In 1891, Herbert Wagner and Ferdinand Schwedtman started Wagner Electric, a small motors company. Located in downtown St. Louis, the small company quickly grew and, according to historian Andrew Hurley, “became one of St. Louis’s most prominent manufacturers.” In his article, “Fiasco at Wagner Electric: Environmental Justice and Urban Geography of St. Louis,” Hurley goes on to say:

The phenomenal expansion of electric power networks in cities such as St. Louis during this era sparked a demand for machinery, transmission apparatus, and appliances. Responding to these fortuitous conditions, Wagner and Schwedtman broadened their product line to include dynamos, transformers, and ventilating fans. By the turn of the century, they boasted that their company had built the world’s largest power transformer.

Business was booming, and it was time to move to larger quarters. In 1906, Wagner Electric began building a factory complex along Plymouth Avenue in Wellston. Eventually, the Wagner facility took up the entire block. (See photograph of the factory complex here.) The company moved to what was then a suburban setting for several reasons, among them, says Hurley, “cheap land, infrastructural improvements, favorable tax rates, and lenient environmental regulations,” “access to railroad transportation,” and “an extensive metropolitan streetcar system” with “proximity to [those] streetcar lines.”

While the streetcar system made it possible for workers to commute to the factory, Wagner officials also saw the possibility of “modest” housing in the vicinity of the complex. Hurley describes a “brochure announcing the plant’s opening.” The brochure states: “the surroundings are clean and clear of obnoxious industries, and there is every prospect of the early development of an ideal home district for people of modest means.” Indeed, this “ideal home district” did materialize – and my grandparents were among the many who worked at Wagner and lived within short walking district of the plant.

By 1913, according to labor historian Rosemary Feurer, Wagner’s Wellston plant was proclaimed the third largest and the most modern in the country. Wagner, she says in her book, Radical Unionism in the Midwest: 1900-1950, was a “burgeoning local enterprise with national market outlets” and became “one of the largest employers in St. Louis’s diverse manufacturing base.” Feurer describes Wagner’s products:

Wagner Electric’s first products were single-phase, alternating current motors used to power small appliances; the company also patented a range of electrical products, including transformers. . . . Wagner engineers also developed electrical components for automobiles, eventually producing generators, starters, and ignition and lighting devices.

To make Wagner competitive, company executives emphasized production speed. In her review of 1920s photos kept by Wagner’s personnel department, Feurer finds one image of an assembly line. Its caption? “Speeding Up Work.” And another photo captures a factory sign that declares, “Boys and Girls, You Have Done Fine!” Noting that workers “complained of intense speeding,” Feurer says:

Wagner boasted that its policy ‘encourage[s] speed, and slow men are discharged at the option of the foremen.’ Managers implemented payment systems of their choice, including ‘hourly rate, premium system, piece work, contract, or such other systems as we may devise in each individual case.’ Production manager C.B. Lord’s hated slide rule was used to institute a premium piecework system that managers touted as ‘scientific’ as Wagner speeded up production. Wagner’s premium system encouraged speed by paying workers a low base rate and then half of any amount workers produced over the standard.

Also essential to Wagner’s success was its policy of hiring workers from rural areas outside St. Louis. Reflecting on St. Louis’s history of unionized strikes, Feurer writes that Wagner had “a policy of hiring only workers from the ‘countryside between 16 and 22 years old’ and avoiding hiring native St. Louisans, who Wagner felt were too heavily influenced by local ‘radical’ union culture.” As Feurer states,

Management proclaimed St. Louis ‘an excellent market for intelligent, green help from Arkansas, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kansas, Iowa, Texas, Southern Illinois, as well as the more western states. They are trained readily, are subject to discipline, and [are] loyal Americans.’

Feurer goes on to say that “de-skilling” also gave Wagner “access to a labor market of young women.” Production manager C.B. Lord proclaimed: “We consider girls superior to boys but inferior to men, and cheaper than either.” By 1917, says Feurer, almost 500 women – “one-fifth of the production workforce” – “worked as timekeepers or punch press operators or in small arms war production.”

In short, though its “workforce was mostly white men,” says Feurer, Wagner “hired a substantially larger number of women and black men.” Indeed, “women made up one-fourth of Wagner’s labor force during the 1920s.” With Wagner’s emphasis on hiring young women and on hiring inexperienced help from rural areas such as Arkansas, it’s no wonder that my grandmother – a transplant from Bald Knob, Arkansas – gained employment at the Wellston factory. (See below: women working in 1917 at Wagner’s switch assembly.)

1917 Wagner Electric Switch Assembly

It’s worth noting that not everyone was happy with the intense emphasis on speed and on “de-skilled” workers. Working conditions throughout St. Louis were such that a long 1918 strike – what Feurer describes as a “strike wave” – began when 5,000 department store workers walked out until more than 30,000 St. Louis workers were on strike. Though strikes were happening across the country, Feurer says that, with this “community uprising,” St. Louis was one of the most turbulent cities and was “in the midst of an industrial war.” According to Feurer, a strike at Wagner during that time became “the central conflict of that upheaval,” with “women workers at Wagner [leading] the parade of strikers outside the plant.” (Learn more about this and other landmark events in St. Louis labor history by visiting Feurer’s online booklet, “The St. Louis Labor History Tour.”)

Despite the strikes, Wagner and other electrical companies enjoyed success (though Feurer notes that Wagner didn’t again reach World War I production levels until the advent of World War II). In Mapping Decline, historian Colin Gordon notes that “New economic development in the 1920s and 1930s (led by electrical supply and manufacturing firms such as Wagner and Emerson)” was “pushing employment and investments to the City’s western edge and across the county line into inner suburbs like Wellston and Clayton.” The metropolitan area’s pattern of continuing westward movement had begun in earnest.

And the growth between 1890 and 1930 was enough, says Feurer, to put St. Louis on the nation’s electrical industry map. The metropolitan area became a center of the electrical industry “independents” – companies like Wagner, Emerson Electric, and Century that stood apart from the major corporations such as GE and Westinghouse. These independents, says Feurer, carved out a niche in smaller motor and electrical products.

My research indicates that Wagner employed large numbers of workers – but the numbers I’ve located contradict each other. During World War I, says Feurer, Wagner employed 4500 workers – and according to a 1984 report from the St. Louis Electrical Board, the high point of Wagner employment was 8000 in 1953. However, Andrew Hurley says the peak was 6000 workers. I would be interested to know if any of my readers have other or more definitive figures.

In 1981, Wagner announced the closing of its Wellston plan. Says Hurley: “Over the previous two decades, the company had diverted production to factories in other cities, trimming its Wellston work force from a peak of six thousand to less than fifteen hundred.” Wagner retirees still gather for reunions, as evidenced in the July 2010 edition of the Welhisco Flashlight, the online newsletter for alums of Wellston High School.

What happened next made for a very sad chapter in Wellston history. Stop by for that part of the story next week.

For those who want to explore Wagner’s history further, I highly recommend Feurer’s online companion to her book. It’s full of photos and other images – as well as lots of information.

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29 Comments on The History of Wagner Electric

  1. andrew salazar says:

    I was a P&H overhead crane operator at Wagner Electric in the 1970’s, Dept. 641, building 35, in the transformers tank dept. My job as was to fit large tanks and assist welders in repositioning tanks so they could get the flow of gravity to help weld the seams after fitting. It was very challenging for a 23 year old man, and I was very proud to be a part of the Wagner experience. My father spent his entire career at Wagner and retired prior to its closing. I would like to learn more about Wagner and would be willing to share what I experienced there in the labor force. Thanks, Andrew Salazar.

  2. Kenneth Schnur says:

    Hello, My Grandfather Charles August Schnur worked for Wagner Electric Corp and invented the short circuiting device for their Electric motors Kenneth Schnur

  3. Lyle Dodd says:

    My father worked for Wagner Electric in the late thirties. I was wondering if there were in HR records of him. I also am curious if there is any documentation about Wagner building reactor parts that went to Oak Ridge, TNN. This would help me verify some of the things my father and mother had mentioned to me about my Dad’s time working for the company.

  4. Paul Pierce says:

    I worked in the Powerplant and left in 1981 when the site shut down. I remember some of the people, Walter Kramer, Dallas,
    Roy Heitman, Lou Wagner Richard Pruitt, Sucher, Varone. Good people and hard workers. Would like to hear from some of the guys.

    • Gary Mira says:

      Hey Paul, I was looking at this old Wagner site and I run across your post. I hope this message finds you well. I retired in 2012 from Culligan Water Conditioning. After I left Wagner I went to work driving over the road for 2 years and then went to work for a chemical plant in Festus for 16 years. They sold out in 1982 and I lost my job. I went to work for Culligan and stayed in the water treatment business till I retired.I think about all the guy’s when I see something Wagner. Leo Mullins, Roy Alvers, Earl Brack, Larry James, Chester Benoist and Don Bass. I’m Living in Desoto,Mo. for the last 26 years.

      • Paul Pierce says:

        Gary;
        I let Wagner when it shut down and went to work for Monsanto. Still working in their Power Plant after 32 years. I live in Dittmer and shop a lot in the De Soto Walmart store. I had both knees replaced so if you see a old man limping around that’s most likely me.
        Paul Pierce

  5. Dennis Bednarski says:

    Does anybody have info on a Wager Overhead transformers, built in 1929, 15 KVA 2400 120/240

  6. Christy Day says:

    My father Jerry D.Storz worked for Wagner back in 1965 and worked there for 13 years. I am looking to see if I can contact any one to let me know it there is any information about any out standing Insurance Policy. My mother has passed away and so has he. Please email me back with any info: Thank you!

  7. Mario Lara says:

    I have a working battery charger on a cart with one plate showing Collins Products Co.-Serial #153 -Model# R1465K1734 with 1/3hp.The other plate shows Wagner Electric Corporation.Does anyone have any Info. on this unit.Thanks.

  8. My husband William E.Florea Jr. Worked at Wagner Electric in Welston for 34 yrs. From 1948 to 1983 He passed away in March of 2009. I still attend the retire parties. It was a great place to work.
    He intended to retire from there. They moved out to soon.
    I would like to know if there is any out standing insurance policy. I was told there is. Please E mail me if you have any info. Thank you very much . Delberta Florea

  9. Allan Summers says:

    My grandmother worked at wagner electric in 1945 and 46′ she tells me awesome stories of how she made stators and how she spun copper wire to make the stators, amongst other stories of how she had to walk clear across the plant to get to where she worked and such, she was blown away at the fact that i was able to show her pictures of where she used to work

  10. Jeanne Tiffany says:

    I worked in the Treasury Department at Wagner in the early 60’s. I worked for Carl Unverferth and Mr. Vogel during time there. I have such fond memories of my time there – my first real job! Does anyone who used to work there remember me?
    Jeanne Tiffany

    • Paul Pierce says:

      I worked with Chester for a lot of years until his death, yes the Boilers could be load at times.
      Paul Pierce

  11. Larry Benoist says:

    My father worked at Wagner from the early 50’s until his untimely passing in 1976. He worked in the boiler room as a stationary engineer. He worked at a time before much was made about workplace environmental issues, but I can tell you that the noise where he worked at was way beyond safe. I can’t prove it but it was obviously damaging his hearing and I believe it contributed to his high blood pressure. I know he belonged to the IBEW, but I am not sure what local it was.

  12. Ma Lourdes López says:

    Hello! My father 1926-2013) had a motor from this company, and we (his kids)want to know how much it is. the specifications are the following: : Wagner Electric M.F.G. Co. St. Louis,U.S.A.
    Type DA Model OWL
    cycles 50
    1 HP
    1600 rpm
    7 amps.
    10070115 volts
    14 amps-OR 2000 VOLTS
    serial No. 56847
    9 PATENTS,from 1888 to 1910.and another pendings

    I hope somebody tells me the real price for this motor, it is functional and works perfectly. thanks a lot, grretings

  13. Billie Vincent says:

    My Mother was a rotor winder at Wagner during WWII. Her name was Lois Richmond from Doniphan, MO. Her older brother Otto Powers retired from Wagner around 1964. They were both employed when IBEW was certified to represent workers. My Mother became anti-union after this because she only considered the loss of a few perks she had before the union and not the long term potential of membership.

    I remember the Wagner plant because whenever we visited my Uncle the passed the plant; his home was within walking distance of work. The last time I drove by the plant in 1999 it was being reclaimed by trees, vines, and large weeds.

    If anyone has a picture that has either my Mother or Uncle at Wagner please send me email

    Billie

    lsimpsonvincent@fastmail.fm

  14. linda says:

    any one know , who I can contact: about my late father pension. all the paper I have don’t have any phone numbers any help would be appreciated

    • randy blanc says:

      5/1/1991
      “Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company has entered into a Single Premium Annuity Contract with Cooper Industries, Inc. It is our responsibility to guarantee these payments to each retiree under the option they have elected”

      Doris Provost
      Mass Mutual Life
      Pension Management, N310
      1295 State Street
      Springfield, MA 01111

  15. Dflanigan says:

    Cleaning out my dad basement shop. Found Wagner Hydraulic But Everythg intact… W/cover sheet in metal box. IWhat is this worth? Allpcs !!

  16. Dflanigan says:

    Hydraulic brake hone? Was my grandps/dads…. Worrh anythung?

  17. Rod Stclair says:

    I have a Wagner Electric Corp 1/2 hp motor model V24 B184 K348 that I need wiring info for. Can anyone tell me where to look?
    Appreciated

  18. Hello, does anyone have any info on when Wagner stopped making Electric Fans.I estimate it to be WWII.Am I right?

  19. My father Charles E. “Chuck” Hastings work at Wagner for nearly 20 years in the 50s and 60s. He worked in the accounting department. He met my mother, Diana Hahnfeld, there. My dad always spoke fondly of his time working at Wagner. Anyone out there remember my parents?

  20. Tom Alexander says:

    I am trying to help my Dad locate his pension, but have been hitting wall after wall just trying to find out who has Wagner Employees pensions. I have been thru Federal Mogul, Tunstin Electric, PBC.gov and even tried finding Wagner’s in St Louis – which all phone numbers for Wagner’s in St Louis I found were not good numbers currently. Either no one has records on file electronically, as this was the 50’s and 60’s he worked for Wagner’s or I can’t even find the right people to speak with. Can someone please point me in the right direction for Wagner’s Pension Plans for it’s employees.
    Thank you, Mr. Tom Alexander

    • randy blanc says:

      my dad is getting a pension from Wagner in Wellston till 1983. the pension was knocked down by several hundred dollars after the company handling the pensions was transferred to another company. he gets 80 a month after working for more than 20 years. He got a meddle for not missing a day of work for 20 years straight, including no sick days. He came home with clothes soaked in oil everyday.
      “Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company has entered into a Single Premium Annuity Contract with Cooper Industries, Inc.” His retirement then went from 600 to 80. Shame!

  21. J. R. Hamil says:

    My Dad worked for Wagner from 1943 to 1973. Union I.U.E. Local 1104 I still have his union card.

  22. Rick Scouten says:

    I work for a public utility in Michigan. We have several Wagner power transformers on our system. I have not been able to find anyone that has taken ownership of the design and drawings for these transformers. We would like to re-gasket a transformer due to oil leaks. In the past we have had to make our own but it would be much less labor intensive to purchase a complete gasket kit. Does anyone know where I might find assistance on this issue?

  23. Wrenae Gilmer says:

    My Dad, Charles Gilmer worked at Wagner Electric on the assembly line making brakes until they closed their doors to move to a non-union state. He got a monthly annuity payment from the Group Retirement Annuity through Massachusetts Mutual which ended with his death recently. Group Annuity Contract No: TF 5737 You can contact them at 1-800-775-4331 M-F EST 8a-5pm or send an email to tfacctmgr@massmutual.com for more information.
    He also had a separate Group Life Insurance policy through Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Co. Acct No. 11882 for $2,500. I have been unable to find anyone there that who can find the policy so far. If you have any information I would appreciate it.

  24. lisa doering says:

    Hello my name is Lisa Doering my father was Dale Granzow. He worked for Wagner from the late 60s to closing.My dad passed away Sunday April 3 2016. i am trying to reach out to any of his old friends that worked with him to let them know of his passing and service plans in the next few months. please feel free to contact me . thank you

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