This post is an excerpt from the book, The Life and Times of Warren Webster, by Warren Webster, Jr.
On April 23, 1881, two months before his eighteenth birthday, Warren Webster graduated from Union Business College, now Pierce’s Business College, in Philadelphia. His first thought was to get a job. He had always dreamed of the time when he would be in business for himself, but he realized that he must first have some practical business experience and accumulate some capital. Said he:
“N. G. Taylor & Co., 303 Branch Street, Philadelphia, had advertised for a boy. They requested that all applications be made in writing, but I plucked up courage and made my application in person. When Mr. Taylor, a partner in the business, started to look for my letter, I said: ‘Mr. Taylor, you won’t find any letter there from me. I didn’t write one. I am a graduate of Union Business College and I am looking for an opportunity. I have push, pluck and perseverance. I will work a month for nothing if you will give me a chance. I want to learn.’ You can have the job,’ Mr. Taylor replied, ‘but I can’t have boys working around here for nothing.’
“I received $4 a week, the regular starting wage. My first duty was copying letters. Those were the days of the wet-clothbook-and-letter-press. The method required having the cloth at a certain dampness in order to obtain a good copy. As I had no experience, I got the cloth too wet and spoiled a few letters. The boy who had been doing this work previously saw this and said, ‘Mr. Taylor won’t stand for anybody spoiling letters. If I were you I would tear up the letters and forget them.’ I said, ‘That isn’t my idea of doing it.’
“I took the three spoiled letters and went into Mr. Taylor’s office. ‘Mr. Taylor,’ I said, ‘I have ruined three letters because I didn’t know just how to work that job. If you will let the other boy stay down tonight and show me how to do it, I promise you there will be no more spoiled letters.’ That night the other boy stayed and gave me a lesson on how to copy letters, and I paid him half-a-dollar for the trouble.”
Soon Warren Webster wanted more work to do. He was made assistant to the man who ran the Sheet Iron Department. He worked hard and soon was transferred to the Babbitt Metals Department.
Here he had to weigh the mixtures. He memorized the day-to-day stock sheet in the Sheet Metal Department and knew exactly how much of each material was on hand at any given time. When he went on vacation, Mr. Taylor realized how much he had come to depend on the boy. So Warren Webster was given charge of the Department, with a fifty percent raise in salary—to $6.00 a week.
“Soon after that,” said my father, “I got another raise—this time to $12.00 a week, or just double my salary. It came about in this way: Many of Taylor & Co.’s shipments came from Wales. Up until this time Mr. Taylor had always accepted the vouchers that came with each shipment without checking them. I soon found by weighing them that the sheets were lighter than marked. That was how the economy was effected. It made a difference of about $1500 on one shipment from Wales—and I got my raise.
“My next job,” he continued, “was as a salesman for the American Oxide Bronze Company, Philadelphia. They had a secret process for manufacturing bronze castings. My salary was $15.00 a week plus 5% commission on sales. I managed to sell more than they were producing, but they could have produced more, for they had four crucibles and only worked two. They were so well satisfied with my work that they gave me some stock in the Company. Later I sold the stock for $500.00.
“I was then twenty-one,” said Warren Webster, “and was determined to go into a business where I could be completely on my own. I had saved $1000.00 between 1881 and 1884, while working for N. G. Taylor & Co. and the American Oxide Bronze Company. I intended to invest $500.00 and hold $500.00 in reserve.
“I went to see a business acquaintance, Mr. Ott (of George F. Ott & Company) to inquire about a location for a casting shop. He sent me to a Mr. Kohler at his hardware store on Second Street in Philadelphia. Mr. Kohler had a stable back of his store which I rented for $10.00 a month. I now had a business of my own. To help me I hired Benjamin Sinkerson and his young son, both of whom I had known at the American Oxide Bronze Company.
“One day Mr. Kohler, my landlord, made a suggestion. ‘I think you ought to reclaim tinfoil,’ he said, ‘you can collect it from the stores and melt it down to get the tin out of it.’
“This sounded like a fine idea, so I hired two wagons to collect the tinfoil and set the Sinkersons to work melting it down. In a few hours tinfoil began to accumulate. Soon we had such quantities there was no room to work. If we had kept at it very long, we would have blocked traffic on Second Street. After two or three days I abandoned the tinfoil idea and got down to the business of castings.”
There was a directness about Warren Webster’s business methods that seemed to impress everyone in his favor. Going to Lippincott, the soda fountain manufacturers, he asked for and received a sample of their most difficult casting and permission to show what he could do with it. When he delivered the casting, it was pronounced as good as anything they had had—and thereafter he received a number of orders from this Company.
Said he: “I also made centrifugal hydro-extractor brass rings and the H. P. Uhlinger Co., now Schaum & Uhlinger, gave me a splendid contract. The rings were satisfactory and I had the molder and his boys make them whenever they were slack in the Department. They could mold up one of these rings in a half-day then I would put it in stock and the Uhlinger Company would send for it later. They took all I ever made.
“After a little more than a year in business,” said Warren Webster, “I found I had made $673.00, after clearing expenses. This was for the period between June 23, 1884, and November 14, 1885. I was in my twenty-third year.
“About that time I increased my force. I hired a castings man, and a very fine tin-plate worker named Herman Bull, a German.
“Herman Bull thought we should make ventilators. He had an idea for a ventilator and I had him make one. I told him I thought it could be patented, but he wouldn’t spend any money on it, so I did. But a patent was refused. We had a smooth flange about it—and there was nothing new to be patented. However, as we had already built a good many, I conceived the idea that if I made them with a corrugated ring, I would go beyond the diameter of the pipe, bring the arc in and over, and the corrugations would be strengthening to that particular plain ring. With this improvement I obtained a patent. That was the start of the Star Ventilator.
“I adopted a big red star as the trademark. I always thought it was, pictorially, a good thing, because once you see a star on a ventilator you won’t forget it. My competitor at the time was the Globe Ventilator. Its trademark was smaller and it was hard to see.
“After a time, I was compelled to give up the shop behind Kohler’s Hardware Store. The place was too small to do ventilator work and conduct the brass business. So we moved to 12 Fetter’s Lane [now Cherry Street. –Ed.], between Second and Third Streets, above Market, where we occupied the third floor. This place met our needs for a time, but the opportunity presenting itself, we again moved to very much more convenient quarters at 491 North Third Street.
There we continued to manufacture Star Ventilators and brass castings until I went into the heating business.”