Wilson Jones Co., est. 1893

 

Museum Artifact: Marvel 60 Hole Punch, c. 1940s

Made By: Wilson Jones Company, 3300 W. Franklin Blvd., Chicago, IL [Humboldt Park]

If factory conditions were rated on a purely olfactory scale, workers at the corner of Franklin Boulevard and Spaulding Avenue might have occupied the finest industrial block in the city. From the 1920s through the ‘50s, an employee of the Wilson Jones Company could spend his or her shift enjoying the scent of fresh cut paper products and leather book bindings. Then, walking out the front door at day’s end, they’d be greeted by a wafting cloud of confectionery goodness emanating from the Bunte Brothers candy factory directly across the street. That’s manufacturing at its most aromatic.

 

 

The Wilson-Jones Co., which still exists today as a subsidiary of the massive office supply conglomerate ACCO Brands (Swingline, Mead, Trapper Keeper, among others), has always specialized in paper-related accessories of the stationery trade—particularly loose leaf binders, folders, ledgers, and related tools like the handy hole punch from our collection. According to some sources, including ACCO Brands’ own corporate website, Wilson-Jones is also responsible for “inventing the three-ring binder” back in 1904—a crowning achievement that forever changed the contents of the world’s filing cabinets and backpacks. Unfortunately, that particular claim to fame—like many other details of the company’s early history—seems rooted more in perpetuated myth than concrete fact.

 

Three Ring Circus

 

The original incarnation of the business, known as the Chicago Shipping and Receipt Book Company (or C.S. & R.B.), was supposedly started by a Clark Street jeweler during the World’s Fair summer of 1893. By some accounts, that jeweler was Ralph B. Wilson himself, the boisterous businessman who’d run the company well into the 20th century. Other versions of the story, however, refer to “the jeweler” as a wholly separate, suspiciously anonymous individual—just basically a guy running a side business selling aluminum paper holders. Depending on which origin point you prefer, then, Ralph Wilson either “built” the business from scratch or “took it over” closer to the turn of the century. Even publications during Wilson’s own lifetime seem unsure of which version is true.

 

[1909 advertisement for the Chicago Shipping & Receipt Book Co., later to become Wilson-Jones]

 

It probably didn’t help matters that Ralph Wilson was something of a notorious showman, prone to exaggeration and theatricality during his two decades as company president. These were traits he’d picked up in his youth, when he spent several years touring with the Ringling Brothers caravan show, serving as the big top’s “advance man,” or glorified publicist. The weird leap from the three-ring circus to three-ring binders, apparently, was merely a logical next step.

 

“Many men spend a lifetime in the circus and get nothing out of it,” Office Appliances magazine reported in 1920, “but the observing man is impressed, among other things, with the one big fact that, in the circus world, nothing that can arise in the necessary experience of the shows is going to be impossible of accomplishment. Mr. Wilson is observing. He learned the circus lesson of energy and practical determination to surmount obstacles, and in the conduct of the business he applies these lessons, doing what he sets out to do.”

 

No offense to the good people at Office Appliances, but that sounds like some acrobatic inspirational nonsense. It's just as likely that Ralph Wilson merely enjoyed making flyers for the circus and decided to pursue a career with more paper crafts and fewer clowns. No deeper wisdom required. Either way, the result is the same. Wilson went to work building the Chicago Shipping and Receipt Book Company into a major player in the stationery biz.

 

In 1900, still just 29 years of age, Wilson employed a small troupe of four men in a one-room office at 20 S. Clark Street. Within a few years, after introducing loose leaf ledgers and the DeLuxe brand of sectional post transfer binders to its arsenal, the company outgrew three subsequent factory spaces (Wells & Madison, Kinzie & State, Kinzie & Armour) and ballooned to a team of 150 workers.

 

It was around this time that C.S. & R.B.C. did, indeed, start manufacturing a style of three-ring binder, but the product was really more of an inevitability than a revolutionary concept by that point.

 

[The Wilson-Jones ad above dates from 1923, long after the 3-ring binder's debut]

 

Ties That Bind

 

As far back as 1859, a 23 year-old named Henry T. Sisson (a future Civil War colonel and Lt. Governor of Rhode Island) filed a patent for a “novel apparatus which may be applied in the back of a portfolio or attached to a suitable handle for the purpose of holding and securing music sheets, pamphlets or papers of any kind.” By the 1880s, German inventor Friedrich Soennecken had invented a more advanced breed of ring-style binder, along with a new device to go with it; a hole punch. In the late 1890s, Ralph B. Wilson’s local rival, the Chicago Binder & File Co., was already selling a series of ringed binders, too. As for that big three-ring binder U.S. patent filed in 1904—it actually belonged to William Pitt of the Irving Pitt MFG Company of Kansas City. It’s not entirely clear how Ralph Wilson started getting the credit for it. He might have had a very similar design at the same time, or he might have just been the better, louder businessman.

 

By 1908, the Chicago Shipping and Receipt Book Company’s success had moved it into a predatory position, buying the Public Record Index Company and incorporating that firm’s ledger products into its own. The combined entity then moved into a new factory space at 3021 W. Carroll Avenue in East Garfield Park, which was expanded from three to five stories (93,000 square feet) in 1913.

 

[The old Wilson-Jones plant at 3021 W. Carroll Ave., 1913 vs 2017]

 

“The DeLuxe line of Loose Leaf Devices have earned a reputation throughout the world for quality and are extensively sold in Canada, Europe, Australia, South Africa, South America, as well as in all parts of the United States,” Geyer’s Stationer reported that year. “. . . In the factory there is a complete die and tool making plant, an assembling department, a plating department, a buffing department, bindery, ruling, printing, and index departments.”

 

[A job at Wilson Jones wasn't without risk, as a fella named Joy Young found out]

 

1913 was also the year that Wilson made the biggest acquisition of his career, agreeing to buy another leading Chicago competitor, the Jones Improved Loose Leaf Specialty Company. That firm, which had its own factory over at 3051 W. Lake Street, traced its roots back to 1899—when Harvey P. Jones and his sons W. Gifford Jones and Harry S. Jones started the Jones Perpetual Loose Leaf Co. The trio later sold that business and reorganized as the Improved version in 1902, but the patriarch Harvey Jones died just days later, leaving his sons to run the operation. They did so admirably for 11 years, but couldn’t pass up the benefits of joining Ralph Wilson’s growing binder of binder makers.

 

The American Stationer called it “the consummation of one of the most important deals ever effected in the history of Chicago's stationery interests.” Of special note was the fact that the two companies would be “merged into one concern under the firm name of the Wilson-Jones Loose Leaf Company. . . . Ralph B. Wilson is to be president and treasurer of the new company, W. Gifford Jones will be vice president, and Harry S. Jones will fill the position of general superintendent of production.”

 

And there you have it, the mighty Wilson-Jones union was forged, set to carry on—at least as a brand name—for the next century to come. The irony, perhaps, is that the actual corporate co-existence of Wilson and the Joneses was practically over before it started.

 

Shredded Alliances

 

Less than a year after reporting on the partnership that established the Wilson-Jones Company, American Stationer informed its readers that “W. Gifford Jones and Harry S. Jones have withdrawn from the Wilson-Jones Loose Leaf Company and are planning to go into business for themselves again.

 

Was that the plan all along? Had the Joneses merely been stewarding their dad’s old company into the merger for six months with the full intention of exiting stage left? Or was it an unexpected detour fueled by, say, an inability to work with their new ringmaster of a boss? We can only speculate, but whatever the reason, Wilson-Jones was thoroughly free of the Jones half of its identity. Afterwards, Ralph Wilson could have elected to revert to the company’s old name or conjure up a new one, but the business cards were long since printed. “Wilson-Jones” it would remain.

 

Maybe the bigger surprise would come just six years later, when Ralph Wilson himself, still a year shy of turning 50, made his own exit from the company. Just months earlier, in the spring of 1920, he had transitioned the Wilson-Jones Co. into its grandest (and ultimately final) Chicago headquarters, at 3300 W. Franklin Boulevard.

 

“The new factory, built under Mr. Wilson’s direction and from his ideas, is really a wonderful plant,” Office Appliances reported. “[It’s] a monument to his enterprise, energy and forethought.”

 

From Wilson’s perspective, it was also a  parting gift to the company he’d devoted more than 20 years of his life to, transforming it from that tiny four-man operation into a 1,000 employee workforce at the new Chicago plant, plus a few hundred more at a facility in New York.

 

[The Wilson-Jones plant at 3300 W. Franklin Blvd, brand new in 1920, abandoned and in rough shape in 2017]

 

“I take this opportunity to thank the trade for the generous patronage which has made possible the steady growth of the business,” Wilson wrote in a press release.

 

“In the history of the Wilson-Jones Loose Leaf Company,” Office Appliances added, “as in that of other businesses which have attained conspicuous success, the business grew with the man and the man expanded his mental horizon as the business grew.”

 

Wilson rode off into the sunset, off to spend his well-earned fortune with his family in southern California. His eventual successor, meanwhile—a young bank executive named Benjamin Kulp—would remain a dominant but polarizing figure at the company for the next 40 years.

 

Kulpability

 

Ben Kulp had certainly paid his dues. Immigrating from Lithuania as a small child, he spent most of his youth in a Jewish orphanage in Cleveland, Ohio, as his mother lacked the resources to care for him during the economic depression of the era. In subsequent records, both his date-of-birth (sometime between 1886 and 1890) and place of birth (he listed Lithuania, Ohio, and Iowa, depending on the census year) remained unclear even to Kulp himself. According to a message sent to the museum by his own great-niece, however, Kulp wouldn't forget his roots, as he later donated generously to the Cleveland orphanage and helped support his mother, who lived to be 100.

 

[photo of Benjamin Kulp below courtesy of Garland County (Arkansas) Historical Society]. 

 

While still a teenager, a determined Benjamin Kulp headed for Chicago, systematically working his way up from errand boy to bank manager to Vice President of the Madison and Kedzie State Bank. He was the classic self-made man—ambitious and uncompromising, and generally admired for it early on.

 

“The ‘I Will’ spirit is responsible for what Chicago is today,” The Advocate (a Jewish journal) reported in 1921, “but never was that spirit better displayed than by one of our best known citizens, Mr. Benjamin Kulp.”

 

Kulp ran the roost that his predecessor had left for him there within the sprawling Franklin Blvd campus. The company, to his credit, remained extremely successful even into the Great Depression years of the 1930s, continuously expanding its manufacturing to cover any possible product necessitated by the filing needs of America.

 

 

For example, the style of two-hole punch from our collection, the Marvel 60, was already appearing in catalogs in the 1930s.

 

“The Marvel Punch has a solid iron base and is finished in olive green with the trimmings nicely nickel-plated,” read the listing in Catalog No. 139 (1939). “Hand lever made of malleable steel. Hand lever always in upright position, ready for next punching operation. Equipped with detachable green moulded rubber base which also provides container for punchings. Side gauge adjustable to any desired margin. Maximum distance from center of hole to the binding edge of sheet 1/2 inch.”

 

The price tag was $2.25, or about $40 after inflation. I got a better deal than that, but then again, since our museum piece lacks the rubber base and side gauge, I might have overpaid.

 

One could argue that Benjamin Kulp was being overpaid, too, at least by Depression standards. In 1937, he actually topped one unscientific list of the “highest corporate salaries” in Chicago (it was only $65,000, equivalent to a little over $1 million in today’s money—an indication of how executive payouts have evolved over time). That same year, Kulp also came under fire for refusing to recognize the United Loose Leaf and Blank Book Workers' union as the bargaining agency for his employees.

 

 

Either by his intention or simply by his nature, Kulp did have a tendency to ruffle feathers. Even when he tried to use his own growing wealth for good deeds, it seemed to bring trouble—like when he presented the town of Hot Springs, Arkansas (his summer home) with a bronze statue of . . . Illinois hero Abraham Lincoln, launching an eventual wave of backlash from the townsfolk in the old Confederate stronghold. That was an innocent miscalculation perhaps. But as he got older, Kulp also got more hot-headed and combative with those who didn’t see things his way.

 

According to Douglas V. Austin’s 1965 book, Proxy Contests and Corporate Reform, “Benjamin Kulp, chairman of the board of Wilson Jones, was involved in frequent altercations with some members of the board, and several members resigned in protest over his behavior. The opposition alleged that Kulp had caused Wilson Jones irreparable damage because of his dictatorial, spendthrift management of the firm. The opposition contended that Kulp retained control only because he forced the employed directors to be ‘yes men’—the employee-directors had no employment contracts and did not dare express themselves freely.”

 

Things really came to ahead in the 1950s, when Kulp was approaching retirement age but still clinging to his hold on the business. New York’s famous stapler company Swingline, Inc. was offering to purchase Wilson-Jones for a hefty sum, but Kulp and his loyalists refused to approve the deal, battling tooth and nail with the growing number of insurgent shareholders.

 

“It would seem that a sharp clash of personalities, rather than a simple difference of opinion over policy, must have led to this wide split between the company’s owners and its managers,” Austin wrote.

 

In the end, under increasing pressure, Kulp finally surrendered, announcing his retirement in October of 1959, which came hand-in-hand with the sale of the majority of Wilson-Jones shares to Swingline. By 1963, Swingline gained complete ownership of the company.

 

 

Soon enough, the Franklin Boulevard plant, like the Bunte Brothers factory before it, was left abandoned, as Wilson-Jones centralized its operation at its New Jersey location, closer to Swingline HQ. Swingline, in turn, was purchased by American Brands in 1976, with most manufacturing (despite what the name would suggest) moving to Mexico by the 1980s. Both Swingline and Wilson-Jones carry on under the ACCO Brands banner today.

 

As the former Wilson-Jones building on Franklin Blvd approaches its 100th birthday, the wrecking ball looks more likely than a rebirth. Somewhere in that massive haunted complex, you've gotta figure, there's still a stack of old loose leaf, a beat-up leather binder, and a desperate need for a hole punch to unite them in organizational matrimony. Well, too bad! Our Marvel 60 Punch got out of that factory several generations ago, and she ain't going back now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[This 1939 Wilson-Jones catalog is also part of the museum collection]

 

 

Sources:


The American Stationer, , Vol. 74 (1913), Vol. 86 (1920)

 

Proxy Contests and Corporate Reform, by Douglas V. Austin, 1965

Office Appliances; The Magazine of Office Equipment, Volume 32 (1920)

 

The Advocate: America's Jewish Journal, Volume 61 (1921)


Geyer's Stationer, Vol. 55 (1913)

Tools of Business, an Encyclopedia of Office Equipment and Labor Saving Devices, edited by Elmer Herny Beach

 

"Sons of Confederate Veterans Rebel at Idea of Planned Lincoln Exhibit" by Noel E. Oman in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, September 5, 2003

 

 

 

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