Museum Artifact: Jorgensen Hand Screw Clamps, c. 1950s
Made by: Adjustable Clamp Co., 417 N Ashland Ave., Chicago, IL [West Town]
Back in 2015, when the Made In Chicago Museum was in its developmental stages, the Adjustable Clamp Company stood out as the rare "feel good" story amidst a sea of shuttered factories, outmoded merchandise, and forgotten dreams. The respected tool manufacturer, which changed its name to Pony Tools in 2013 (adopting the title of one of its’ long-running brands), was an honest-to-gosh family business with a local history dating back more than a century.
The company's chairman, Doug Holman, was actually the great-great grandson of the original founder, Adele V. Holman—a trailblazing woman who presided over a thriving manufacturing business nearly two decades before she had the right to vote. What a story! Maybe there is still hope for the underdog after all . . .
"I am writing to inform you that on May 19, 2016, Adjustable Clamp Company d/b/a Pony Tools Inc. informed its Chicago employees that it was suspending operations in Chicago effective immediately."
Those are the words of Doug Holman, announcing via e-mail that his great-great grandma's 113 year-old company was suddenly kaput. He elaborated that "this step was necessary due to issues unique to the Chicago business"—if you consider that elaborating.
To be fair, any small company that lasts this long—through depressions and recessions, world wars, and marketplace shifts—ought to be commended rather than criticized when it reaches the end. There was even some hope among devotees that the business might yet be saved at the 11th hour. After a two-year dormancy, however, the actual revival of the Pony and Jorgensen brands in 2018 proved a tad bittersweet. The new products will be distributed by Arrow Fastener in New Jersey, but they'll be manufactured entirely by Arrow's parent company, China's Hangzhou GreatStar Industrial Co. A once inspiring story of survival is now just another tombstone in the "Made in Chicago" graveyard.
[Page from the 1954 Adjustable Clamp Co. catalog]
Adjustable Clamp Co. History, Part I: The Goods
The end of Pony Tools [in its original form, at least] also means the end to any and all outstanding warranties on their products, I reckon. Since the factory had already started using cheaper Chinese components towards the end, that could prove problematic for some people. If you're the owner of any old-school, Chicago-made ACC tools, however—such as the classic "Jorgensen" brand handscrews in our collection—you can rest assured that they've probably got another few decades of functionality still left in them.
"Our JORGENSEN Handscrews are, in our opinion, the finest general purpose clamping tool," the company claimed in its 1956 catalog. "Properly handled, they are easily and rapidly adjusted, quickly applied to and removed from the job. They provide greatest leverage on the work for the effort expanded. The highly selected, straight grain, hard maple jaws present a broad surface to the work being clamped, without any tendency to 'creep' or twist. Also, the wood jaws hold most securely, without slipping, against any kind of surface—wood, metal, fabric or plastic—without danger of marring the work. With only ordinary care, they will outlast the 'iron' clamps which are often substituted . . . Not all Handscrews are the Genuine 'JORGENSEN'—be sure to look for the 'JORGENSEN' Trade-mark on the jaws of the Handscrews you buy!"
That synopsis, poorly written as it might be, could just as easily have come from the 2015 Adjustable Clamp catalog, or the 1915 edition, for that matter. Sure, an expert might recognize subtle changes to the Jorgensen design over the decades, but for the most part, if you bought one of these things brand new from a hardware store a few years ago, it probably looks and functions almost identically to the ones in our collection (which are likely mid-century) or the ones Adele “Someone Like You” Holman was rolling off the assembly line a century ago.
Some of the other early Adjustable Clamp Co. creations—like the metal Pony and Jorgensen “C” Clamps (patented by Adele’s son Harry V. Holman) were also left mostly unaltered after their 1920s/30s introductions. In the ‘50s and ‘60s, third-generation owner D.V. Holman helped usher in another line of successful clamps, and his son, Daniel, expanded to bench vises and miter saws under the same Pony, Jorgensen, and Adjustable brand names. The arsenal was established, and only the world around the Holmans was ever gonna change.
That's the tough thing about making a quality product for 100 years. If the design has been perfected, and the tool itself lasts a very long time, it becomes increasingly difficult to keep selling new ones—even to happy customers. Now, there are certainly more complex explanations for Adjustable Clamp's eventual demise. Some have suggested that there were serious managerial rifts over recent decisions—including moving much of the parts manufacturing to China. Others blamed union demands, cheaper competition, or failing to keep up with new tech trends. But it seems friendlier to just say "they were too good for their own good"—whatever consolation that might be to the workers now out of a job.
[Then & Now: Images of Adjustable Clamp's former main plant at 417 N. Ashland Ave. (left) in 1954 and 2018, and its second plant nearby at 404 N. Armour Street (right), 1954 vs. 2018. The company employed just over 40 workers back in 1954]
[Another look at the longtime Adjustable Clamp factory at 417-433 N. Ashland Avenue in West Town, circa 1990s. The factory shut down in 2016.]
Part II: Finding Adele
Before the sale of the company, the old Pony Tools corporate website only provided a quick glimpse into a fascinating origin story on it's "About Us" page: "Ms. Adele Holman was the original company owner and business leader," it said, "remarkable back then for a woman to own, run and grow a company."
It certainly was! Clearly, I needed more information.
So, since Pony Tools had yet to fold when I started my research, I reached out to them in 2015 with one basic request—I wanted to know more about the Adjustable Clamp Company's fearless founder. I figured, with the Holman family still in charge and proud of its legacy, there would be plenty of marvelous anecdotes and photos of "Great-Great Grandma Adele" forthcoming, thus crafting an intimate portrait of a great industrial revolutionary—an important Chicagoan long overdue for her proper recognition.
Initially, a sales rep at Pony Tools told me they'd be happy to help. But alas, no information was relayed, and no future queries received a response. I felt that perhaps the Holmans had attached clamps around their own hearts, but in retrospect, the impending collapse of the business may have been a distraction.
In any case, a little digging of my own revealed that the Adjustable Clamp Company's beginnings actually came a few years before Adele Holman's involvement, when Hans Jorgensen himself—inventor of our trusty hand screws—got the ball rolling in 1903. Jorgensen had his product and the skill to manufacture it, but he lacked the capital to start a business. This brought him into contact with an opportunistic Chicago lawyer named Marcus W. Russ, who agreed to fund the effort, serving as the first company president and sole salesman. In the early years, the whole operation ran out of one room, with a tiny staff of several workers hand-making each and every clamp. As demand increased, Russ purchased a separate manufacturing facility at 216 North Jefferson Street, with a half dozen employees making a still meager 300 clamps per week. It was around this time, in 1907, that a whirlwind of a woman named Adele Holman walked through Russ's door. It was literally music to the lawyer's ears.
[The Arion Ladies Quartette in 1899: I believe that's Adele up top.]
While this was rarely if ever mentioned in any of the Adjustable Clamp Co's own corporate histories, Adele Holman was already something of a local celebrity when she bought her first shares in the business. For much of the 1880s and '90s, the Jerseyville, Illinois native made her career—much like our most famous 21st century "Adele"—as a touring vocalist, eventually becoming the star mezzo-soprano and manager for the very popular Arion Lady Quartet.
The group performed hundreds of shows across the Midwest and beyond, and according to just about any thing you read about them, their harmony-laden renditions of popular standards got them big reactions and regular encores. Whether they were playing high society banquets, monument unveilings, religious concerts, hospital fundraisers, college campuses, or the finest theaters and music halls of the era, the Arion Ladies (rounded out by Ariel Nichols and the Swedish sisters Maria and Amelia Haden) delivered the goods.
In 1893, the group performed at Chicago's Central Music Hall with the famed African American opera singer Sissieretta Jones. Two years later, the Cincinnati Commercial Gazette wrote that: "the Arion Lady Quartette of Chicago did some of the most exquisite concerted singing we have ever heard. The liquid quality of the tone emitted, the absolute accuracy of time, the graduations of the shading which gave lifelike truth to the sentiment, the clear enunciation of words, all made its singing a delight." Wow.
[Poster for Adele & the Arion Lady Quartette, supporting Sissieretta Jones in Chicago, 1893]
As the 20th century dawned, Adele was still listed in the Chicago City Directory as a "Vocalist," and she had a "wide and enviable reputation as a musician of remarkable talent and most gracious personality." Circumstances began to change in 1905, however, when her husband Harry W. Holman (a railroad clerk she had married at the ripe old age of 15) suddenly died. At the same time, their lone son, Harry V., was off in Colorado working for a gold mining company. Based on the cultural expectations of the time period, Adele should have assumed the role of the middle-aged lonely widow. She could have spent her days sipping tea at Marshall Field's or comparing hat sizes with other ladies at various meetings of "enthusiast" groups. But that was never her style. Instead, with the fairly substantial funds at her disposal, Adele decided to take the management experience she'd gained booking shows for her "band" and apply it to a new pursuit.
With her initial purchase of Adjustable Clamp Co. shares in 1907, she replaced Walter Caddock as secretary, and while Marcus Russ was technically still the president, Adele Holman immediately took charge.
"Shortly after Mrs. Holman became secretary of the company," reported the Manufacturing and Wholesale Industries of Chicago, Vol. 3, "she decided that to insure the maximum success of the enterprise, the business office should no longer be segregated from the factory. She accordingly set definitely to work to bring about an orderly and progressive administration of affairs, though she had virtually no previous business experience. She established her executive headquarters at the factory and by her careful and discriminating methods evolved order out of chaotic conditions."
[Inside the Adjustable Clamp factory, circa 1940s. From PonyJorgensen.com]
By 1914, Adele bought out the rest of Russ's shares for $18,000, taking full ownership of the Adjustable Clamp Company. Three years later she expanded the factory, with 15 mechanics producing close to 2,000 clamps per week, of new and varying models. Orders were coming in from around the world, and Holman's name was gaining recognition outside the circles of music.
Manufacturing and Wholesale Industries of Chicago assessed it this way: "Special interest attaches to the [Adjustable Clamp Company] by reason of the fact that its executive head, Mrs. Adele V. Holman, has proved fully the resourcefulness and administrative ability which woman may bring to bear in the broad domain of industrial and commercial enterprise. Mrs. Holman is president of the company and virtually the sole owner of the business which is being most ably and progressively conducted under her personal administration."
The praise continued. And remember, this is 1918, still two years before Adele or any other American woman had the right to vote.
"Under her regime the concern became a substantial, well ordered and growing institution, her policy having been fully justified in tangible results. She is essentially one of the representative women in the industrial activities of Chicago and has achieved success of unequivocal order."
Adele remained the leader of Adjustable Clamp—the furthest thing from a figurehead—up until her death in 1932. As a rather cruel insult, her gravestone in Jerseyville reads merely, "ADELE V., WIFE OF HARRY W. HOLMAN." Twenty years as a world class singer, another 30 years building a successful international tool company, and in the end, she was just somebody's wife. There's the gender gap for you—ever so slowly improving thanks to the exploits of gals like Adele Holman.
So what inspired a talented singer to give up clefs for clamps? Did she find a rhythm and harmony within the utilitarian tools of her new trade? Would she sometimes walk the factory floors, cooing a melody to inspire her workers?
I don’t have these answers presently. But next time you’re using a Jorgensen clamp or a Pony tool of any kind, think about Adele and her friends singing ‘Way Down Upon the Suwannee River,” and realize there is an artist’s sensibility even in the most mundane of factory-made products.
Adjustable Clamp Co. Catalog #19, 1954
Adjustable Clamp Co. Catalog, 1956
"Adjustable Clamp Company" - Manufacturing and Wholesale Industries of Chicago, Vol. 3, 1918
PonyJorgensen.com (New Corporate Website est. 2018)
Chautauqua Journal, Urbana, IL, April 1900
"Iconic American Tool Brands Pony, Jorgensen & Goldblatt To Be Relaunched to the North American Market Under the Leadership of Arrow Fastener" - Press Release, May 10, 2018