Frame-making in the Schwamb Mill’s Business Years

In 1847, Charles Schwamb arrived in Boston from Germany and began making oval frames. By 1864, he had his own frame factory in what is now the Old Schwamb Mill. In 1904, his grandchildren Clinton and Louis Schwamb took charge of the business, running it as The Clinton W. Schwamb Company, Inc., until Clinton’s son Elmer Schwamb retired in 1969.

As research for the Old Schwamb Mill’s current exhibit Into The Woods: From Trees to Frames, we looked into the business records of the Clinton W. Schwamb Company, Inc. We counted frames manufactured in 1905, 1915, 1925, 1935, 1949, 1955, 1965. We noted the wood used, but not the size of complexity of the frames.

Our primary goal was to learn whether the woods in demand for frames changed over the twentieth century. We excluded from our count two important work products produced at the Mill: linear moulding (typically accounting for about one half or more of the Schwambs’ business) and non-frame wooden components like moulded bases used as part of another product.

What did we find?

Even with a limited workforce the factory regularly produced thousands of frames a year. In 1905, as the grandchildren Clinton and Louis Schwamb worked to revive the family business, there were only four to six regular workers, including the engineer minding the steam engine. Yet they produced just under 6,000 frames that year. Their output quickly grew to tens of thousands of frames annually, an astonishing number when it is remembered that they also produced moulding and other items. We know that the use of fast-setting hide glue avoided bottlenecks in the glue room. The high-speed shaper with spinning blades was also capable of quickly adding profiles to the front and back of frames. Many orders were for square frames of standard sizes, and with the moulding already in stock, these could be assembled quickly. On the other hand, a fan-shaped or octagonal frame required more time from one or more workers.

The Mill produced finished frames of every type – round, square, octagonal, fan-shaped, panels and spandrels – not simply ovals. Fan-shaped frames remained a popular choice for shops through the mid-twentieth century.

Frames Manufactured at the Clinton W. Schwamb Company in Selected Years. This survey did not include the company’s extensive production of moulding and other wooden items.

Lighter woods such as bass, birch and oak were the rule in the twentieth century, with woods like black walnut, mahogany, or cherry making up a small percentage of orders. Over the twentieth century, we found at least one order for nearly every type of wood, but birch and basswood were by far the two most common choices. Indeed, the factory bought a railroad freight car of bass in spring of 1905, a significant investment in Clinton and Louis’s first year as owners. In addition to the wood itself, they had to pay for unloading the car at the Park Street siding and hauling the wood to the Mill, where it was stacked to dry. In their first year managing the Clinton W. Schwamb Company, they frequently purchased wood from their great-uncle Theodore Schwamb’s piano case factory, nearby on Massachusetts Avenue.

Gessoing frames appears to have been a regular service offered by the Mill until the 1910s. Newspaper accounts from the nineteenth century show that the Schwamb factory was applying “whiting” to frames and mouldings, using a device that spread it smoothly and quickly. The whited mouldings then dried on the second floor. Combined with glue, this whiting created the plaster-like gesso that gave mouldings and frames a smooth finish and provided a base for painting or gilding. In Clinton and Louis’s first year of business in 1904-5, they ordered 13 barrels of “whiting” each barrel approximately 300 pounds. Our reading of the order books suggests that the majority of frames they produced in their first year were whited. Ten years later, whited frames were a small part of their production – perhaps because tastes had changed or because frame shops had brought that process in house, along with gilding and carving.

Frame-making varied year to year based on factors other than the economy. For example, with a workforce of twelve in 1925, the Schwambs appear to have produced fewer frames than in 1915, with a workforce of about seven. Why? We suspect that orders for linear moulding – probably more profitable – increased more than frame orders. A survey of moulding orders for these years will help us find the answer.

Work on frame orders was often divided among workers between construction, turning, and applying special features such as arch tops or Japanese corners. Frame orders frequently list the workers and time spent on each stage of construction in pencil on the back. In this example below, six workers completed different stages of the work, from selecting and ripping the stock, to grooving the joints, gluing the frames, turning the frames on the lathes, and then using the shaper to mould the backs. It is likely that a seventh worker, Elmer Schwamb himself, did the staining and finishing of these frames, which were made for his separate company, Elwane.

Frame Order, February 24, 1949, front. This order for fourteen “panel” frames was intended for Elmer Schwamb’s separate business, the Elwane Company. These were rectangular frames with oval openings (“sights”) for the pictures. The Schwambs did not usually list the wholesale price of frames on the orders, as this order does. Perhaps because the order was for an in-house customer, it was completed over the course of four weeks.
Frame Order, February 24, 1949, reverse. Judging by the different handwriting, the Schwambs apparently asked workers to record the time it took them to complete different parts of a job. On complex orders, this might be reflected in the final price to the frame shop.

Elmer Schwamb’s side business Elwane assumed a large role in the Mill’s business after World War II. While the Clinton W. Schwamb Company continued to produce unfinished frames and moulding for shops in the northeast United States, Clinton’s son Elmer developed a side business. He bought frames manufactured at Clinton W. Schwamb Company and finished them with stain, six coats of lacquer, and occasionally gold leaf for distribution under the name Elwane Company. Eleven agents working on commission placed Elwane frames in over 750 shops across the United States, from Los Angles to Dallas to New York City. The jump in birch frame production in 1949 reflects a customer base for Elwane Company that grew substantially in the late 1940s.

The Weave-It Hand Loom, produced in tens of thousands by the Clinton W. Schwamb Company for Donar Products Company in Medford, Mass.

Non-frame manufacturing was substantial. In the 1920s and 1930s, the Schwambs made wooden items such as moulded bases for clocks or mementos and simple wooden display cases. Beginning in 1934, the Schwamb factory produced tens of thousands of square birch frames for use in the Weave-It Hand Loom. The device allowed users to hand weave squares that could be incorporated into larger items such as afghans, sweaters, or handbags. Useful and affordable, Weave-It had appeal for adults and children during the Great Depression. Weave-It was made by Donar Products Company (formerly Kiddy Crafters), located at 200 Boston Avenue, Medford, Mass. The company was a reliable account for the Schwamb mill during the challenging business climate of the 1930s.

We encourage you to learn more about frame-making by the Schwambs and their workers by visiting Into the Woods: From Trees to Frames, opening December 11 and continuing through winter and spring of 2022! The Old Schwamb Mill is open Tuesdays and Saturdays, 10 am to 4 pm. The Mill will be closed on Christmas, December 25, 2021, but open on New Year’s Day, 2022.

Dermot Whittaker, Old Schwamb Mill

As the year ends, your contribution in support of the Old Schwsamb Mill’s Annual Appeal, however modest, is much appreciated! Visit the Mill’s Donation page to contribute securely online via PayPal or credit card.

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