Airguide Instrument Co., est. 1930

Airguide Field Glasses

Museum Artifact: No. 36 Field Glasses, c. 1940s

Made by: Airguide Instrument Co. / Fee & Stemwedel, Inc, 2210 W. Wabansia Ave. [Wicker Park]

As an avid birdwatcher and lifelong appreciator of faraway objects, in general, I can’t help but have a soft spot for these well traveled Airguide field glasses. This particular pair likely dates from the late 1940s, when chickadees still listened to jazz and goldfinches feared Communism. The manufacturer was Chicago’s Fee & Stemwedel, Inc., which would soon be changing its name to the Airguide Instrument Company—making its long established commercial brand an official corporate identity.

Airguide has its origins at the dawn of the Depression, 1930, when Richard Fee and Albert L. Stemwedel launched their business, manufacturing battery maintainers for the growing home radio market. By 1932, they’d expanded into hygrometers and thermometers, landing a big contract to manufacture the latter for Marshall Fields. Their first main headquarters was located at 219 W. Chicago Avenue, but by World War II they’d taken over buildings at 4949 N. Pulaski Road and their eventual long term home, 2210 W. Wabansia Avenue. Both locations are still standing and pictured below, with the Wabansia building now serving as upscale loft apartments.

[Above: Former 1940s factory space at 4949 N. Pulaski Rd., as it looks today. Below: Former plant at 2210 West Wabansia, since converted into lofts]

From early on, Fee & Stemwedel used “Airguide” as the brand for most of their products (“Trojan” was just about the only other brand I could find under their banner), and the name became associated with a fairly distinct line of goods one could best describe as “scouts equipment.”

Advertisements in 1940s and ‘50s issues of Boy’s Life and Popular Mechanics showcased Airguide compasses, clocks, rain gauges, barometers, inclinometers, and of course, binoculars—more artfully marketed as “field glasses.”

The field glasses in our museum collection are the No. 36, 4×40 model, which retailed for about $9 in 1950, or roughly $90 in modern coin. I would describe the crystal clear majesty of these solid binocs, but some ad agency handled it much better 70 years ago:

“Thrilling close-ups add to your pleasure all along your vacation route. Through the clear, precision-ground lenses of your Airguide Glasses, you’re there when scenic splendors beckon from afar. You’re there . . . when ‘they’re off’ at the racetrack, or when a merry white sail bridges the horizon.

“Favorite of vacation-goers and outdoor enthusiasts the country over, these handsomely designed Glasses also make wonderful gifts for Graduation and Father’s Day.

“Famed for quality workmanship, Airguide Sports and Field Glasses are prized for their smooth, quick-focusing action, optically ground lenses and rugged but lightweight construction. Get a pair in any of the better stores that sell Airguides coast to coast . . . they’ll magnify your fun many-fold!”

Magnify your fun many-fold! That’s some acrobatic double-alliteration there.

Anyway, by the 1950s, Fee & Stemwedel had a workforce of 200 men and women, along with a pretty lucrative defense contract making pocket compasses for the U.S. military. The Wabansia plant continued to grow, and business was booming much like the baby-making practices of the period.

There was at least one disturbing, dark chapter in the midst of these good times, however. In October of 1952, a factory worker in Fee & Stemwedel’s thermometer department, Robert James, was arrested by Chicago police after admitting to the murder of his wife Harriet, whose body he’d buried under the porch of their apartment at 1621 N. Winchester Avenue—about a 10 minute walk from the Wabansia Avenue plant.

The story was as bizarre as it was gruesome. Robert James was apparently separated from but still legally married to two other women at the same time, and had originally hired Harriet—his third wife / victim—to be a nanny for a young child he’d fathered with one of those other women. They were married just weeks later.

Seven months into the marriage, supposedly acting out of a rage over Harriet’s drinking habits, James strangled his new bride to death, and initially kept her body stored in a trunk for several days. He also sent an incredibly twisted letter to Harriet’s parents—pretending it was from Harriet—in which he claimed “she” had met a new man and was driving out west with him through Oklahoma. “I am not coming back to Chicago any more,” it said, in part. “I will be O.K. I will have a home and someone who likes to drink and go out to taverns and have a good time. Tell Mom not to worry about me. I will be just fine.”

The weirdness of the letter, which was absurdly long considering the purposes, raised serious concerns for Harriet’s parents, and eventually led to an investigation and Robert James’s arrest. It had to be an interesting mood the next day at the Fee & Stemwedel factory, as Robert’s old thermometer assembly buddies tried to make sense of their former co-worker’s face on the front page of the newspaper—a confessed murderer.

But, like I said, things were mostly going really well for Airguide!

By 1956, company co-founder Richard Fee decided he’d get out of the business while the getting was still good, and sold his shares to Albert Stemwedel, who—in turn—changed the name from Fee & Stemwedel to the Airguide Instrument Co.

Like so many of its contemporaries, Airguide was eventually doomed by the rise of foreign competition, particularly cheap instruments from East Asia. The company was sold to Wisconsin’s Johnson Worldwide Associates in 1980, and the Airguide brand name was discontinued for good by 2000.

Albert Stemwedel, in the end, outlasted the 70-year run of his company, as he died in 2002 at the age of 97.

 

Archived Reader Comments:

“I worked for Mr Stemwedel at Airguide for a shot time between 1964-1967 and found him to be a very kind and considerate person.  Airguide also had a line of Automobile Compass’, Marine Compass’, Marine Engine Tachometer, Marine Pitot Tube Speedometers and Marine Radio Direction Finders. My job responsibilities were primarily associated with the radio direction finders as they had just purchased that company.” —Alan Wayne, 2020

“I picked up a Fee and Stemwedel desktop barometer — the one that’s roughly 5″ by 5″ — at an antique shop 20 years ago.  It worked then and still does.” —Mike B., 2020

“In the mid 60’s my babysitter’s father was a design engineer for Airguide. He gave us a combo thermometer/barometer which was quite stylish in the contemporary 60’s look which I remember well.” —Marc, 2019

 

16 thoughts on “Airguide Instrument Co., est. 1930

  1. Just bought a NOS model 407 thermometer “Coca – Cola” embossed at an antique mall in Calgary Alberta – can’t wait to hang it up at my family cottage ! It’ll be a treasure 😊. ( the quality appears exceptional )

  2. I have a Airguide 90-G that appears to be unused. Can anyone tell me when it might have been built/manufactured?

  3. This message is to Alan Wayne (Archived Reader Comments, 2020, above) or anyone who worked, or knows someone who worked, at Airguide in the 1960s. My late Father, Thomas Clune Sr., was a design engineer at Airguide from ca. 1960 to 1969, with a brief interruption in 1967 while he finished his degree in Aeronautical Engineering in CA. I remember the name Stemwedel, and that Dad worked for someone named Schwinghammer. Just seeing the Airguide logo brings back strong memories. Dad used to tell me about the smoke that came in the windows from the tire dump across the street. Years later, taking the Blue Line downtown to work as an architect, I would pass the old Airguide HQ on Wabansia and Milwaukee Avenue, and there was the tire dump!
    We always had an Airguide product in our home growing up–usually a thermometer/barometer/weather/wind gauge–and a compass on the dashboard of our car. The colonial and nautical case designs on eBay are familiar. Recently I had a conversation about weather with my youngest daughter and told her about the Airguide gauges we use to have and that her grandfather designed. After visiting eBay and seeing how affordable these are, I decided I had to get on in my home. But I don’t know specifically which ones my father designed, nor did it occur to me to ask him while he was alive. What a regret! If I buy a model from the mid-’60s there’s a chance, but it would be great to know with certainty. I’d love to hear from anyone who worked with my dad, or at Airguide during that time, and who might have some knowledge about the design provenance of the products out there for sale. Many thanks.

  4. I have a acromatic 5×40 “47A” binoculars i got for 5 bucks at a flea market. Even were these produced and what was the leather pouches they came in? I have a nice leather pouch with strap that is strangely short.

  5. I have a Airguide instrument. Made in Chicago banjo shape. I guess. Has 3 gems in middle. Diamond, Ruby, Diamond. Below. C insignia. Any help on what its worth. When made etc.

  6. I have an Airguide instrument ….opera glasses…… model “44A”.
    Could someone please point me in the right direction for information?
    Thank you

  7. I still have my Digiguide liquid crystal desk thermometer from 1975. I wonder if the liquid crystal temperature strip display is being remanufactured as it no longer glows as bright as it once did.

  8. I have an Airguide Windspeed Indicator & Compass Model 919 including the instructions and box. Can anyone share any history of this item and dates of manufacture?

  9. Thomas Clune Jr. ….I worked at Airguide on Wabansia 1964-1967 I remember your father Thomas Clune. He was a great man. Mr. Stemwedel was President. All Airguide products were made at the Wabansia site. Pride of workmanship was instilled into every product.

  10. Thank you for this information. I love old, well-constructed things, and one of my favorites that I have had for years are my grandfather’s pair of Airguide 5×40 “47A” binoculars. He bought them sometime in the ’50s, at a guess, and used them when quail and pheasant hunting.

    The clarity of the lenses is very high; the only thing comparable I have found currently are some very expensive pairs of Zeiss. I have maintained the leather of the grips, strap, and case, and although they show some inevitable wear, neatsfoot oil has kept the leather supple and prevented cracking. One of my chief interests is geology, and I still take the Airguides into the field with me when I hike for pleasure in the Coastal Range here in California.

  11. I have collected 8 assorted Airguide Barometer/Temperature/Humidity devices over the past few years. My oldest was made in 1938 and my newest in 1961. After cleaning them internally, They all work perfectly. Since I reside 6 blocks from the Pacific Ocean, I set all of the Barometers at sea level and they all show the same reading! They are just great!

  12. Hello All!
    I just “inherited” the exact model of binoculars described in this superbly written homage to both the product and the company. There is no case and there is some cosmetic damage to the outside shell on the left side but the lenses are still “crystal clear”. I do not collect binoculars but have a few antique and vintage pair from my grandfather and his father and now my younger brother (there is no telling where he got them as he was only 27 when he passed 2 months ago). I digress but is there any value to these or is there a place to look for items like this. I love antiques but after losing my jobs due to COVID and now trying to take care of his estate etc I’m starting to look at any options. If not selling them, is there another museum or something type of youth learning center (?) that would benefit from having them to use or display?
    Any information is appreciated and thanks for reading my rambling note here.
    Cheers!
    Becky Elizabeth/ Wilmington, NC

  13. I have an antique marine compass that I need to refill with compass fluid. I can not find a hole to load the compass fluid. There is no model # or serial #. The body is grey. The only markings are: “AirGuide Chicago USA. I think it was made in the mid to late 50’s.

    Do you have any suggestions for who I can go to repair it? It belonged to my father and he used it to navigate the Atlantic for many years. I would like to see it repaired and functional even if it is never used again.

    Thank you!

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