Revere’s Roundabout Ride to Clinton
In today’s history blog, I outline the winding path Revolutionary War hero Paul Revere’s own company took to begin manufacturing Revere Ware in Clinton.
Practically every American is familiar with the story of Paul Revere’s famous “Midnight ride” to warn the Massachusetts militia that British soldiers were approaching Concord. DeWitt county locals and fans of old cookware might also know Revere Ware bears his name, and was once manufactured right here in Clinton. But how is the cookware that was manufactured in Clinton connected to this famous ride that started the American Revolution?
Paul Revere, born January 2, 1735, was a silversmith by trade and active in Boston social and political life. He was a Freemason starting in 1760, and through his connections there, knew many early Patriots. He was part of the Boston Committee of Correspondence and Massachusetts Committee of Safety, two Patriot organizations that gradually took on the role of a parallel government as relations with British royal authority broke down in the colonies. He also took part in the planning of the Boston Tea Party, and helped to publicize the event in Philadelphia and New York. He served with the Massachusetts militia for the first few years of the Revolutionary War without much distinction, until a failed expedition by the militia ended his military career for good. Overall, without Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1860 poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” Revere likely never would have achieved much historical notoriety.
Despite not being a terribly important figure to the success of the Revolution, Revere’s early support of the Patriot cause meant that after the war he had valuable connections in high places. He spent the post-war years starting an iron and brass foundry, then learned to work copper, and by 1800, he was able to cash in his connections to secure a loan from the federal government to open the first copper rolling mill in the United States. Thin sheets of rolled copper were in high demand, and a military concern for the new country. Wooden boats could have their lifespans extended by applying copper sheathes to the bottom of the boats, which kept marine life that normally attached to and decayed wooden ships away. Warships benefitted especially from this new process, as keeping marine life off a boat also increased its speed by reducing drag. Revere’s new copper mill was used to re-copper “Old Ironsides,” the USS Constitution, in 1803, but it also supplied copper for civilian use. Revere manufactured the copper sheeting that was installed on the Massachusetts State House, also in 1803, and even manufactured copper sheets for the earliest steamboats’ boilers. By the time of Paul Revere’s death in 1818, his copper business was a thriving example of early industrialization.
Paul Revere left his businesses to be run by his son, Joseph Warren Revere, and the family remained involved with the company through its many mergers and restructurings in the 19th and 20th century. The Revere copper business officially become “Revere Copper Company” in 1828, but then lost the Revere name as a result of a merger in 1900, becoming Taunton-New Bedford Copper Company. This company then merged with businesses in 4 states in 1928, at which point the Revere name was revived as the new conglomerate settled on the name Revere Copper and Brass Inc. in 1929. The company persisted through the Great Depression and even up to the 1980’s, when Revere Copper and Brass filed for bankruptcy in 1982. Despite this, a branch of Paul Revere’s company still exists up to today, as Revere Copper Products, Inc. The Revere Ware cookware that made Revere Copper and Brass a household name unfortunately was left to limp along after the bankruptcy, until it was finally discontinued by its then-owner World Kitchen in 2018.
Revere Ware itself has surprisingly deep roots as well. Starting in 1908, Taunton-New Bedford Copper was manufacturing copper cookware with tin lining, which were successful for some time. By the early 1930’s, the new Revere Copper and Brass Inc. was experimenting with copper cookware with chrome lining, as tin was easily damaged with regular use. Unfortunately, chrome was an even worse choice, as the acid released when potatoes were cooked with salt caused the chrome to flake off. Starting in 1933 and continuing into 1934, Revere experimented extensively with new materials for cookware, before settling on stainless steel as the most durable. However, stainless steel conducted heat poorly, leading to uneven heating and frequently burned food. Copper was much better at conducting heat (and a material Revere already worked with regularly), but there was no known way to plate it onto stainless steel at the time. It took until the end of 1936 before the company committed to find a way to solve this problem. Two more years of research and creation of machinery to plate copper onto the bottom of stainless steel cookware followed before a promising product was developed. In January 1939, the first run of this new “Revere Ware” went on sale at the Houseware Show in Chicago, and was an immediate hit. However, the onset of World War II stopped their production for a few years. Still, this gave Revere Copper and Brass time to patent the process to manufacture Revere Ware and make plans to scale up production. The first step in that plan was to purchase a plant in Riverside, CA, and the next step was to open a factory in Clinton, with the aim of better supplying Revere Ware to the Midwest.
Revere Copper and Brass decided to set up their Clinton plant in a then unused warehouse owned by the Clinton Community Association. The warehouse had originally been built in 1946 with the intention of it eventually becoming a plant for Goodyear Rubber Footwear Inc., and to sweeten the deal, the Clinton Community Association had been the ones to find the financing for the building, which Goodyear would then assume the obligation to pay back. In late 1946 Goodyear started moving into the building by starting a training program out of the space, but it only ran intermittently until December 1947, when the training program stopped entirely. One of the problems Goodyear faced was labor unrest. The company seems to have been in disputes with employees in general at this time, and their just-started operation in Clinton was no exception. An unfair labor practices suit was brought by Goodyear employees in Clinton before the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in July 1947, and on November 30, 1948 the company was ordered to “cease and desist from unfair labor practices,” and rehire with back pay everyone they had laid off on December 4, 1946. On January 11, 1949, Goodyear announced the plant was officially closed, and insisted that the NLRB investigation had nothing to do with the closure.
The Clinton Chamber of Commerce was at least able to quickly find a new buyer for the unused plant, as Revere Copper and Brass announced on May 4, 1950 that they would buy the property. It had not been an easy sell though. When James Kennedy, the Revere Vice President heading up their search for a new plant in the Midwest, arrived to tour the former Goodyear plant, “it was a rainy Spring day… when he got out of his automobile… he stepped knee-deep into mud!” The building itself also had problems. It had been designed to be cooled by air conditioning, but that had not yet been installed, and the interior would need to be remodeled to accommodate Revere’s manufacturing process. Thankfully, location is always the make-or-break in any real estate deal, and Kennedy couldn’t deny Clinton was an ideal location to ship Revere Ware across the Midwest, which convinced him to have Revere make an offer.
In Revere’s announcement of the purchase, the company stated they planned to employ at least 200 people at the plant, 25% of whom they pledged would be women, with a payroll of over $500,000 a year (about $5,500,000 in 2022) and Clinton residents getting first choice of the jobs on offer. However, there was one hurdle left to clear before the plant could finally be used. Revere was only offering $275,000 for the plant, while Goodyear had invested a total of $327,000 in it, so Goodyear pressured Clinton to offset their loss. The Chamber of Commerce eventually agreed to pay for the broker’s commission, taxes, and title insurance policy on the sale, amounting to $13,000 (about $140,000 in 2022), which had to be raised by charitable contributions from the community. Despite this obstacle, Clinton residents rose to the occasion and raised the needed amount. With the deal closed and Revere in possession of the plant, they quickly remodeled it to their liking, and on October 18th, 1950, the first piece of Revere Ware manufactured in Clinton, a one-quart saucepan, came off the production line.
The new company was immediately welcomed into the community, evidenced by the fact that 6,300 visitors toured the plant on October 21st, 1951 in celebration of the plant’s 1st anniversary of operation and Revere Copper and Brass Inc.’s 150th anniversary. It would remain an important fixture in the local community for another 48 years, until the plant’s closure in 1999.
Suggestions for further reading
The library’s standing files! These can be found directly behind the circulation desk at the library, and have clippings from local newspapers on all sorts of local historical topics, including the Revere Ware plant that was discussed in this blog. In fact, much of the information for today’s blog came from the resources available in these files! Anyone who comes into the library can browse the contents of these files while in the library, and while what’s in the files can’t be checked out, you can make your own copies to take home.
Founding Myths, by Ray Raphael explores how many of the classic stories of the American Revolution, including Paul Revere’s ride, were exaggerated, selectively edited, or out-right fabricated as romantic individualism became the dominant artistic movement of the 1800’s and the young United States sought to create a national history for itself. Raphael traces these “myths” back to the kernel of truth at their core, as well as the interesting path each story took to its most well-known form. It can be found in the library’s non-fiction section under HISTORY>U.S.>1770-1850>RAP.
Copper Heritage, by Isaac F. Marcosson tells much the same story as this blog did, but in much greater detail-following Paul Revere’s little copper mill all the way to the 1950’s as Revere Copper and Brass Inc. Also, since it was published in 1955, it tells the story of Revere as it was happening, and therefore presents a unique and now-impossible perspective. It can be found in the library’s non-fiction section under BUSINESS & ECONOMICS>History>MAR.
“About Revere Ware.” Reverewareparts.com. Accessed April 8, 2022. https://www.reverewareparts.com/about-revere-ware/.
Cole, Robert J. “Revere Files Petition for Chapter 11.” New York Times, Oct. 28, 1982. https://www.nytimes.com/1982/10/28/business/revere-files-petition-for-chapter-11.html.
“Committees of Correspondence.” Brittanica.com. Encyclopedia Britannica. Accessed April 14, 2022. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Committees-of-Correspondence.
Desy, Margherita M., and Kate Monea. “Copper Bottomed.” Ussconstitutionmuseum.org. USS Constitution Museum, Aug. 12, 2015. https://ussconstitutionmuseum.org/2015/08/12/copperbottomed/.
“Paul Revere Biography.” Paulreverehouse.org. The Paul Revere House. Accessed April 11, 2022. https://www.paulreverehouse.org/biography/.
“Paul Revere Launches an Industry as Well as a Business.” Clinton Journal and Public (Clinton, IL), Oct. 19, 1951.
“Revere’s Foundry and Copper Mill.” Paulreverehouse.org. The Paul Revere House. Accessed April 11, 2022. https://www.paulreverehouse.org/reveres-foundry-copper-mill/.
“Revere Greets 6,300 Visitors At 150th Birthday Party.” Photocopied newspaper clipping with handwritten date “10-22-51.” “Clinton- Industry & Business- Revere” folder. “Clinton” drawer. Vespasian Warner Public Library standing files, Clinton, Illinois, United States.
“Revere Plant History.” Photocopied newspaper clipping with handwritten note “Bloomington Pantagraph 3/2/99.” “Clinton- Industry & Business- Revere” folder. “Clinton” drawer. Vespasian Warner Public Library standing files, Clinton, Illinois, United States.
“Revere Will Open Plant at Clinton.” Laminated clipping from Pantagraph newspaper with handwritten date “5-4-50.” “Clinton- Industry & Business- Revere” folder. “Clinton” drawer. Vespasian Warner Public Library standing files, Clinton, Illinois, United States.
“To the Business and Property Owners of Clinton, Illinois.” Photocopied newspaper clipping with handwritten date “6-15-50.” “Clinton- Industry & Business- Revere” folder. “Clinton” drawer. Vespasian Warner Public Library standing files, Clinton, Illinois, United States.