April 2009


I’ve just gone through a stack of Joseph Gearhart’s instruction manuals and am pretty sure I have discovered the first instruction manual ever written. The year was 1890. Two years earlier, Joseph had started his company and submitted his patent application #427,877 for a wooden Circular Knitting Machine. He had now been granted the patent, and was working on an idea for an injection mold in order to cast a metal version of the same machine. This mold was later to become patent #468,171. Things were going well, and trial runs with the mold had produced an acceptable cylinder with only a few imperfections.

Today, as I examine the collection of early metal cylinders, they are indeed very nice. There are just a few sprinkles of small pits and some uneven cooling spots along some of the ribs. He made three different diameters but eventually settled on a diameter that we see in all the cylinders manufactured after 1892.

He was also building his house on Nichols Street in Clearfield as well as a factory in the back yard, and was raising his family of eight children with his first wife, Mary Middleton. Emory, the youngest child, was two just years old. I have a special interest in Emory. Little Emory would have no way of knowing that he would later become my grandfather and president of the company his father was just now starting. It is fortunate for me that things worked out that way. Yes, it was a pretty busy time at the new Gearhart house.

In those early days, Joseph relied on local talent to make sales. William Irvin Betts was 20 years old at the time, and just entered his father’s office, becoming interested with his father in his many business enterprises. Based on available chronology, either Joseph contacted William, or visa versa, with an interest in establishing William as the first Agent for the Gearhart Knitting Machine Company. According to what we know about later Agent arrangements, William would sell the machines and in return retain some of the profit. In a unique aspect to this first arrangement, William would also have his name printed on the first instruction manual. Not bad at all for a 20-year-old in his first job. William later went on to a very successful career, including president and director of the Clearfield Colliery Company, director in the Clearfield National Bank, vice president and member of the Board of Governors of Clearfield-Curwensville Country Club, director in the Y. M. C. A. of Clearfield, trustee of the Presbyterian church of Clearfield, and he also served one term as burgess of Clearfield.

But make no mistake, Joseph wrote the first instruction manual. His diction is unmistakable. I think though, he must have realized over time that the wording may have been too technical, since later manuals were written with a more casual and friendly flair. Nevertheless, Joseph assured the reader that, with some practice, the People’s Knitting Machine would knit socks, gloves, and scarfs just fine. Below is the first and last page of the manual. If you’d like to see a complete copy, let me know and I’ll put together a pdf file.

instructions1888-1x400

instructions1888-4x400

Notice the fold marks. The folds come out to exactly the same size as my shirt pocket. This makes you wonder if Joseph kept this particular copy of the manual in his shirt pocket and pulled it out every so often for a demonstration of his machine. Also, notice the small stains. Machine oil stains? I’d definitely have to take it to a lab to verify this.

As a footnote, I have seen one reference (and only one reference) that says there were two knitting machine companies in Clearfield at that time. I suspect this assertion is based on the use of the name People’s Knitting Machine rather than Gearhart Knitting Machine. I can find no evidence that there were two companies. In fact, the patent date on the cover page of this manual is exactly the same patent date as Joseph Gearhart’s first patent #424,877, and the illustration of the machine matches his machine. And, the terminology of this manual uses some of the same terminology as the patent. Therefore, based on this evidence I would say that there was only one company, and this manual was the very first manual.

Advertisements

It wasn’t until 1923 that the Gearhart Knitting Machine Stand first made an appearance. This seems odd, considering that it is such a simple idea. But then, no other competitor had a Stand, and therefore this was the only one of its kind ever made. I suspect none of the 200,000 Gearhart Knitting Machine owners ever asked for one, and the idea for Stand originated in-house. Otherwise, by popular demand we would probably have seen a Stand much earlier.

The order form below notes that the Stand could be used with any Gearhart Knitter. This would be true for any knitter going back 20 years. Before that, the cylinder crank mechanism would not have been compatible.

If you had $5.00 in 1923, you could order this Stand along with any other spare parts as well as a complete line of yarn at a rate of $2.50 per lb. delivered. The Company made supplies pretty affordable, since it was to their advantage to promote the Home Earnings business. Even when measured in today’s dollars, $50.00 for the Stand and $25 per lb. for yarn is not a bad price considering that certain types of equivalent worsted yarn today can range over $100 per lb.

stand

candlestickphoneHere is a group photo of the Gearhart Knitting Machine Company management team, taken in 1922. We see the standard Western Electric candlestick phones on the desk, as well as all the other normal paperwork typical for a company photo. Everyone looks well dressed and groomed, and they all come to work wearing suits, ties, and hats. Clearfield was actually a fairly large and sophisticated town, and a center for mining, timber, and manufacturing interests. So, it would not have been unusual to feel as if you were in a city where people presented themselves with an air of formality.

servicedepartment

The management team was up on the 3rd floor of the factory, which is where the administrative offices were located. I recognize Mr. Frank Myers to the far left. He was one of Emory’s best friends, and my father said that they shared some good hunting trips together.

inkwellThere are two managers not shown in the photo, Mr. Bennett and Mr. Harder. Mr. Bennett was in charge of all correspondence regarding the approval of hosiery submitted by the home earners, and Mr. Harder supervised machine manufacturing and the children’s hosiery department (which he originated and which was very profitable). There were actually two businesses, machine manufacturing and hosiery purchase and re-sale to department stores like Sears and Macys, so both men had pretty important jobs. Emory wrote the names of everyone on the bottom of the photo, in the margin. However, he used an ink-well pen which is notorious for not making a fine line. These pens were still common as late as 1922, as evidenced by the wells in the lower left corner of the photo. His handwriting wasn’t that great either, so I’ve been having trouble making out all the letters. If I can get another source of names, then I will match up the spelling and put names to faces.

pbrOh yes. Also missing from the photo are the owners of the company, Joseph, John, and Emory Gearhart. One more thing. That young man just left of center is holding Papst Blue Ribbon beer advertisement. Yes, I am now asking the same question as you.

I normally wouldn’t use the Gearhart Archives to jump into a current event,
but yesterday I received an invitation to join a second, newer, Circular Knitting Machine discussion group. The original 2002 group is at:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sockknittingmachines

And, the newer 2005 group is at:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/sockknittingmachinefriends

Both groups have a sizable number of members and activity. The sockknittingmachines group has over 1500 members and averages about 270 posts per month. The sockknittingmachinefriends group has over 700 members and averages about 280 posts per month. Of course, based on over one hundred twenty years of knitting machine history, the presence of discussion groups are recent blips on the timeline. Nevertheless, they are very welcome blips.

At first glance, I can’t see much difference between the two groups other than the bias of the sponsors towards certain machine manufacturers. Its not a very ethical practice in my opinion, which simply mean that I don’t think manufacturers should be sponsoring public discussion groups labeled as general discussion groups. At any rate, both groups have a considerable amount of information about the Gearhart Knitting Machine. So, as time permits, I’ll go through the postings in both groups to see if I can find some nice bits of history, and will devote an article to my findings.

machine1888-2x400

This is the very first Gearhart Knitting Machine. It was made by Joseph Gearhart in 1887 while living on his farm in West Decatur, Pennsylvania. He saved this machine, and I think he must have known that it would be a source of reference for his upcoming Knitting Machine patent, should this new invention eventually become successful. This machine was passed down to his youngest son, Emory, who in turn passed it down to my father, James. My father in turn passed it down to me a few months before he died in 2005 after I expressed my interest in organizing some information about the Gearhart Knitting Machine Company.

It was quite interesting when I opened the dusty old box one evening, to find this machine covered in a light dusting of mold, and possibly untouched for over 80 years. I’m sure my father opened the box once, in 1969. My grandfather, being so close to the company for so long, probably put this and the other machines in boxes around 1928, when Joseph died. I assume he then put the boxes up on the shelf and didn’t look back, since the US was in the midst of the Great Depression and he had five kids to feed on a diminishing savings.

I took a toothbrush and some warm water, and brushed the mold off the machine. The wood was dark brown, but to my surprise it turned light brown and brand new after some scrubbing. Wow, this was very nice hardwood. It looked like maple or holly. The toothbrush had some oil residue, so the machine must have either been used or oiled before being packed away. Some of the tin needles were missing, but it was very apparent that Joseph made the needles by hand from some type of jig. There were no chips at all in the wood, so it appears to have been formed precisely in a lathe, and the grooves for the needles look to have been formed in some type of routing machine. Joseph’s father-in-law was a gunsmith, so Joseph may have had immediate access to the equipment for making rifle bores and barrels and metal parts. I believe this could have been a stroke of luck for him, since it made construction of the machine almost an afterthought and allowed him to spend his time concentrating on design, operation, and marketing. I think this is evident based on the rapid advancement of patents and design changes, not to mention the very early presence of thorough instruction manuals. He was essentially a one-man company in the early days, but I do believe the old stories may have some truth in their assertion that his father-in-law had a hand in loaning or selling him some machine-making tools. He was 40 years old at the time, middle-aged but probably still able to gain bits of wisdom from several of the older family members, especially since the average Gearhart lived well into his 80’s and 90’s going far back to pre-revolutionary times.

It has been four years now since I cleaned the machine and put it into my display case. The wood has returned to its darkish color, but it will probably be decades before a speck of mold returns. Of course, I will probably never let the mold return as long as it is the centerpiece of the Gearhart Knitting Machine collection.

richardcandeeimageRichard Candee’s publication The Hand-Cranked Knitter and Sock Machine is now out in book form as well as CD. Of course, it may have been out in book form for a while now; I’m just a little slow in catching up the events surrounding today’s Knitting Machine activities. But neverthelesss, here is the order form. Its great reading, and no doubt the only publication in existence on this subject.

Richard and I met a while back at the National Archives in Washington DC, on one of his research expeditions. Has become a good friend over the past years through common interests, and I am always happy be one of his many sources of information on the variety of machines he researches. Of course, I am always looking forward to hearing about his discoveries and postings to the newgroups.

Wouldn’t it be great to go back in time with today’s dollars, and place an order like this? I count 668 Gearhart Knitting Machine crates, plus a stack of what looks to be 46 smaller shipments in the left background. It looks like the shipping addresses are printed on the side of the crates, but I can’t quite make them out. There is a calendar on the wall, but its just a bit too fuzzy to make out the month and year.

railway_500_compress

Back then, everything was shipped by rail. By the time the Transcontinental Railroad was completed in 1869, the concept of moving goods and people by rail was firmly ingrained in the American way. By the early 1900’s, the period of this photo, approximately 2.1 million freight cars were in service, and the idea of reliable, scheduled transportation out of a railroad town like Clearfield Pennyslvania was easy to imagine. In fact, even as far back as the late 1800’s, at the beginning of the company, I find notes and locations related to rail shipments to small towns all across the U.S.

The impact of published rail schedules was so great by the turn of the century that some cite the schedules as being the primary influence on the concept of punctuality in America. Perhaps the last vestiges of the country’s agrarian past – using the sun to tell time and arriving at appointments within an hour of the scheduled time – quickly gave way to a modern age when timeliness was of the essense, and pocket watches made adherence to schedules the norm.

I have two theories about this photo. First, this shipment most likely accumulated over some interval. In my estimation, the volume of machines here would represent about one month’s accumulation or orders during, say, and average month in the early 1920’s. Alternately, this could be a single large order worthy of a photograph, for a customer such as the American Red Cross about 1918. Either way, the shipment is on its way to the railroad loading platform for a scheduled delivery.

Next Page »