Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

MADE IN PHILAD^sup A^ No. 6: Henry Disston's Early History

Academic journal article The Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association, Inc.

MADE IN PHILAD^sup A^ No. 6: Henry Disston's Early History

Article excerpt

The Henry Disston saw company in Philadelphia began modestly then went on to become the largest saw manufacturer in the world, and since the company's inception much has been written about the history of the firm. Most of the accounts that I have consulted are in agreement on a few facts-that Henry Disston, the founder of the firm, was born in Tewkesbury, England, May 24, 1819, and in 1833, he came with his father and sister to Philadelphia. A few days after their arrival, his fattier died.

At this point, Disston's history becomes a little murky. John S. Kebabian writing in The Chronicle in 1970 noted, "Henry went to work immediately for a firm of sawmakers."' Kebabian then cites one source, a biography by Jacob S. Disston written in 1950,2 that identified the firm as Lindley, Johnson, and Whitecraft, and another source, the National cyclopedia of American Biography3 that said Disston served his apprenticeship with William and Harvey Johnson. Kebabian doesn't note which source he thought was correct, but he concluded the article by quoting a third source, J. Thomas Scharf's History of Philadelphia. Scharf noted that "...Lindley, Johnson and Whitecraft were also among the early saw makers."4

To add to the confusion of these citations, the Disston Handbook on Saws, published by Disston, notes, "In 1833 William and Charles Johnson commenced the manufacture of saws in Philadelphia and it was with this concern that Henry Disston learned his trade."5

So the question is: at which firm did Henry Disston learn saw-making-Lindley, Johnson and Whitecraft, William and Harvey Johnson, or William and Charles Johnson? Each of the sources seems as if they would be credible. Jacob S. Disston was a grandson of Henry Disstun. The Natioanl Cyclopedia of American Biography has always been a highly regarded source, and one would think that the Disston Company would know its own history. But only one of these sources could be right.

In the quest to try and set the record straight, I began by ruling out the The Natioanl Cyclopedia of American Biography reference to William and Harvey Johnson because this is the only source that ever mentioned this firm in all the sources I have seen. That left the two other firms, William and Charles Johnson and Lindley, Johnson, and Whitecraft.

In Philadelphia and its Industries, 1885 the authors note, "The father died three days after their arrival in Philadelphia, and the son [Henry Disston] apprenticed himself when 18 years of age, to Mr. Johnson, a saw-maker, who subsequently failed in the business, owing Mr. Disston money for wages which he was unable to pay."6

Paul Morgan in an article in 1986 in The Chronicle wrote, "Henry became apprenticed to the firm of Lindley, Johnson, and Whitecraft, sawmakers."7 Morgan based his information on a copy of the Disston history published in 1920 by the Disston Company.8

A 1913 catalog, The Disston Saws and Tools for the Farm, states, "When William and Charles Johnson of Philadelphia failed in 1840, and Henry Disston accepted from them, in lieu of salary due him, a few tools and some material used in their saw business, the present great industry was founded."9

Harry C. Silcox in his book, A Place to Live and Work: The Henry Disston Saw Works and the Tacony Community of Philadelphia, tells still another version, ".. .lie (Henry Disston) apprenticed himself for seven years to Lindley, Johnson & Whitecraft, a Philadelphia saw-making firm founded by three Englishmen."10

Philip Scranton and Walter Licht wrote in their 1986 book, Work Sites in Industrial Philadelphia, 1890-1950, 'Arriving in Philadelphia from England in 1833, Disston served a seven-year term learning saw-making from the Johnson brothers, a pair of experienced English immigrants."11

One more author, Erwin L. Schaffer, has still another version of Disston's early years, "Henry begins working for Lindley, Johnson and Whitcraft, [and] this firm either changes its name to William and Charles Johnson or is owned by William and Charles Johnson. …

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