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A 1902 Tour of the Handlan Buck Company
At the turn of the century, railroads were a growth industry. Not only were new lines being built and expanded, but the suppliers of railway equipment and materials were also booming. One of these suppliers was Handlan-Buck Manufacturing Co., makers of many types of railroad lanterns, marker lamps, and other small equipment. In 1902, the company took a series of photographs of its operations at its St. Louis facilities. Copies of these photographs are rare, but some have survived nearly a century as a remarkable record of the manufacturing practices of the time. We present some of these photographs here, courtesy of KL&L member Bill Kajdzik, who generously provided scans of the photographs as well as related information.
The company. At the time these photos were taken, Handlan-Buck had already been in business 46 years, tracing its origins to a company started by Myron Buck in 1856. Alexander Handlan joined the business in 1869 and by 1895 had bought out Buck's share. By 1902 the company name had been changed to Handlan-Buck Manufacturing Company, evidently retaining the "Buck" name in the title for "name brand" recognition. The company continued to be a major player in the lantern and lamp manufacturing business from many years under a number of name changes, all of which incorporated the Handlan name. The company apparently stayed in business until only a few years ago, and reportedly at least one building from this company continues to exist in St. Louis.
The times. The photos reflect workplace and labor practices markedly different from today. Child labor laws, occupational safety regulations, and assembly line manufacturing practices were years, even decades, in the future. The young age of some of the workers in these photos is striking ( but common for that era), and the presence of belt-driven machines, gaslights, and crowded working conditions all suggest a rather dangerous working environment. And income? We don't know what Handlan-Buck employees made, but a study of wages at about the same time in New York City showed factory laborers making an average of $489 per year. Skilled workers made more -- for example glassworkers averaged about $700 annually -- and some of the white-collar workers shown in the photos probably did fairly well. Still, consider that a nice Handlan-Buck brass-top lantern can easily bring more dollars in today's collector's market than an employee of the company earned in a year.
The photos. To see the photos, click on the thumbnail images as the tour progresses. Some cropping of images has been done for web presentation and to emphasize their focus. Since captions did not survive with the photos, we've had to make reasonable guesses about what some of them show. Please note that download time may be long. Now, let's begin with the front office.
We hope that you've enjoyed the tour.
Footnotes: Our thanks to William M. Kajdzik for making digital copies of the photographs available from his collection. Other Information sources are: Barrett, Richard C., The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Railroad Lighting: Volume I The Railroad Lantern, Railroad Research Publications, 1994; Schlereth, Thomas J., Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, Harper Collins.