Schwambs in the News, 1871-1899

For the late nineteenth century, the Arlington Advocate is a rich source of information on the Schwambs, their businesses, and their workers. The Advocate reported on visits to the Charles Schwamb mill, the doings of Arlington’s German immigrant population, road races in the Heights and a statewide Schützenfest of German Americans at Spy Pond. This local weekly paper published information about Arlington residents such as tax payments and voter rolls. What we know about the first two generations of Schwambs is often found in the Advocate.

With access to the Robbins Library’s microfilm of the Arlington Advocate curtailed during the current pandemic, our list of research questions has grown. We eagerly await online access to a digitized, searchable Arlington Advocate – a project that we understand is underway.

Recently, however, we discovered that Cary Memorial Library in Lexington offers internet access to the digitized Lexington Minute-man, a sister publication of the Advocate put out by the same publishers, John L. Parker and Charles S. Parker. From its first issue in 1871, the Lexington Minute-man included the “Arlington Locals” section found in the Advocate. It also reported on Arlington Heights events and institutions such as Fallon Church that had Schwamb connections.

Mastheads of the Lexington Minute-man from 1871 (year it commenced publication) and 1889.

The Lexington Minute-Man can be searched for words and phrases with some exactness. A search for “Schwamb” or “Schwambs” returns well over 200 articles! Searches on confirmed or probable Schwamb Mill employees (some with Arlington Directory listings as “turner” or “piano case maker”) provides incidental information on their lives and property in town.

We created a list of these Mill-relevant articles, 1871 to 1899, and read through them over the past month. What did we discover?

The Mill’s business included local customers and builder’s finish

With reported output of thousands of frames a week, Charles Schwamb & Son in the nineteenth century certainly engaged in wholesale business, selling finished frames to Boston galleries such as A.A. Child’s. Local advertising was hardly necessary to such a business model, but starting in 1877, weekly ads appear encouraging readers to visit the Mill’s office to arrange for framing (“Picture, Mirror and Wreath Frames!”) and re-gilding.

Local advertisements for Chas. Schwamb & Son, published in the Lexington Minute-man in 1877 (left) and 1897 (right)

In 1881, the Mill’s office was on the second floor, center-front of the original structure. In 1897, with the southeast-side addition and its nicely finished first floor office complete, the Schwamb advertisements suggested visiting the office or, as a genteel alternative, Carl William Schwamb’s nearby residence. According to this later advertisement, locals may present wallpaper samples to be matched for tinting “ornamental mouldings,” clearly the sort of builder’s finish that the residential housing boom in Arlington called for.

This emphasis on local clients and visits to the Mill to discuss home décor provides one explanation for the array of moulding samples hanging on brass rods in the front office. These samples make sense if locals once visited the office to choose from among Schwamb profiles; less sense in the twentieth-century business model where retailers far from Arlington provided the moulding profiles they wanted the Schwambs to manufacture.

In the 1890s, Chas. Schwamb & Son advertised in the local papers, offering wreath frames and tinted moulding. At left, a Victorian wreath frame recently for sale on Ebay; the Mill has similar frames in its collection. At right, moulding samples hanging on brass rods in the Mill’s front office.

In the twentieth century, under the third-generation owners Clinton and Louis Schwamb, the Mill produced frames and picture frame moulding on a wholesale basis, almost exclusively. The customers were frame shops, galleries, and furniture stores, and the work was done to those retail stores’ specifications. Many of these retail stores, based in Boston and New York City, were already customers when the Clinton and Louis Schwamb took over. One wonders if Carl William’s sons found the additional local business unprofitable or perhaps lacked time and personnel to continue it.

The Mill was a well-equipped and busy factory

The Advocate and Minute-man ran four detailed profiles of the Charles Schwamb factory over 30 years, along with shorter notices on the firm’s activity. These articles seem to be based on in personal visits and describe a factory with three buildings, two coal boilers, a 25-horsepower steam engine, and a shop filled with machinery. Many of our readers are familiar with the “Surprise Party” of 1875, where workers left the Mill on Friday evening and marched to Charles Schwamb’s house to congratulate him and his son Carl William, his new partner in the renamed business Charles Schwamb & Son.

The article “Our Home Industries,” published May 28, 1881, describes the frame-making process as we know it today, though the frame quadrants appear to have been joined by glue and wooden pegs or “dowels.” Machinery on the first floor included a “moulding machine, two rotary planers, belt, circular and jig saws, boring machines used for doweling, with common and eccentric turning lathes.” On the second floor was the office, whited moulding drying singly on racks, and a device for applying whiting (like gesso) to either mouldings or frames – it is unclear which – a “compact little machine which spreads the mixture over the wood with a perfect uniformity not otherwise attainable, and with great rapidity.” The third floor was in use for lacquering and polishing frames with wood finishes.

Surprising to us is that, according to this 1881 article, the water wheel was still in use, the same eighteen-foot diameter and ten-foot-wide wheel installed in 1861. The article states that the water wheel power system could be adjusted to the engine “so that both can be used” and mentions a small steam engine that was formerly used (as early as March of 1872, we believe). If the Schwamb Mill had enough water to keep its wheel in service, the Mill’s installation of a water turbine in 1888 makes sense as a next step.

The Schwambs’ workforce is variously described in local articles as between 30 and 38 workers in the 1870s. In one of its many optimistic posts, the Minute-man reported in the depression year of 1893, “Schwamb’s moulding mill seems to be as busy as usual in spite of the prevailing dullness of business elsewhere.” We know from other sources that by 1893 there were 14 employees at the Mill, and 8 the year following. While this is a decline in workers over the Mill’s boom years, it is in line with the Mill’s typical workforce of 12 in the twentieth century.

The Mill had some interesting local workers

Charles Schwamb & Son employed many German immigrants, as did Theodore Schwamb Company. John Fred Bitzer arrived from Germany to the United States in 1867, aged 17, and joined his father in work at the Charles Schwamb factory, staying there until 1903, when he began work for Theodore Schwamb. After boarding with other Schwamb employees at John Stingel’s, a boot maker in town, Bitzer eventually lived on Bow Street before settling with his wife and family at 39 Forest Street where he remained until his death in 1923. His death notice in the paper describes him as “a quiet, home loving man who took great delight in his family circle.” Like many Arlington men of his day, he was a member of the Oddfellows, a fraternal group.

John “Johnny” Brady lived on the corner of Park and Lowell streets and worked at the Charles Schwamb Mill as well, but made the papers rather more often than Bitzer. On the Schwamb employees’ second annual fishing excursion (aboard the yacht Una, sailing off Minot Light), John caught the first fish after hours with no luck for any employee. On another occasion, his chickens escaped his yard, only to be shot at by annoyed neighbors. His cow was mysteriously led away over night and, despite spending a day tracking it, John could find neither cow nor thief. His obituary noted that John “was a resident here for many years and had won the respect of the entire community by his quiet and industrious habits which had enabled him to accumulate quite a little property and enjoy the well-earned rest during his later years.” He was survived by his daughter Rose, who taught at the Cutter school.

Other known Schwamb workers show up in passing, often simply in connection with public notices or real estate transactions. Accidents made the news. John Johnson, a Jacob Schwamb employee, broke a leg in the Mill’s dry house. Theodore Schwamb caught his palm in a planer, without breaking a bone, fortunately. Carl William Schwamb took a month off from playing piano at Follen Church due to an injured hand, though we are not told the reason.

Schwambs were active in town life and government

The Schwamb brothers began working in Arlington in the 1850s. From the start, they were active in town life. In the article “Historical Sketch of Arlington’s Fire Department,” we learn that Charles, Peter (father of Professor Peter Schwamb), Theodore, and Fredrick Schwamb were at different times members of the fire brigades of the 1850s and 1860s, organized with pride around their state-of-the-art engines “Olive Branch” and “Eureka.” Other members of these volunteer brigades, some with German names, also worked with the Schwambs.

Over the decades of the nineteenth century, the Schwambs attended and spoke at Town Meeting, and served as truant officers, water commissioners, and election workers. Like most Arlington voters in this period, they were active members of the Republican Party, attending local nominating committee meetings and statewide conventions. The homes of Carl William, Jacob, and Professor Peter Schwamb were suitably decked out to greet torchlight processions in support of presidential candidates Rutherford Hayes (1876) and William McKinley (1896). The Schwambs also pitched in when needed. Theodore Schwamb served on a committee to oversee enlarging or creating a new Cutter School, and Peter Schwamb provided the know-how to fix the “fire gong” in the Town Hall.

Schwambs who regularly made the news outside of government included Carl William Schwamb, Theodore Schwamb, and Professor Peter Schwamb.

Carl William played piano and organ, and served as musical director at the Heights Evangelical Church and later at Follen Church in Lexington. In addition to these weekly responsibilities, he frequently directed and provided accompaniment for Sunday School performances, spring concerts, harvest festivals, and Christmas concerts. Managing a busy factory and a full musical calendar, his schedule does not yet suggest a man stricken with tuberculosis, the illness that led to his early retirement.

Theodore significantly expanded his piano case factory (located behind what is now the Mirak dealership) in the 1890s. He was also a director or trustee with several banks over the years: Arlington Savings Bank, First National Bank of Arlington, and Arlington Five Cents Savings Bank. When German dignitaries visited Arlington, it was Theodore who acted as host.  

Theodore’s adopted son, Professor Peter Schwamb, served the town wherever his engineering training could help. He was one of three water commissioners at a time when Arlington was considering joining the Metropolitan water system. He traveled and lectured, furnishing in 1893 “a delightful and instructive hour giving an account of his recent tour in China and Japan, explaining the modes of travel and other interesting features pertaining to these unique foreign countries.” He and his wife Amy Etta Bailey Schwamb appear to have been popular socially. In 1895, the couple attended a costume party at Grand Army hall. “Prof. Schwamb was in his father’s wedding coat and vest, of a period of thirty or more years ago, something after a Prince Albert coat; Mrs. Schwamb wore a large velvet bonnet and voluminous skirts…”

The Schwamb women also made the papers, as speakers, singers, charitable workers, organizers, and club members. The Arlington Heights Baptist church socials often included recitations or song by Carl William’s sisters Gertie and Alice. His wife Nellie was a regular organizer of benefit fairs and served as treasurer of Francis Gould Corps No. 43 Women’s Relief Corps, a veterans support group.  Later in the 1890s, Peter Schwamb’s wife Amy led meetings of the progressive National Woman’s Alliance (delivering a paper on “Food for the hungry” on the principles of hygienic and scientific cooking), and later the Arlington Woman’s Club. These self-managed women’s activities, nearly all with a distinct educational or social focus, took place as support for women’s suffrage slowly grew in Massachusetts. Women first entered the voting booth, for school committee elections only, starting in 1879.

This brief article gives only a sample of the mentions that the Schwambs and their employees received in the local papers. To read more, visit our timeline of Mill Related Articles. This is a work in progress — we are adding articles to the list weekly. Or … pursue your own interests in local history in the Lexington Minute-man using the online searching capability provided by Cary Memorial Library.

Dermot Whittaker, Schwamb Mill Preservation Trust, Inc.

This period of museum closures due to the COVID-19 is a challenge for non-profits like the Old Schwamb Mill. Your contribution in support of the Mill, however modest, is much appreciated at this time. We look forward to reopening soon!

4 thoughts on “Schwambs in the News, 1871-1899

  1. Stroker Rogovin says:

    Hi Dermott,

    Another interesting read. Thanks for all your digging.

    As I may have mentioned, I’m working on a biography of one of the leading lights of Medford around the turn of the century, Rosewell B. Lawrence. I was fascinated by your mention of Peter Schwamb’s trip to Japan in 1893. Lawrence visited in 1891, with Percival Lowell. (Lowell was an astronomer of some note. He predicted the existence of Pluto, which was discovered 16 years after his death. His brother was president of Harvard.) Their visits to Japan came only two decades or so after the start of the Meiji period and the re-opening to the West after centuries of isolation. If you have any interest, I can send you an account that Lawrence wrote for the Appalachian Mountain Club, detailing his adventures climbing mountains there, which REALLY brought him into contact with old, rural Japan. He loved the people; the food not so much.

    Your theory about the molding samples in the front office is dead on. They might have been handy for someone plotting designs for particular frame orders, but I’m willing to bet they were mostly used for sales, to show customers the options available. I do exactly the same thing in my own work, and have four large tool boxes filled with molding samples of similar length.

    The bit about Theodore Schwamb catching his palm in a planer hits a little too close to home for this woodworker. I can only imagine that it was disengaged at the time? When under power, those machines are specifically designed to grab and pull wood across spinning blades—as you know—so there would have been no easy way to avoid losing whatever part of you might have been caught in the feed mechanism. My guess is that the machine was off and he was just cleaning out wood chips or changing blades and nicked himself? Probably a better explanation is that he was actually using a joiner (aka jointer), as tool nomenclature can be “fluid.” Joiners typically have no feed mechanism, buty it’s still entirely possible to nick a palm while feeding a board across those blades, especially if you do it 7 days a week, for decades, and get casual about it. It only takes once, and I’ve had a few nicks myself—luckily nothing major. I know two contemporaries who’ve lost fingers—one now a VP at the AMC. Very common accident.


    Liked by 1 person

    • Old Schwamb Mill says:

      Thank for this account, Stroker. My thought was that Theodore’s injury was from a jointer rather than a planer. Just on the chance it relates to Lowell’s trip to Japan: Peter Schwamb was the supervisor of the construction of parts of the Mount Wilson Obs. telescope at the shipyard in Quincy. Tom Calderwood gave a talk at the Mill on this in 2016. We’ll have to catch up soon on that biography project! -Derm


  2. Doreen stevend says:

    My sincere thanks for this encyclopedic accounting of Schwamb Family activities. It’s a bit of a revelation to have discovered the Schwamb trade in local home decorating. In that one of the contact points mentioned in the advertisement was the Schwamb home, not just the factory, it’s fun to think that Mrs Schwamb? The Schwamb daughters ???may have been involved. Amazing stuff.


  3. Marie MacDonald says:

    Very interesting article. I am producing a podcast about Route 2. One of the towns featured in our podcast will be Arlington and I would love to chat with someone about being a guest on the podcast to talk about The Mill. My telephone is 413-336-6808, Thank you!


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