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Where Rugged Vintage Style Meets Modern Design. Proudly Made in America.

04 Mar '15

A History Lesson

Posted by Jon Fontane

Making rugged products for rugged souls, starts with a person working metal by machine or hand. Our products are not massed produced in a huge factory – they’re made by American hands within a Connecticut fabrication shop. Since we’re “old school,” here’s a short history lesson on metal work.


The first metals worked by man were gold, copper, and bronze. Dating back to at least 3000BC in the Middle East and North America, these metals were found in relatively pure form (no smelting required) near the surface of the earth, making their discovery easy. Also, because of their softness, and low melting temperature, these metals were easy to work without sophisticated tools.
Aside from iron meteorites, iron is found only as ores, not as pure metal in the Earth's crust. Several civilizations practiced iron working around 1300 BC, even though Iron’s hardness and high melting point, made it difficult to work with. Its hardness and ability to hold a much sharper edge than the Bronze-age metals, gave iron-working civilizations a huge military advantage over their neighbors; making iron work top secret amongst the cultures that developed it.
Steel (iron with trace amounts of carbon or other impurities) was used to make the best weaponry by the time of the Roman Empire, though the Romans probably imported the steel from the Middle East rather than manufacturing it themselves.
Stainless steel (typically an iron-nickel-chromium alloy) was discovered in 1821, but not widely commercialized until the turn of the 20th century.
Before about 1860 steel was an expensive product, made in small quantities and used mostly for swords, tools and cutlery; all large metal structures were made of wrought or cast iron. Steelmaking was centered in Sheffield, Britain, which supplied the European and the American markets.
From 1875 to 1920 American steel production grew from 380,000 tons to 60 million tons annually, making the U.S. by far the dominant world leader. This explosive American growth rested on the continuous rapid expansion of urban infrastructures, office buildings, factories, railroads, bridges and other sectors that demanded steel. The use of steel in automobiles and household appliances came in the 20th century.

So, now onto the big dogs of the metal industry – THE STEEL KINGS!
Ever hear of the name Andrew Carnegie? Yeah, he made a few dollars in his day. How did he make his money? Carnegie's great innovation was in the cheap and efficient mass production of steel rails for railroad lines. This could not have happened without the prior invention of Bessemer Steel (a way to produce steel faster). Thus Carnegie's "innovation" was scale, not anything technical. By 1889, the U.S. output of steel exceeded that of Britain, and Andrew Carnegie owned a large part of it. By 1900, the profits of Carnegie Bros. & Company alone stood at $40,000,000 with $25,000,000 being Carnegie's share. Here’s some math to blow your mind… According to the WestEgg Inflation Calculator, $1 Million in 1900 would be worth $24,613,670.55. Times that by 25 million for a measly $615,341,763.75.

A couple more names you may have heard about: Charles Schwab and J.P. Morgan both started their mass fortunes in the steel industry. Charles Schwab and Eugene Grace made Bethlehem Steel the second-largest American steel company by the 1920s. Schwab had been the operating head of Carnegie Steel and US Steel. In 1903 he purchased the small firm Bethlehem Steel, and in 1916 made Grace President. Bethlehem concentrated on government contracts, such as ships and naval armor, and on construction beams, especially for skyscrapers and bridges. It produced 1,121 ships, more than any other builder during the war and nearly one-fifth of the U.S. Navy's fleet.
By 1900 the US was the largest producer and also the lowest cost producer, and demand for steel seemed inexhaustible. Output had tripled since 1890, but customers, not producers, mostly benefitted. Productivity-enhancing technology encouraged faster and faster rates of investment in new plants. However during recessions, demand fell sharply taking down output, prices, and profits. Charles M. Schwab of Carnegie Steel proposed a solution: consolidation. Financier J. P. Morgan arranged the buyout of Carnegie and most other major forms, and put Elbert Gary in charge. The old adage that what goes up must come down - which the steel industry did throughout the years with The Depression and then the great fall of the economy in 2008.


Regardless of the ups and downs of the metal and steel industry, the mass production of cheap steel, made possible by the discoveries and men described above (and many others not mentioned), has revolutionized our world. Look around you to see what in your life has been made possible (or better or more affordable) by cheap, abundant steel: railroads, oil and gas pipelines, power lines, assembly lines, skyscrapers, elevators, subways, bridges, planes, trains and automobiles, farm equipment, boats, appliances, nails, screws, bolts, nuts, utensils, surgical instruments, ball-bearings, turbines, drill bits, saws, AND OF COURSE, METAL SHOP’S RUGGED GIFTS!

Our products are nostalgic reminders of the greatness that built America. Each piece is proudly machine and hand made in America. Whether you choose to pick one of the aluminum bullet pens or pencils, a steel slide belt or EDC Steel Bottle Opener/Key Ring, you are picking cool Metal Shop products that bring back a little bit of yester years.

Sources: Wikipedia, pbs.org, anselm.edu