The Vibrator Story

People and families have a personal narrative history and so do places.  My birthplace, my hometown, Racine, Wisconsin has one. It is the story of a factory town which attracted European immigrants, beginning with French explorers in 1699 who established trading posts at the mouth of the Root River where it empties into Lake Michigan.

Waves of immigrants, including Danes, Germans, and Czechs, began to settle in Racine between the Civil War and the First World War. African Americans started arriving in large numbers during World War I, as they did in other Midwestern industrial towns, and Mexicans migrated to Racine from roughly 1925 onward (source: Wikipedia). These immigrants became the working class families and blue collar workers of Wisconsin’s Industrial Age.

Historic Racine  Credit: www.epodunk.com

Historic Racine
Credit: www.epodunk.com

Racine became famous as the home of many manufacturers who invented new products and built factories and established headquarters. Early industries manufactured agriculture equipment, fanning mills that separated wheat grain from chaff.  Some grew to be the largest, including J. I. Case (heavy equipment) which was the namesake of my high school.  Others were S.C. Johnson and Son (cleaning and chemical products), and Modine (heat exchangers).

Malted milk was created by William Horlick and the garbage disposal was invented by John Hammes who founded InSinkErator. Other companies include: Dremel, Twin Disc, Reliance Controls, and Ruud Electric. Racine became an early manufacturer of wagons, automobiles and bicycles, including Dr. J. W. Cathcart, Pennington, Victoria Tricycle, and Mitchell and Case automobiles.  Racine is also famous for its Kringle a Danish pastry since it boasts the largest population of Danes who settled in the United States.

Danish Kringle

Danish Kringle

What I didn’t know until recently was its significance as a manufacturer of small electric motors. Many of you are probably familiar with the following brands. I knew of these companies growing up, some had their headquarters and factories near the Root River and Downtown Racine including Hamilton Beach, Oster and Andis and the products they made included electric mixers, blenders, hair dryers and vacuums, labor saving devices popularized in the 19th and 20th centuries

 

 

 

I should have been more aware of their importance. My mother worked for years at Motor Specialty, Inc. a small motor manufacturer whose motors were used in sewing machines and some of the products mentioned earlier and I suspect in some of the appliances that follow.  

What I didn’t know until recently is that they all manufactured early versions of electric vibrators, which were marketed as medical devices to promote health and well-being.

Following is an article first published in the Racine Post, on June 7, 2010, by Gerald L. Karwowski.

Yes, my hometown has another claim to fame besides Case tractors, Johnson Family household products, Horlick’s Malted Milk, and Danish Kringles, we’re the Vibrator Capitol of the World.

Celebrating 175 years: ‘Vibrator Capitol of the World’

Few people today know the story of the Racine business men who were instrumental in changing the world with their labor saving devices. Things we use every day like mixers, hair dryers, vacuums and vibrators were items they helped create.

Racine became known as “The Fractional Electric Motor Capitol of the World” because of the number of high-quality small motors manufactured here.

Racine could also be called the “Vibrator Capitol of the World,” because there were at least seven companies that manufactured vibrators here. Major companies that were known all over world like Hamilton-Beach, Oster, Allover, Master, Arnold, Andis and Racine Electric Co.

The booming small electric motor industry Racine enjoyed for many decades all started when Frederick Osius established the United States Standard Electric Works , April 19, 1904 with a capitol of $25,000, F. J. Osius, Pres; C.K. Carpenter, V-pres; George Schmitz, sec/ treas; to develop and manufacture small electric products in rented space on the 4th floor of the Secor Building at 245 Main Street ( Main Place). The company’s first product was a massage vibrator which was patented by Fred Osius and marketed as medical device for doctors. In early advertisements they were marketed as Dr. Arnold’s Massage Vibrators with the tagline, “Get Well and Keep Well Without Drugs.”

Get Well Without Drugs

Get Well Without Drugs

The Arnold Vibrator

The Arnold Vibrator

 In 1909 the company expanded and constructed a new three-story 50,000 square foot brick factory at 1218 Washington Avenue to manufacture and assemble their growing line of electrical products.

Within the year everything suddenly changed when the company sold the rights to a vacuum cleaner they invented for $300,000 to the McCrum-Howell Co., which also bought the new manufacturing plant. During the chain of events Osius sold out to his business partners and the Standard Electric Works moved next door in a smaller factory building at 1313 12th St. in January 1910.

 

When McCrum-Howell went bankrupt a few years later   Standard Electric Works purchased their building back and by 1915 it was re-incorporated as Arnold Electric Co.; capital of $100,000; George Schmitz, Pres; Joseph Schmitz, sec-treas.

Standard Electric Works Factory, 1313 12th St.

Standard Electric Works Factory, 1313 12th St.

In April of 1910 Frederick Osius (left) founded his new company Hamilton-Beach to manufacture quality electrical products.

Arnold's Big Sellers

Arnold’s Big Sellers

Chester Beach’s daughter Ella said, “Osius paid my father and Louis Hamilton $1,000 each to use their names for his new company.” The pair left Standard Electric and joined Osius in the new corporation which was located in rented space in the Greene Manufacturing building at 1028 Douglas Avenue. The first products were a line of high-quality vibrators, small motors and their new “Cyclone Drink Mixer.” The mixer was designed to agitate Horlick’s Malted Milk and it was the first practical electric drink mixer of its kind in the world. Chester Beach is credited for his inventive genius in developing the new Universal high-speed fractional motor used in the products. However, the Osius, Beach and Hamilton connection was short lived. By 1913 Chester Beach and Louis Hamilton both had left the firm and founded their own business Wisconsin Electric Company (Dumore).

Hamilton-Beach continued to grow under Osius’s leadership adding dozens of new products like sewing machine motors, fans and vacuums. In 1915, the company expanded building a new factory on Rapids Drive to keep up with the growing demand.

In 1922, Osius sold the Company to Scovill Mfg. for an unknown amount and moved to Miami, Fla. where he built a pretentious home on Millionaires’ Row. Osius was quite the eccentric. He refused to have a telephone in his mansion. He said, “The friends who particularly want to see me will come to the house.”

In 1931 Hamilton-Beach bought Arnold Electric Company and blended the Arnold products into the Hamilton-Beach product lines. Through the following decades the company ran smoothly with mixers being restyled every few years with a lot of chrome added during the 1950s and ’60s. In 1968 the company closed the Racine plant.

A former Hamilton Beach Employee credits the Hamilton-Beach electric knife as the reason the company closed their plant in Racine. He said, “It was an instant success” and Scovill explored ways to capitalize on that product to make even more profits.”

At the time southern states were offering great incentives for business that would move. Hamilton-Beach took advantage of their offers which put an end to the era of Hamilton-Beach manufacturing in Racine.

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