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Jack Zaleski, Published December 08 2012

Zaleski: At the Landers factory, they made stuff

An old friend from my high school days in Connecticut sent me a photo gallery of my hometown, New Britain. It’s an amazing collection of pictures of a city that once was a manufacturing center of world prominence. I was immediately struck by images of the sprawling Landers, Frary & Clark factory complex, where my immigrant grandfather worked from about 1915 to the late 1950s. Landers, which traced its beginnings to 1842, was one of the great companies that helped make the United States the global manufacturing powerhouse of the 20th century. Landers produced an incredible array of metal housewares. The Universal line of gadgets and appliances could be found in nearly every American home.

The factory floor covered 42 acres, just a block from the hustle and bustle of New Britain’s historic downtown. Many more acres around the red-brick factory buildings were occupied by rail spurs, loading and shipping platforms, mountains of coal that heated the buildings and fueled the foundry, and access roads and parking lots.

It was a gigantic place that at its peak in mid-century employed 3,600 workers in jobs ranging from skilled tradesmen to press operators to foundry men to designers and engineers and everyone else a factory needed to produce its products.

My grandfather ran a sheet metal press that stamped out panels and oven doors for Landers’ line of kitchen stoves.

It was a different time. Landers actually made stuff. The company designed and engineered its products and marketed them. Its success was astonishing. Yet, by the 1960s the company was on the ropes. After a string of failed managers and fatal ownership/stock deals, the factory went silent in 1965, when I was in college. The storied Universal line faded into history, as the excellent home products Landers had produced for decades were replaced by other brands, most of them manufactured in foreign countries for American companies.

The trend accelerated so that today it’s a chore to find an American small appliance (or large, for that matter) that is completely designed and built in the U.S., the way Landers did it.

I realize the economics of manufacturing has changed. These days, corporations emphasize brain power. They do the R&D, and then have products made offshore. Keeps prices down, we’re told. And, of course, we consumers don’t want to pay what it would take to support good wages for skilled American workers.

The result is the great American worker (like my grandfather) is history because the U.S. doesn’t make enough stuff here at home to provide skilled, good-paying jobs the way Landers (and all the other long-gone factories in New Britain) did.

Progress, right? I’m not convinced. And when I pull out the old hand-crank, counter clamp Universal food chopper I rescued from my grandparents’ home – still in the classic green box – I know that the way it is now doesn’t feel right.

Contact Editorial Page Editor Jack Zaleski at (701) 241-5521.