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Thursday, January 29, 2015

Hudson Erastus Bridge, the First Stove Founder in the Trans-Mississippi West

This will be the shortest of these biographical postings, largely because the man it's about was a pioneer and an innovator, but not an inventor.  Hudson Bridge invented neither the goods he made and sold nor the business format and production technologies that he adopted.  What he achieved depended instead on the early and successful transplantation of the practices of the New York State stove industry to the western frontier. 

A difference between a blog post and a book is the way in which you do cross-references.  When I did the previous piece, about Giles Filley and the Charter Oak, I realized that it didn't really make much sense, or at least not as much as it was supposed to, if you hadn't read previous bits of the book it was taken from.  Conventionally, we are supposed to read a book from front to back, especially a work of history that's structured in a pretty straightforward chronological way and is set out as an evolutionary story -- so, in the book (or perhaps "book," given that it has not made the leap from laptop to printed paper, and looks unlikely to), I could rely on presumed readers' memories, and just give them a bit of a jolt with a cross-reference.  As I move pieces of the book into this blog, I need to do things a bit differently.  It's not too convenient for people to have to go to a whole chapter, which they'll need to download, open, and scroll through.  Much better to get individual sections here, even if they're not really free-standing.

The most important part of the context for Giles Filley's career was that he followed closely in the footsteps of another Yankee merchant who had migrated to St Louis, Hudson Bridge, and also of Darius Buck.  So it makes sense for me to lift the material on Bridge from pp. 43-45 of Chapter 5 of my book, on the rise of the stove foundry in the 1830s and 1840s, and set it down here.  This also gives me a chance to illustrate it with a picture of probably the finest beard to grace the chin of ANY American stove maker.

* * * 

Figure 5.#: Hudson Erastus Bridge. (Howard L. Conard, ed., Encyclopaedia of the History of St. Louis: A Compendium of History and Biography for Ready Reference [New York: Southern Pub'g Co., 1899], Vol. 1, opp. p. 363.)

In 1837 Hudson E. Bridge (b. 1810), brought up on the family farm in Bennington County, Vermont, arrived in St. Louis, the emerging distribution center for the Mississippi Valley and the overland trade west. It had taken him six years to get there since leaving home with $6 in his pocket, via several intermediate steps -- working in a store in Troy, New York; teaching school in Columbus, Ohio; working as a salesman for a local firm with customers scattered between Detroit and Nashville, which gave him a fine education in what midwestern consumers wanted to buy and how to sell it to them; and finally moving to Springfield, Illinois, where he joined a patent plow-making firm. As his partners would not relocate the business to St. Louis a hundred miles further west, but with much better transport connections and, he thought, growth prospects, he soon moved there himself. He found new partners and began to sell plows from his old firm and the tin plate, copper, sheet iron, and other raw materials that country tinsmiths required, buying them from New York wholesalers or directly from a far cheaper source, Liverpool in England. He also sold Cincinnati and Louisville stoves like the city's other tin and hardware merchants, but soon started manufacturing them himself with plates bought from Tennessee blast furnaces, which was an innovation in St. Louis but simply replicated common practice further east.

Published accounts vary about what exactly happened next, or when. One version says that in 1838, building on his brief experience in plow making, he set up a small foundry, and “soon found that by, careful economy the cost of manufacture was less than the cost of bringing from the East.” Another earlier and more detailed report is that in 1841-1842 he and his brother Harrison, by then his partner, acquired a bankrupt foundry, bought some stove patterns, hired skilled men, and started making their own castings. These may be different versions of the same story, or alternatively successive steps along Bridge's road from merchant to manufacturer.1 His surviving business records do not entirely resolve the confusion, but they give more support to the later date, making clear that, though the plow and tinners' supplies trades were still his main preoccupations, by 1841 Bridge was also doing a substantial business in stoves and stove plate and had started to reduce his dependence on Tennessee furnaces as his main source of supply. His market territory soon extended as far east as Pittsburgh, but was concentrated in the upper Mississippi valley. His business was essentially that of an east coast firm transplanted. His Empire Stove Works imported most of its raw materials (including Lehigh coal and Scotch pig iron), in the beginning probably most of its skilled men too, and bought its patterns and patents in Albany and Troy so that it could offer midwestern customers the most up-to-date goods and live up to the promise of its name, with its obvious reference to New York (the Empire State), the center of innovation and quality production.2

By 1850 his firm had grown enough to justify the investment of $30,000 in a new foundry with a capacity of ten tons (about 80-100 stoves) per day, “which will, for the future, always ensure us a full supply on hand.” The following year they advertised themselves as “MANUFACTURERS of Pierce [Samuel Pierce, of Troy]'s Patent 'American Air-Tight,' 'Empire' and 'Victory' Premium Cooking Stoves, and every variety of Wood and Coal heating Stoves,” as well as being “dealers in Tin Plate, Copper, Sheet Iron, Iron Wire, Tinners' tools, machines, also, manufacturers of Jewett's improved Patent Cary Ploughs.” Eventually, in 1853, they sold their plow business and focused single-mindedly on stoves, as that part of their business “had increased to such an extent that they could not give it the attention it required.”3

Advertisements like Bridge's are usually the only sources we have (apart from surviving artefacts) for knowing what even the leading members of the first generation of stove makers actually sold. What they tell us is that, just as the transition from merchant to manufacturer was sometimes quite protracted, it was also usually incomplete. They therefore demonstrate that we would probably be wrong to over-emphasize the extent of their specialization in stove making; this too was more often the result of a process rather than a clear decision. ... 

The Bridge & Beach Empire Stove Works in 1870 -- office, wareroom (showroom, sales floor), and warehouse on S. Levee, mounting (assembly) shops on Almond St., foundry behind backing onto S. Main
[reference needed].

The Bridge & Beach Empire Stove Works in 1887, showing the company's expansion on all sides of its site except, of course, the river front -- Stoves & Hardware Reporter # (# 1887): #.

1 Biographical accounts of Bridge are, in chronological order, "The First Manufacturer of Stoves in St. Louis," The Metal Worker 3:11 (13 Mar. 1875): 3, giving the early 1840s as when he embarked on the stove foundry business; Sherman S. Jewett, “President’s Address” [Bridge obituary], The Metal Worker 3:24 (12 June 1875): 3; “Semi-Centennial of the Bridge & Beach Manufacturing Company,” Stoves and Hardware 9:15 (15 Jan. 1887): 14-15. J. Thomas Scharf, A History of St. Louis City and County (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts & Co., 1883), vol. 2, p. 1261 [quote], seems to be the origin of the 1838 story, reproduced thereafter in Howard L. Conard, ed., Encyclopaedia of the History of St. Louis: A Compendium of History and Biography for Ready Reference (New York: Southern Publishing Co., 1901), vol. 1, pp. 363-5; Walter B. Stevens, Centennial History of Missouri (St Louis, 1921), Vol. 2, p. 53; Vicki Johnston, “Hudson Erastus Bridge,” in Lawrence O Christensen, et al., eds., Dictionary of Missouri Biography (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1999), p. 114; and even in the introduction to the finding aid for the Hudson E. Bridge Papers, Missouri Historical Society, whose own evidence undermines it. Bridge joined a very Yankee business elite -- Jeffrey S. Adler, Yankee Merchants and the Making of the Urban West: The Rise and Fall of Antebellum St. Louis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 67-70, 92 – and served an increasingly immigrant German clientèle who did not need to be converted to stove use, as it was already part of their culture: Charles Van Ravensway, The Arts and Architecture of German Settlement in Missouri: A Survey of a Vanishing Culture (Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 1977), p. 124.

2 Jewett & Hitchcock [Springfield, Illinois] to Bridge, Rayburn & Co., April 1841-March 1842, Box 1, Folder 10, Bridge Papers, shows the importance of stoves in the ongoing trade between Bridge and his old partners; letters of 20 Feb. 1842, Box 1, Folder 12 and 21 Aug. and 11 Dec. 1842, Box 2, Folders 4 and 7, refer to the transition from Tennessee furnace-made stoves to the products of Bridge's own foundry; John Morrison (Troy, NY) to Bridge & Hale, 10 July 1843, Box 2, Folder 9, on supplying stoves via New York – Bridge was buying one each of a number of different styles, possibly for the purpose of copying, or alternatively as samples for market testing; Harrison Bridge (Bennington, VT) to “Brother Hudson,” 8 June 1844, Box 3, Folder 4, on purchasing patterns in Troy, and the reluctance of Rathbone & Co. to sell to him because Troy-made and St. Louis-made versions of the same stoves were already competing in the same midwestern markets.

3 James Green, Green's Saint Louis Directory (No. 1) for 1845 (St. Louis: Author, 1844), p. 26, and The Saint Louis Business Directory, for the Year of Our Lord 1850 (St. Louis: M'Kee, 1850), p. 130 [quote], trace the development of Bridge's business; advertisement, The Western Journal of Agriculture, Manufactures, Mechanic Arts, Internal Improvement, Commerce, and General Literature [St. Louis] 6:1 (April 1851): 71 [quote] -- Samuel Pierce (b. 1812) of New York, Peekskill, and eventually Troy was one of the most important cooking-stove inventors of the 1840s and 1850s; see Chapter 6, p. ##; Jacob N. Taylor and M.O. Crooks, Sketch Book of St. Louis (St. Louis: George Knapp & Co., 1858), p. 326 [quote].

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