“Steel Industry” can conjure hellish images of white-hot furnaces and choking black smoke, but even in the mid to late 19th century steelmaking was a sophisticated business. Born in fire, steel was refined and furnished in forms out of which could be made myriad goods, from tiny screws for precision timepieces to foot-thick armored turrets for the largest battleships.
Most steel goods left collectors affordable historical souvenirs in the form of the commercial correspondence of the day, of which three items are shown here.
“Established 1865,” the handsome corner card on a 2¢ stamped envelope (Scott U311) from the Crescent Steel Co. of Pittsburgh was canceled there in 1891, and the addressee in Ithaca, New York, was at least as noteworthy, according to Wikipedia. Robert Henry Thurston had been a naval officer in the Civil War and later “Assistant Professor at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis and a published specialist on iron and steel as well as steam engines.”
Thereafter, in 1871 he “was appointed Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Stevens Institute of Technology,” a private research university in New Jersey. After 15 years, Thurston left to become “director of Sibley College at Cornell University, reorganizing it as a college of mechanical engineering.” It is some measure of the enduring regard in which he was held that, more than a century later, 31 “Stories by R.H. Thurston” written from 1874 up until his death in 1903 are still posted online in 2019 by Scientific American.
Then as today, research and commerce went together, which is why men like Thurston filed and held patents, as had Kelly and Bessemer before him. If the letter in the 1891 cover did not acknowledge receipt of a detailed order from the professor concerning his work, then it may have been an inquiry from Crescent Steel politely requesting Thurston’s opinion.
Why would a steel company write to a professor? The answer is in the printed message side of a penny postal card (Scott UX9) sent cross-town in 1898 by a Chicago sales firm representing Crescent Steel. The card offers “COLD ROLLED BRIGHT STRIP STEEL down to .005 inch, of various grades, and of ‘tempers’ from dead soft up,” suitable for use in saws, springs, sewing machines, corsets, spokes or whatever else the customer might need. Turning a raw material into the precisely formed and fabricated piece of metal to keep your bustle or your bicycle ride stiff but springy every day is what elevated ironmongery from a craft to an industry.
That’s also the message of a 2¢ stamped envelope sent in 1912 from a shovel-maker in Pittsburgh to Ohio. The sender claims “the blade of this shovel is SOLID CAST STEEL Warranted and with Socket and Straps Complete … wrought on one Piece from a Single Ingot of Metal. PITTSBURGH.” Accompanying it is the promise that “this label will be found on every HUSSEY-BINN’S SHOVEL CO’S R.R. SHOVEL.” This is how Bessemer bested Kelly, producing enough tough steel rails to cross a continent and make cast railroad shovels — not just a few teapots.