A Brief Rendering of the Disston and Sons History

Henry Disston was born in Tewkesbury, England in 1819, the third child of Thomas and Ann Disston. The story of his father's death within three days of arriving when the father, Henry, and a sister emigrated to the States in 1833 has been written in several biographies, including one by Jacob S. Disston, Jr. reprinted on this website.

Henry Disston served an apprenticeship with the Philadelphia saw makers William and Charles Johnson, or maybe it was Lindley, Johnson & Whitcraft as reported in the Jacob S. Disston biography. This has been researched by Carl Bopp and published in the Chronicle of the Early American Industries Association (12/04). Bopp found no evidence of a Lindley, Johnson & Whitcraft company ever existing.

Disston's apprenticeship ended when his master's company went bankrupt in 1840. He was compensated with tools and materials in lieu of cash payment for his work and was freed from his employer at the age of 21.

During the 1840's Disston operated his business at a series of rented properties in Philadelphia, including basements, storefronts, and a private home. One creative man rented Disston space and left town with the money. What Disston didn't know was his "landlord" was actually a tenant behind in his rent. The owner of the building had Disston's shop seized, and its contents become property of the real landlord.

In 1841, Disston married Amanda Mulvina Bickley. While pregnant with twins, she fell down stairs in their house on January 1, 1842. She delivered prematurely, the newborns soon died, and the mother died on January 7. They were buried in the Mennonite Cemetery in Germantown, Philadelphia. Disston's first apprentice was David D. Bickley, his brother-in-law. Bickley worked in the Disstons' factories for 50 years.

Henry Disston remarried in 1843 to Mary Steelman, and they had five sons survive to adulthood, all of whom went on to be officers in the company.

The saw works had been destroyed by fire in 1849. Despite all the setbacks Disston suffered thoughout his company's first decade, the saws were of superior quality, as evidenced by those saws that survive. By the early 1850's the Disston company had turned a corner and was well on its way to being a profitable and leading manufacturer of saws. In 1855, Disston became the first saw manufacturer to produce his own steel. This was the factor that made Disston the most successful saw manufacturer in the U.S. The Morrill Tariff Act of 1861 greatly increased the cost of imported steel, making it impossible for other saw makers to compete with Disston.

Disston accumulated huge profits by supplying steel products to the Union Army during the Civil War. This enabled him to invest in the factory, mechanizing much of the process of saw and tool making, lowering cost and increasing production. Some of the machines used in saw production and the manufacturing of files were unique to Disston. For over half a century, Disston was the leading manufacturer of saws in the world. A Time Magazine article claimed in 1940 that 75 percent of the handsaws sold in the U.S. were Disston.

Four of Henry Disston's five sons had management positions in the factory after completing apprenticeships. The first son, Hamilton, was an apprentice when he joined the Union Army. When he returned from the Civil War, he was made a partner in the company. He took over presidency of the company after Henry's death in 1878. Albert (1849-1883) had a short life, but his son Frank was company president 1915-29. Horace (1855-1900) ran the steel mill. William (1859-1915) was president of Disston and Sons, Inc. after Hamilton's death in 1896. William's son and grandson also were company presidents. The youngest son, Jacob (1862-1920), did not apprentice in the factory; he had a college education and a leading role in the finances of the company. Jacob's son and grandson were company presidents as well.

As Disston and Sons' company centennial approached, the saw manufacturing industry was changing. In the 1920's, Disston reduced the size of its product line, dropping redundant models, offering fewer options in size and tooth pitch and making the features of the remaining saw models more universal across the line. Handle shapes were simplified, saws were narrower, and, overall, the different models had more features in common than previously. The Lightweight versions of Disston handsaws were offered in 1927, with the explanation that "modern building methods had taken a great deal of [heavy sawing] away." Disston claimed lighter, narrower saws were easier to handle when sawing the lighter materials in use at the time. The saws were redesigned the following year, 1928, and referred to in advertising as "modern saws for modern sawing."

Between World War I and the early 1920's, the No. 8, No. 9, No. 76, D-21, D-22, and D-100 saws were discontinued. By 1930 the newly redesigned D-16, D-112, and D-120 saws also were dropped. The trend to eliminate slow-sellers continued up to the time the company was sold to H.K. Porter, Inc. in the mid-1950's.

Henry Disston Portrait Henry Disston Portrait Henry Disston Portrait Henry Disston Portrait

  Four portraits of Henry Disston


Disston factory

For the first 75 years of production, Disston expanded its line of saws and other tools constantly. Innovation in design and methods of manufacturing made Disston's products more popular with buyers and more profitable for the company. Every conceivable variation in a saw's features resulted in a different model number. A No. 7 saw with "spring" steel and an apple handle was called a No. 8. A No. 9 saw with a polished blade and carving on the handle was called a No. 12. A D-8 saw with a straight back was called a D-30. A D-8 saw with carving on the handle was called a D-100. A D-115 saw with a straight back was called a D-15. A D-17 saw with a straight back was called a D-117.

During these first 75 years, the corporate culture at Disston was paternalistic. The second generation of Disstons generally ran the company as Henry Disston had, by working closely with their employees, apprenticing in the factory, maintaining a presence on the floor by regularly walking through the works, and providing housing and services to the residents who lived and worked in the northeast section of Philadelphia called Tacony.

Disston worker houses Tacony was a factory "town", actually located within the Philadelphia city limits. Until Disston moved in, it had been a sparsely populated area near the Delaware River, used mostly for summer recreation. In the 1870's Henry Disston bought large parcels of land in Tacony and set out to build a town to house his factory and its workers. Compared to the urban squalor in which many of his employees and their families lived, his detached single family and duplex houses were working-class castles. The houses were rented to workers and maintained by Disston. The trade-off was a straight-laced lifestyle, resulting from the prohibition of vices and outside influences, which might distract or reduce the productivity of workers. There were restrictions on the sorts of businesses that could operate in Tacony. There were no bars, only tea houses. For a time there were no other factories in Tacony, so there was no competition for workers. Livery stables were not allowed near the center of town, so transportation in and out of Tacony was limited to the trolley, which was too expensive for most people to use on a regular basis. Disston employees had no choice but to live in Tacony, so a lifestyle that groomed and maintained suitable factory workers was imposed benevolently upon them.

photo property of Tacony Public Library


For the most part, workers seemed happy with the arrangement for some 50 years. As the Great Depression wore on in the 1930's, workers had seen reductions in hours and their wages in an effort to keep the factory running. Because this and other social and economic changes, the age of paternal corporate structure disappeared. As in other manufacturing industries, this was when the Disston workers unionized.

Now in its third and fourth generations, the Disston family was large and had many members depending on stock dividends from the privately-owned corporation for income and maintenance of their comfortable lifestyles. On the right are two Disston family homes from the 20th century. The college-educated youngest son of Henry Disston, Jacob (University of Pennsylvania Class of 1883), lived in the home in the upper photo. Below that is the home of William D. Disston, grandson of the founder, and once the company president. Dwindling profits and the need to keep paying dividends to the family forced marketing and cost-cutting decisions that would prove detrimental to the long-term health of the company. One area that was neglected for decades was capital investment in the factory. Much of the equipment on the line had been in use since the 1880's. It was old, inefficient, and overworked. By some accounts, nothing was being spent to do more than the most basic maintenance on the factory.

The company's 100th Anniversary celebration was planned for 1940. Labor and management were at a stand-off over contract negotiations. After years of neglect and worker complaints, the employee rest rooms were remodeled just before a tour of the factory by business leaders and politicians to observe the centennial. Out of anger and disgust, some of the workers trashed the rest rooms. Days before the anniversary, workers went out on strike, and the centennial festivities were cancelled. It was the company's first strike since 1886, according to Time Magazine.

During WWII and for about five years after, the company made much of its money selling steel, not saws. After the war, America there was no steel production in most of Europe and Asia. Germany and Japan both invested a great deal of money and effort in new steel mills and other factories. This paid off for them in the early 1950's when these modern plants started production. Disston on the other hand was essentially a 19th-century factory with no cash to invest in modernization. Workers were striking every few years for an increase in pay, and the Disston family members with stock in the company wanted their dividends.

Disston had been trying since the 1930's to develop a practical chainsaw. There was a pneumatic version used during the war, and in the late 1940's, one- and two-man saws made in partnership with Kiekhaefer, the producer of Mercury outboard motors. These saws were heavy, and Kiekhaefer's motors were not ready for production soon enough for Disston to make much of an impression on the market. Then Disston tried unsuccessfully twice to manufacture chainsaws without Kiekhaefer. During the second attempt, the family decided to sell the company to H.K. Porter, a holding company owned by Thomas Mellon Evans. The company had been running on borrowed time, but Evans wasted none when it came to liquidating every asset at Disston. Any machines that could be sold for a quick profit were gone. Most members of the Disston family at that time had no interest in saw making, but they didn't want to close down the place, either. H.K. Porter moved the Disston factory to Danville, Virginia, starting in 1956. After Disston left Philadelphia, that was the end of an era.

Jacob Disston house

William Disston house

photos property of Chestnut Hill Historical Society-John Naylor Collection

1940 Special handsaw

1940 Special etch It wouldn't be right to talk about Disston and not show pictures of a saw. This is the 1940 Special, a commemorative saw manufactured in conjunction with Disston's company centennial. The etch is an interesting study in the phenomenon of streamline design, popular in the U.S. from 1935-1941, originating with the train, the 20th Century Limited. The handle has a dark orange lacquer finish; the wood species is an unidentified hardwood, most likely beech. It appears all 1940 Specials were 26" eight-point crosscut handsaws, taper-ground.

1940 Special handle

Company history reference -- A place to live and work : the Henry Disston saw works and the Tacony community of Philadelphia. Harry C. Silcox. University Park, Pa. : Pennsylvania State University Press, ©1994.

######### [BACK HOME] #########