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.)
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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