a line of "Cookamatic" copper-cored stainless steel appliances, operated by a single control.
A great effort was made to develop new products, especially in portable appliances, using new principles of design. Yet an ominous cloud of doubt still hovered over the company's future.
The complicated closing chapters of Landers, Frary & Clark can be well summarized by these excerpts from an account of those developments which appeared in the New Britain (Connecticut) Herald, April 21, 1965:
Concern over the future of L F & C in New Britain, its birthplace, reached large proportions in 1957 with the purchase of the modern Eastern Metal Products plant in Fort Smith, Arkansas.... President Bret Neece advised stockholders on March 3, 1958 there would be greater utilization of subsidiary facilities.... Final days of true local control of L F & C were early in 1959. Frederick W. Richmond of New York, called a modern "empire builder" and "financial wizard," came onto the L F & C scene in 1958 by way of a "blind offer" to buy stock. The Franklin National Bank of Long Island made the offer.Richmond, still in his thirties at the time, headed an investment firm which wound up with one hundred thousand shares of L F & C. Richmond soon became chairman of the board.
He was unseated in June 1960. A group, headed by another New Yorker, Harry T. Silverman, became the largest shareholders....
Silverman expressed confidence at the outset, predicting the number of employees would double within a year. Approximately 1800 were on the payroll then, about one-half the 3600 peak.
By the Spring of 1961 Silverman, the chairman of the board, the president and other holders of large blocks of stock, turned their ears to offers.
On March 30, Silverman announced a tender to acquire controlling stock of L F & C by J. B. Williams Company, a leading producer of pharmaceuticals. Within six weeks J. B. Williams had ownership of 80% of some 404,000 outstanding shares.
Matthew B. Rosenhaus, president of J. B. Williams, came to New Britain before the stock was actually acquired. He spoke optimistically of the future. Williams paid $22 per share or approximately $9 million for the stock. The total investment of the Rosenhaus group, Silverman estimated, would be $25 million. Williams officials have maintained L F & C has been a losing proposition.
The efforts to diversify, to strike out in new areas continued. In 1964, for example, with much fanfare, it introduced what was said to be the first, mass-produced, pure nickel electroformed coffeemaker under the brand name of "Permatel." Research and development for this project cost $500,000 and cost of installing production equipment was $1 million.
But a year later it was all over. Landers, Frary & Clark was now another famous name that had passed into history where, with the years, its former fame would soon fade away.