Hamilton Company: A Proud Legacy

By: Peter Crabbe

I was "surgically" removing some drawers and cabinet doors in my house recently to make space for a dishwasher. It proved challenging as the modest-looking plywood cabinet boxes are solidly constructed, supported by oak bracing and mortice and tenon framing. I had experienced something similar when I removed a closet dividing wall about 18 months earlier and shortly after moving in. The framing structure was unusual. Instead of drywall skinned over 2x4 wood studs, there were 2x3 studs with 5/16" plywood nailed and glued on both sides with a robust construction adhesive. This is the same throughout the house. It makes hanging pictures a breeze! As I huffed and puffed on the above projects, I became curious about why what seemed from the outside to be a modest cape cod style home seen throughout the United States had these peculiarities.

The clue to how the house came to be built this way lies in the construction drawings we discovered in a closet while unpacking. They are original pencil drawings on velum with little detail. They did, however, show that the builder was the Hamilton Company. The new Executive Administrative Director of the Hamilton Wood Type & Printing museum had unwittingly purchased a Hamilton House constructed in 1948. I guess that makes me a company man.

The period of American growth in the period following World War II was remarkable. The war machine created to defeat the Nazis was focused on inventiveness, ingenuity, and making equipment to the highest quality and as reliable as possible. The reason for this is apparent. You do not want your tank breaking down in the middle of a battle, and you want the latest and best stuff. This ethic of inventiveness and high build quality spilled over into the post-war period. One example is an abundance of skilled mechanics who scoured the scrapyards for old cars to chop and modify. Another example is the development of home tools, such as the radial arm saw, for home use. These are so good that woodworkers still covet a DeWalt saw made in the '40s and '50s over those made later that tend to cut wonky lines.

Two Rivers and the rest of the rust belt were a significant part of this amazing time in American manufacturing. I have heard there are Hamilton dryers made in the 1950s that are still operational. We have several dryers on display at the museum. I guess engineers at the Hamilton Company were unaware or ignored Henry Ford's methods of built-in obsolescence. To be fair, Ford wanted to make things well but didn't want to over-engineer parts that didn't need it.

In addition to innovation and quality in creating wood type, The Hamilton company and the people of Two Rivers from the post-war period exemplify a commitment to quality and design. I would love to see this ethic return in ways that meet today's needs. If nothing else, I won't have to buy a new toaster every five minutes.


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