Museum Artifacts: EKCO Miracle Can Opener 885 (c. 1960s) and EKCO Helmet Bottle Stopper (c. 1940s)
Made by: Ekco Products Co., 1949 N. Cicero Ave., Chicago, IL [Belmont-Cragin]
“We taught your mother a new way to open chicken soup,” read the presumptuous tagline of a 1965 advertisement for the Miracle Can Opener—arguably the most recognizable of the thousands of utensils produced by the EKCO Housewares Company. “She used to work her fingers to the bone, opening those cans, until we invented the Miracle Can Opener about thirty-five years ago. It had a gear (of all things!) and long handles you could get a good grip on. And when you turned the key, it cut through the tin as easy as pie. We’d made a major breakthrough.
“Just about every family got one of our can openers. And anybody who was tall enough to reach the kitchen drawer used it. Since then, we’ve developed bigger and better Ekco can openers, but we keep selling this one. As many as six or seven million a year. Maybe because it’s so handy. Maybe because it brings back warm memories. Of all that chicken soup?”
Maybe it’s also a bit sad to presume we’d all nostalgically associate our moms with a can opener, but when EKCO ran these ads in magazines like Better Homes and Gardens in ‘65, it was a tactical maneuver more than anything; a way to reassure the general populous that everything was still “business as usual” at the 75 year-old company—even though it definitely wasn’t.
Despite posting a profit in every year of its existence, dating back to 1889, EKCO (a name derived from its original identity as the Edward Katzinger Company) officially surrendered its independence in September of 1965, becoming a division of the massive conglomerate known as the American Home Products Corporation. It was the beginning of the end for EKCO as a Chicago institution, but they were hardly in a position to complain about it.
[1950s stock footage of women working at the EKCO plant at N. Cicero Avenue and Armitage Ave.]
For decades, EKCO itself had been the conquering king of the non-electric housewares market, absorbing dozens of smaller businesses across the country and huddling their goods under its Chicago tent; from cutlery and flatware to baking supplies, pressure cookers, chemicals, plastic accessories, aluminum foil containers, bathroom fixtures, lighting, building supplies, and more. It was the growing fear of antitrust lawsuits, in fact, that may have inspired 71 year-old EKCO chairman Arthur Keating to retire from his position and sell the family business to American Home Products for a cool $145 million in stock.
Keating, despite being the son of company founder Edward Katzinger, suffered no blind allegiances to the past. Case in point, as a Jewish man observing the horrors of World War II, he unflinchingly changed both the official corporate name of the business (from Edward Katzinger Co. to the EKCO Products Company) and his own surname (from Katzinger to Keating)—likely for no other reason than to sound less German. As a businessman, he also helped bring the low-price, volume-based sales strategy of retailers like Sears Roebuck into the manufacturer’s arena. “We never talk about what the company can get from a wholesaler or department store,” he told Fortune magazine in 1949. “We talk about what the consumer will pay for it.”
In other words, rather than crafting the ideal product for a certain need—like the old-school manufacturers did— EKCO offered up every option, from a 15-cent can opener to a 6-dollar one, paired with any handle color in the rainbow. It was the new 20th century “deluge” style of capitalism fully realized, and, to borrow a phrase, it “taught your mother a new way.”
[1955 comic strip]
Ekcoes of the Past
“If growing up in a business influences the direction of a young man’s career, Arthur Keating was perhaps predestined to devote his business life to Ekco Products Company.” —Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1961
Arthur Katzinger/Keating certainly had a headstart in life that many sons of immigrants did not. His father, Edward Katzinger (b. 1863), did the heavy lifting—moving from his native Austria to the U.S. as an 18 year-old in 1881; adapting his old world skills as a “tinner” to factory life in New York City; then relocating out West to start his own business, first in Kansas City, then Chicago, where he specialized in manufacturing baking tins for the commercial baking industry.
By the time Arthur was born in 1894, the Katzinger family (including dad, mother Anna, sister Laura and big brother Sidney) were still living in a small apartment above Edward’s tinsmith shop at 369 S. Halsted Street (850 S. Halsted by current street numbering) on the Near West Side. This home was likely part of the Jane Addams Hull House, an important multi-ethnic housing development that welcomed many immigrants into the city, and has since become a Historic Landmark on the campus of the University of Illinois-Chicago. Back in the 1890s, poverty was the norm in the neighborhood, but Edward Katzinger—who once took a side gig making cornice work for the “White City” at the 1893 Columbian Exposition—was the classic ambitious outlier.
While he only had about a half-dozen workers on the payroll in the late ‘90s, that number grew to 22 by the time the business was finally incorporated as the Edward Katzinger Company in 1903 (the “EKCO” shorthand nickname first came into use about a year later).
In 1909, after about a decade in a small plant at West Washington Street and Canal Street, the Katzinger Co. moved down the road to a new five-story building at 120 North Peoria Street; next-door to the headquarters of a baking supply rival, the J.W. Allen Company. Here, Katzinger and his expanded team of 40 employees continued to focus primarily on making equipment for professional bakers, confectioners and ice cream parlours, but a new line of low-cost baking pans for the consumer market laid the groundwork for Ekco’s great leap forward. By 1914, the staff had doubled again, and an expanded plant was in the works on the same block as the Peoria Street building, on the corner of Washington and Sangamon Street.
[Above Left: The new EKCO complex at Washington Street and Sangamon Street, 1921. Above Right: Another EKCO building on that same block, at 120 N. Peoria Street, as it looks today.
Below: Two EKCO baking pan ads from 1915]
During this same period, young Arthur Katzinger—who was studying mechanical engineering at the Armour Institute (aka the Illinois Institute of Technology)—might indeed have looked predestined to a fruitful career with the family business. But his path had far more twists and bends than it appeared.
Before getting into college, Arthur had actually been something of a troubled teen; so much so that he was expelled from high school for his consistent misconduct. A frustrated Edward responded by vanquishing his son to a military school, where the youngster supposedly learned the ills of his ways and came back reformed; eventually captaining half the sports teams at his college, despite a stocky 5’4” build.
With his older brother Sidney already employed at EKCO, Arthur wasn’t technically the heir apparent. But there was still an understanding, or an obligation, as to where his destiny lied.
“One day in 1916 I was graduated from Armour institute,” he told the Tribune in 1961, “and I reported for work [at EKCO] the same day.” It was plant operations work; a lot of it on the night shift; a boy amongst men.
Less than three years later, on January 23, 1919, Arthur’s mother and his brother Sidney both died tragically. It was likely the result of a fire or an auto accident, although available newspaper reports surprisingly offer no details, leaving circumstances a bit mysterious. Sidney was only 28.
Shortly thereafter, Arthur recalled that his father “took me out of the factory and told me to run the company.”
Being from the generation he was, Arthur Keating never communicated any sense of trauma from these events, instead attributing his struggles with insomnia to a circadian hangover from those old night-shift schedules of his youth. By 1923, he was vice president of the Edward Katzinger Company, and for all intents and purposes, more in charge of the goings on there than his father, who remarried that year and entered a bit of an early retirement
“The tremendous increase in the volume of our business is the inevitable result of the high quality and reasonable prices of our products. It is but one phase which symbolizes the earnest, honest endeavor of every individual in our organization to give his best efforts in the production of the finest baker’s equipment.” —from a “Statement of Policy” by the president of the Edward Katzinger Co., 1921
When Edward Katzinger went into business in the 1880s, bake pans were generally made-to-order, with no standardization or bulk production in existence. By contrast, when his son Arthur started managing the plant in the early 1920s, it was producing about 70,000 pans per day, all at stock sizes, ready for the masses. This was basically the template from which all other branches of the EKCO business would eventually grow.
In a 1921 article in the Northwestern Miller, the Katzinger factory on West Washington Street was profiled as a shining example of modern baking pan production.
“The main object of the factory seems to be that eternal saving on the cost. Every operation that can be combined with another operation in a machine that is already doing other work saves something. All the savings combine to make possible a far better pan at a much lower cost. . . . Quantity production enables the manufacturers to mass the small savings into a large total, and they have not only done this on pans but they have passed on the saving to the consumer in the shape of lower prices.”
[Inside the EKCO factory, warehouse, and offices at Washington Street and Sangamon Street, 1921]
With his degree in mechanical engineering, Arthur Keating wasn’t just playing an active role in the machining efficiency of his factory, he was designing many of EKCO’s modern pans and utensils, as well.
Having survived the material shortages of World War I, EKCO’s growth was untethered in the ’20s. Another new plant opened in 1923, covering a whopping 17 acres at Cicero and Armitage Avenue. And in 1927, “King Arthur” began his conquest of the housewares industry on a national scale, starting with the acquisition of Baltimore’s venerable August Maag Company, a maker of commercial baking ware (operations were later moved to Chicago).
Two years later, EKCO began negotiations with the A & J Manufacturing Company, a utensil company in Binghamton, New York. If successful, buying A&J would effectively turn EKCO into a new leader in the consumer kitchenware market.
There was a stumbling block, however.
“All the legal work involved in acquiring A & J Tool company had been straightened out and the purchase was to take effect 10 days after the market crash,” according to Arthur Keating, who was leading the tense negotiations without the aid of his father, whose health was declining. “We had a lot of ‘market outs’ but decided to go through with it—for 1 million dollars in cash!”
It was a swing for the fences that Babe Ruth would have found impressive, and it basically ensured that EKCO would not only survive the approaching Depression, but thrive through much of it.
The EKCO Empire
Shortly after the A&J buyout, EKCO debuted the Miracle Can Opener, just one of many innovative tools patented by the company’s prolific new designer Myron J. Zimmer.
With consumers operating on tight budgets, the appeal of these affordable, handy doo-dads was greater than ever; seen more as “wise buys” rather than cheap substitutes for heftier utensils. The same philosophy applied to EKCO’s new lines of cutlery, following the purchase of the Geneva Cutlery Co. (of Geneva, NY) in 1934.
[An early version of Ekco's Miracle Can Opener, designed by Myron Zimmer and patented in 1938]
Perhaps EKCO’s biggest financial windfall of the ‘30s, however, came with their jump into the pre-war British housewares market. With most UK manufacturers still operating by the stuffy rules of the past, Arthur Katzinger/Keating took some advice from one of his company’s top customers, Woolworth, and opened up a subsidiary business in the depressed town of Burnley in Lancashire, giving it the appropriately Britishy name of Platers and Stampers, Ltd.
Stocking the Burnley factory with about $900,000 worth of mostly used machinery and equipment in 1937, Keating watched Platers and Stampers become a $4 million company by the end of World War II, with the "Sky-Line" and "Ovenex" lines outselling the more esteemed brands made in Sheffield, and the "Prestige" line taking over the pressure cooker market.
“Doing business in Britain is much easier than in the USA,” Keating later told Fortune, “because we design and price our products right, to sell in volume. Britain needs more manufacturers who will do that.”
During the war, it was obviously hard for manufacturers in both Britain and the U.S. to focus much on their traditional products. Following Edward Katzinger’s death in 1939, Arthur took the aforementioned bold steps of renaming the company (and himself), creating the EKCO Products Company in 1944. The main factory at Cicero and Armitage was primarily a defense plant during the war years, but Keating was still wheeling and dealing, acquiring the stainless steel flatware of the Sta-Brite Products Corp. (New Haven, CT) in 1943, and the E.L. Tebbets Spool Co. (Locke Mills, Maine) and Massillon Aluminum Co. (Massillon, OH) in 1945. He also established a $400,000 research laboratory from which many new precision tool-making machines were developed.
Post-war, the EKCO Army had domain over most non-electric kitchenware in the U.S., with subsidiaries soon acquired in Canada, Mexico, Germany, and as far away as Australia. Satellite U.S. factories and offices were operating in Ohio, Maryland, California, Wisconsin, New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts . . . just about everywhere.
The Ecko U.S. Acquisition Roster: 1927-1965
1927: August Maag Co. (Bakeware), Baltimore, MD
1929: A and J MFG. Co. (Kitchen Tools), Binghamton, NY
1934: Geneva Cutlery Co. / Geneva Forge (Cutlery), Geneva, NY
1943: Sta-Brite Products Corp. (Flatware), New Haven CT
1945: E.L. Tebbets Spool Co. (Rolling Pins), Locke Mills, ME
1945: Massillon Aluminum Co. (Cooking Utensils), Massillon, OH
1946: Murdock Metal Products, Inc. (Kitchen Utensils), Chicago
1947: Byesville Products Co. (Steel Tableware), Byesville, OH
1948: Bergen Forge Co. (Flatware Knives), Bergen, NJ
1949: Diamond Silver Co. (Silver Flatware), Lambertville, NJ
1949: National Glaco Chemical Corp. (Pan Chemicals), Chicago
1951: Minute Mop Co. (Sponge Mops), Chicago
1952: Republic Stamping & Enameling (Enamelware), Canton, OH
1954: Adams Plastics Co. Inc. (Handles), Holyoke, MA
1954: Autorye Co. (Bathroom Fittings), Oakville, CT
1954: McClintock MFG Co. (Pans and Containers), Whittier, CA
1955: Kilgore MFG Co. (Plastic Housewares), Westerville, OH
1955: Shore Machine Corp. (Ice Cream Scoops), New York, NY
1956: Kennetrack Corp. (Sliding Door Hardware), Elkhart, IN
1956: Ruby Light Co. (Fluorescent Lights), Los Angeles, CA
1956: P.R. Mallory Plastic Inc. (Bathroom Accessories), Chicago
1957: Felco Lighting Co. (Lighting), Dallas, TX
1957: Emro MFG Co. (Bottle Openers), St. Louis, MO
1957: Worley & Co. (Steel Lockers), Pico, CA
1959: Davis Rolling Pin Co. (Pins and Cutting Boards), Detroit, MI
1960: Washington Steel Co. (Door Hardware), Pico, CA
1960: Engineered Nylon Products (Molded Parts), Elkhart, IN
1961: Berkeley Products Co. (Closet Accessories), Jersey City, NJ
1962: Ekco-Aloca Container Inc. (Foil Containers), Wheeling, IL
[1965 ad for "Flint" pots and pans, one of EKCO's major brands.]
“King of the Kitchen”
According to a profile in Time magazine in 1952, Arthur Keating’s empire was now combining to produce more than 2,000 different products (almost one for every one of its 2,275 employees), many of them in streamlined, multi-color styles created by the country’s most famous industrial designer, Raymond Loewy; whom Keating had on a $75,000 salary.
Sold under brand names like A&J, Flint, and Ovenex, the EKCO arsenal brought in $35 million in gross earnings in 1951, moving 375,000 egg beaters, 10.5 million kitchen knives, 2.5 million rubber-ended bottle stoppers, 1.5 million pots and pans, and 12 million can openers, according to Time. In a lot of cases, individual households were purchasing these same items repeatedly in a calendar year—a phenomenon that didn’t surprise Arthur Keating. It was part of his business model.
“A minor mystery to most U.S. males is the fact that housewives always seem to have room for another spoon or egg beater in their crowded kitchen cabinets,” reported the Time article. “But Chicago’s 57 year-old Arthur Keating solved the mystery long ago. As head of Ekco Products Co. and king of the U.S. kitchenware business, it is his job to make women want ever more household gimmicks. Keating estimates that nearly a third of existing gadgets disappear every year; they are lost in the garbage, carted away by children, or battered shapeless by amateur earthmovers in the backyard. Keating makes it is his business to put the rest out of date.”
“They’re here now,” read a typical example of a mid-century EKCO newspaper ad, “new, wonderful and totally beautiful EKCO Products . . . housekeeping tools that make fun of housework . . . that replace old tired household tools with streamlined efficiency. Now your dreams come true!”
Rather than using nostalgia to sell can openers, as they would in the late 1960s, the 1950s version of EKCO was more in line with the era—forward thinking, space age, NEW NEW NEW. . . but still, lest it be forgotten, cheap!
“When a housewife doesn’t feel she can afford $200 for a dishwasher,” Keating told Time magazine, “she will still spend 15 cents for a new potato peeler.”
This same philosophy, in a way, applied to EKCO’s commercial clients, such as Swanson—creators of the first iconic “TV Dinner” packaged meals.
“The early ‘50s was an exciting time in the foil container industry,” says former EKCO engineer John Duskey, whose father Edmund Duskey was part of Keating’s engineering team during the era in question. “In the first half of the twentieth century, metal containers such as pie plates were made in multiple operations: blanking and forming, curling and finishing. If this could be done in a single operation and put into production, there would be substantial cost savings for customers, and substantial sales increases for companies doing the stamping.”
According to Duskey, this challenge was of “particular interest” to an aging Arthur Keating, who was still a mechanical engineer at heart.
“Nobody knows for sure who was the first to make a single-operation foil pie plate, but it is certain that Arthur Keating was able to convince the customers that the curl should be half-above and half-below the flange," Duskey says. "Ekco became the leader in promoting and selling these containers in the early 1950s, and once the standard specifications had been developed, the more costly tooling for square and rectangular containers, including the TV Dinner plate, could be built.”
As one result of that success, EKCO formed a corporate partnership with the Aluminum Company of America (Alcoa) in 1955, creating Ekco-Alcoa Container, Inc., complete with its own dedicated plant in suburban Wheeling, IL. By the time EKCO subsequently bought out Alcoa’s shares in 1962, the newly renamed EKCO Containers subsidiary represented 13 percent of EKCO’s overall business. The Cicero Avenue factory, still focused on the usual kitchen lines, became the HQ for the also newly minted EKCO Housewares Co., which opened a Franklin Park facility shortly before the sale to American Home Products in 1965.
Arthur Keating, though technically retired, took a place on the board of American Home, but he never really saw the ultimate consequences of the deal. He died in 1967 at age 73.
[Glimpse of the EKCO factory at Cicero Ave. and Armitage, c. 1965]
After the Sale
In EKCO’s final year of independence, in 1964, it had posted record sales of $117 million with $7.6 million in earnings. And while a merger/buyout with American Home Products might have made the company’s Chicago-area employees uneasy, it didn’t spell instant doom by any means.
“In the sixties, American Home was a diverse conglomerate which sold a variety of household products—everything from Chef Boyardee to Aspirin tablets—so it seemed that EKCo would fit into their product lines,” says John Duskey.
“EKCO was an interesting place to work in the ‘70s and ‘80s. Fred Alexander had assumed the position of manager of manufacturing engineering in 1964. He led a team that included new product design, tooling design, and the toolroom. That toolroom was continually busy maintaining the existing tooling, and building new tooling for many new product ideas that had turned into actual production items. The company also entered the field of ovenable paperboard containers and plastic containers. Many different types of tooling were built, all according to the same design standard developed back at the old plant at Cicero and Armitage in the early 1950s.”
EKCO’s housewares division was divided into three operations in 1972: Ekco Products Inc., Ekco Housewares Co., and The Prestige Group Limited—which was the evolution of the old Platers and Stampers LTD in the UK. All three divisions were still productive and profitable into the 1980s, but increasingly detached from American Home’s growing focus on the pharmaceutical market.
In 1984, each division was unceremoniously sold off—EKCO Products to Tenneco Inc., EKCO Housewares to a New York investment banking firm, and Prestige LTD to American Brands, Inc. Still based in Franklin Park, EKCO Housewares seemed poised for a new golden era under the leadership of a highly ambitious new director, a Dane named Finn Schjorring, who vowed to “reestablish the company to its former glory” by contemporizing its kitchenware designs in the European style. The plans were implemented, but the rest of the world had long since caught up to the sales tricks that Arthur Keating had introduced back in the day.
[Notice that the newspaper editor misspelled the company name in the headline and opening sentence. No wonder they left town!]
With plants starting to close, EKCO Housewares was sold again in 1987 to a computer printer maker called Centronics Corp., which then re-organized as EKCO Group, Inc. The company remained a leading bakeware seller and diversified its properties, but much of its workforce was either moved to Mexico or just eliminated outright.
In 1992, the remaining 170 employees at the old factory at Cicero Ave. and Armitage were let go, ending EKCO’s century-long run in the city. The Franklin Park corporate offices remained in operation into the new century, but have since been abandoned, as well.
"Never Any Doubt of Keating's Business Aspirations at Ekco" - Chicago Tribune, July 17, 1961
"King of the Kitchen" - Time, May 19, 1952
"Don't Fall In Love With Your Product" - Fortune, October 1949
International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 16. St. James Press, 1997.
"International Industrialist Keating Dies" - Chicago Tribune, Dec 13, 1967
"Ekco Shutdown to Affect 170 Jobs" - Chicago Tribune, Jan 13, 1992
"Pans for the Baker" - The Northwestern Miller, Vol. 127, No. 13, Sept. 28, 1921
Ekco Housewares ad - Binghamton Press, April 22, 1947
The Housewares Story: A History of the American Housewares Industry, by Earl Lifshey, 1973