Geo. B. Carpenter Co., est. 1840

 

Museum Artifact: Nautical Lantern, 1910s

Made By: Geo. B. Carpenter Company, 440 N. Wells St. [River North]

“Navigation lamp” or “nautical lantern” would be the more romantic terms, but according to the official 1917 catalog of George B. Carpenter & Co., our brass relic here was actually marketed, generically, as a “motor boat light,” with a more specific designation as the No. 5 Combination Light. It originally would have included two separate Fresnel lenses (like the kind in a lighthouse), one green and one red, separated by a removable front screen—which unfortunately, in our case, has been permanently yoinked. The interior has a single-wick kerosene configuration, and the “combination” aspect refers to illuminating both the port and starboard side of a boat.

 

 

 Carpenter’s early 20th century motor boat lights were just one small part of a massive “Marine Hardware” inventory that had already been the company’s calling card for roughly 75 years.

“The Marine Supply Department in point of age represents the corner stone of the Carpenter business,” according to the 1919 edition of Manufacturing and Wholesale Industries of Illinois. “There has always been a very definite link binding it to the maritime interests and to ‘the men who go down to the sea in ships.’ There is a good, old tarry smell which seems to permeate the various stockrooms, which suggests all sorts of romantic associations.”
 

 

 

Indeed, even before the company had a long history—or George Carpenter’s name on its banner, for that matter—writers were freaking out over the glorious romance of a mighty American business, built on a great river, serving the needs of the ambitious, bold and seaworthy.

 

In 1862, right in the middle of the Civil War, History of Chicago author Isaac Guyer described the firm, which was then known as Gilbert Hubbard & Co. In the process, he also does a pretty amazing job summing up the rise of the city itself.

 

“Few great cities present such commercial attractions as Chicago, and few commercial houses represent so great and important an interest as the one of which this article will illustrate. Chicago is the commercial centre of the Northwest, with a population, today, of more than nine million of souls, which has sprung into existence, and developed the proportions for an empire, since the War of 1812, situated at the head of a vast chain of inland seas, upon which floats a marine of more than fifteen hundred vessels, with an aggregate of nearly four hundred thousand tonnage, employing more than eighteen thousand men. At the present time there are sixty-five more vessels on the stocks in the process of building, many of these at the different ports on the shores of Lake Michigan, and most of them, as is the case with most of the ship building on this lake, are supplied with their tackling by the leading commercial houses in this city.

 

The principal and leading one is that of Messrs. Gilbert Hubbard & Co., who occupy that massive iron structure of architectural grandeur, which will defy the desolation of time and the spoil of ages, located on the corner of South Water and Wells Streets. If the reputation they have already attained, for sagacious, careful and honorable merchants, shall continue as unsullied by the hand of time, as the iron building they occupy, long will they be proudly numbered with merchant princes. …Their long experience makes them masters of the business in all its minute details, as most of the sailing masters of the upper lakes can attest; their large capital enables them to produce the best articles at the lowest price.”

That “massive iron structure which will defy the desolation of time” actually burned to the ground in the Great Chicago Fire about a decade later. But nonetheless, Guyer was at least partially correct. This company was primed for longevity and influence.

 

 [Carpenter & Co. Warehouse at Grand and Orleans Streets, early 1900s]

 

George B. Carpenter, himself, joined the already flourishing business in 1857 at the age of 23, leaving behind his dad’s meatpacking plant to buy a one-third share in Hubbard & Co. The company’s reputation was well established (it had initially been founded under the name Foster & Robb back in 1840, just three years after Chicago was incorporated), but most folks associated it solely with twine, ropes, nets, burlap sacks and the like. Over the next couple decades, however, Carpenter teamed with the savvy and well-connected Gilbert Hubbard to expand their operations into hardware, railroad supplies, and more. They even shook off that little Great Fire setback to return stronger than ever with another “massive iron structure” across the street from where the first one had stood.

Then, in 1881, George B. suddenly lost both of the central mentors in his life; his father Benjamin and Mr. Hubbard, each of whom he’d named a son after. The following year, Gilbert Hubbard & Co. was officially handed over to George, and—presumably with encouragement from the Hubbard family—he renamed it George B. Carpenter & Co.

 

 

“The vast business of the old concern passed into the hands of Geo. B. Carpenter & Co.,” recounted the 1886 ed. of Marquis’ Handbook of Chicago, “and they have since managed it with the same far-reaching enterprise and unswerving integrity that characterized the old establishment through so many years of eventful history. Today, Geo. B. Carpenter & Co., constitute the oldest and most favorably known ship chandlery house in the west. …And they have been prominently identified with every step of the commercial development of Chicago for more than a quarter century.”

So much praise! Either Carpenter & Co. was a great company or they were incredibly skilled at paying off historians and guidebook writers. We’ll presume the former, if only because business was clearly booming straight through into the 20th century.

 

 

By 1900, George had brought three of his sons, Benjamin, Hubbard, and John Alden, into the company, and Geo. B. Carpenter & Co. had multiple factories, warehouses, and storefronts—with massive print catalogs proving it was more of a distribution giant than a manufacturing one at this point. That same year, 66 year-old George B. was asked to explain his success as part of a company profile in the book, A History of the City of Chicago: Its Men and Institutions. The interviewer was, presumably, a young man.

“Young man,” Carpenter told him, “I attribute the success of our house very largely to our old fashioned method of doing business on the square, insisting that agreements must be kept and bargains lived up to, no matter what the cost. Of course, it is well to have around you men who will not make agreements which they cannot fulfill, or bargains which are not bargains, and who are not always watching the clock.”

The interviewer made a point of noting that Carpenter delivered that last line with a “twinkle in his eye.” And that does seem weirdly relevant. From most accounts, George B. Carpenter wasn’t just the nose-to-the-grindstone taskmaster type. He was a thoughtful gent and a humanitarian, giving a lot of his substantial wealth to local charities. After his death in 1912, his personal library of more than 1,000 books was donated, as well, helping to essentially launch the local public library in his home of Park Ridge, Illinois.

 

[George Carpenter (far left), wife Elizabeth (holding the dog), and sons, from left to right, John Alden, Benjamin, and Hubbard, all hanging out at the family's Park Ridge estate]


George’s sons took over the family business after their father’s passing, with Benjamin as president, Hubbard as secretary, and John as vice president (another son, George, went into law). They settled into a new main office in 1912 at 440 N. Wells St. and continued the expansion of the business into the 1920s, with warehouses as far off as Seattle.

 

[The former Geo. B. Carpenter headquarters at 440 N. Wells St., 1917 and 2016]

 

Along the way, John Alden Carpenter [pictured in his later years] managed to find success in a wildly different field—music composition. He’d gained a passion for songwriting mainly from his mother Elizabeth, who was a fine singer. And while he never left his post as V.P. of Geo. B. Carpenter & Co. from 1909 to 1936, John carved out time to write a wide range of ballets, piano pieces, and orchestral suites, some of which were met with wide acclaim. His 1926 ballet Skyscrapers debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, while back in Chicago, most of John’s employees and clients in the industrial trades had no clue they were in the presence of a great artist.

 

As the positive reviews rolled in, John Alden Carpenter certainly could have left the company at any point to focus on his music, but he remained at his post right up until his retirement at age 60. Was it a sense of devotion? An enjoyment of the distractions or inspirations from the daily grind? I guess you might have to listen to the music to figure it out.
 

 

Once the Carpenter sons did leave the company, the impact of the Depression and increasing competition from foreign manufacturers led to an inevitable downturn in business. I have yet to pinpoint the exact path of Geo. B. Carpenter & Co. into the mid 20th century, but it appears the company was purchased by a former competitor, the Astrup Company of Cleveland. Astrup, in turn, eventually fell under the umbrella of a company called TRI Vantage, which still exists and, according to a few questionable sources, still counts Geo. B. Carpenter & Co. as a loose sub-division of its operations.

It’s not the grand fate that wide-eyed journalists were envisioning for the firm 100+ years ago, perhaps, but sometimes even the brightest lantern can only shine so far into the mists of a Great Lakes night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Please reload

Lost Chicago Factory Map

Help Support the

Made In Chicago Project

Artifact Categories
Company Histories

A.B. Dick Company

A.L. Hansen MFG Co.

Abbott Laboratories

Ace Fastener Corp.

Adams & Westlake Co.

Addometer Co.

Addressograph Company

Adjustable Clamp Co.

Admiral Corp.

Airguide Instrument Co.

Albert Dickinson Co.

Albert Pick & Co.

Allied MFG Co.

American Automatic Devices Co.

American Bird Products Inc.

American Cutlery Co.

American Family Scale Co.

American Flyer MFG Co.

American Metal Ware Co.

American Shoe Polish Co.

American Varnish Co.

Ampro Corporation

Anacin Company

Angel Dainty Dye Co.

Armour and Company

Arrco Playing Card Co.

Automatic Pencil Sharpener Co.

B. Heller & Co.

Bally MFG Co.

Bambino Products Co.

Bell & Howell

Benjamin Electric MFG Co.

Bersted MFG Co.

Bloomfield Industries

Bremner Biscuit Company

Brunswick-Balke-Collender Co.

Bunte Brothers Candy

Burke & James

C. Cretors & Co.

C. H. Hanson Company

Cable Piano Company

Cadaco Inc.

Calculator Machine Company

California Beverage Co.

Calumet Baking Powder Co.

Carl Goldberg Models Inc.

Central Waxed Paper Co.

Central Wholesale Grocers Inc.

Chas. A. Brewer & Sons

Chess Records

Chicago Electric MFG Co.

Chicago Flexible Shaft Co.

Chicago Hardware Foundry Co.

Chicago Mail Order Co.

Chicago Printed String Co.

Chicago Roller Skate Co.

Chicago Specialty MFG Co.

Chicago Telephone Supply Co.

Citation Hat Co.

Citrus Products Co.

Claire MFG Co.

Clipper Products Co.

Columbia Medallion Studios

Compco Corp.

Cracker Jack Company

Crane Company

Curt Teich & Co.

Curtiss Candy Co.

D.B. Fisk & Co.

Dad's Root Beer Co.

Damon MFG Co.

Denoyer-Geppert Co.

Detect-O-Ray Company

DeVry Corporation

Ditto Incorporated

Dowst Brothers Company

E.B. Millar & Co.

E.C. DeWitt & Co., Inc.

E.H. Sargent & Co.

E.J. Brach & Sons

E.K. Pond Company

Ekco Products Co.

Electric Clock Corp. of America

Electric Corp. of America

Elgin National Watch Co.

Empire Spice Mills

Essanay Film Mfg. Co.

Eugene Dietzgen Co.

Excel Projector Corp.

F.B. Redington Co.

F.H. Smith MFG Co.

F.W. Planert & Sons

Fidelitone Inc.

Fitzpatrick Bros.

Flavour Candy Co.

Florsheim Shoe Company

Foley & Co.

G. Felsenthal & Sons

Gateway Engineering Co.

General Television & Radio Corp.

Geo. B. Carpenter Co.

Geo. W. Diener MFG Co.

Gold Eagle Products Co.

Grossman MFG Co.

Hallicrafters Co.

Halsam Products Co.

Halsey Brothers Co.

Hammond Organ Co.

Hanson Scale Co.

Harmony Company

Hedman MFG Co.

Hibbard, Spencer, Bartlett & Co.

Hump Hair Pin MFG Co.

Illinois Bronze Powder Co.

Illinois Cosmetics Co.

Indestro MFG Co.

J.C. Deagan Co.

J.P. Dieter Co.

J.W. Allen & Co.

Jas. P. Marsh Corp.

Jays Foods, Inc.

Johnson Publishing Co.

Kelling Nut Company

Kellogg Switchboard & Supply

Kling Bros. & Co.

Kraft Foods Company

L. H. Thomas Co.

Langson MFG Co.

Liberty Dairy Products Co.

Lincoln Logs

Ludwig Drum Co.

Lyon & Healy

M.A. Donohue & Co.

Mall Tool Company

Mars Incorporated

MasterCrafters Clock & Radio Co.

Maybelline Company

Metal Moss MFG Co.

Mid City Uniform Cap Co.

Monark Silver King Inc.

Morton Salt Company

Motorola Inc.

National Washboard Co.

Nestor Johnson MFG Co.

Northwestern Beverage Co.

O-Cedar Corp.

Oliver Typewriter Co.

Olson Rug Co.

Page Boiler Company

Paymaster Corp.

Peerless Confection Co.

Pelouze Scale & MFG Co.

Peter Hand Brewing Co.

Playskool MFG Co.

Princess Pat Ltd.

QRS Music Company

Radio Flyer

Rand McNally & Co.

Reed Candy Company

Regal Musical Instrument Co.

Reid, Murdoch & Co.

Reliable Paste Co.

Replogle Globes, Inc.

Revere Camera Company

Rival Packing Co.

Rock-Ola MFG Corp.

S&C Electric Co.

Sanford Ink Company

Scholl MFG Co.

Schulze Baking Company

Schwinn Bicycle Co.

Sherman-Klove Co.

Shotwell MFG Co.

Shure Brothers, Inc.

Signode Steel Strapping Co.

Simoniz Company

Simonsen Metal Products Co.

Slingerland Drum Company

Spartus Camera Corp.

Sprague, Warner & Co.

Standard Brewery

Steele-Wedeles Company

Stenographic Machines, Inc.

Stewart-Warner Corp.

Stone Medicine Co.

Sunbeam Corp.

Swanberg MFG Co.

Swedish-American Telephone Co.

T.C. Gleason MFG Co.

TootsieToy

Triner Scale & MFG Co.

Turner Brass Works

Turtle Wax Inc.

U-C Lite MFG Co.

Union Publishing House

United Razor Blade Corp.

Universal Medicine Co.

Vail MFG Co.

Val-A Company

Valmor Products Co.

Van Cleef Brothers

Vaughan Novelty MFG Co.

Vee-Jay Records

Victor Adding Machine Co.

Victor X-Ray Corporation

W.D. Allen MFG Co.

W.F. McLaughlin & Co.

W.M. Welch Scientific Co.

Webster-Chicago Corp.

Westclox

Western Electric Co.

Western Fluorescent Light Co.

White Cap Co.

William Cooper & Nephews Inc.

Williamson Candy Co.

Wilson Jones Company

Wilson Sporting Goods

Wm. E. Pratt MFG Co.

Wm. Meyer Co.

Wm. Wrigley Jr. Company

Woodstock Typewriter Company

Zenith Radio Corp.

Zeno MFG Co.

rogers-park-footer_edited.jpg

If you have any insights on this company and its history, or corrections about the details above, please share them below to help us tell a better story.

More Resources

rogers-park-historical-society-logo.jpg

© 2019 by Andrew Clayman. Created with Wix.com