National Enameling & Stamping Company
A Brief History
Granite City, Illinois, owes its existence to the entrepreneurial spirit of two brothers, Frederick G. and William F. Niedringhaus. Their story is a valuable chapter in America’s rich immigrant history.
Frederick and William, with their parents and two other brothers, emigrated from Germany to St. Louis in the 1850s. They became tinsmiths and in 1857 opened their own tinware shop, where they made and sold pots and pans for the household trade. When they began using a machine that stamped out tinware from a single sheet of tin, they saw their business grow rapidly. In 1866 it was incorporated as the St. Louis Stamping Company. A large factory was established at Second Street and Cass Avenue.
Due to long hours devoted to the business and the resulting stress, William’s health declined, and he was told by his doctor to take a lengthy vacation. While traveling in Europe, he made a discovery that would have even greater benefit for his company than the stamping machine.
As he walked in a village along the Rhine River, he noticed pots and pans in a store window that were similar to those manufactured by the St. Louis Stamping Company. But there was one big difference: the pots and pans in the store window had a glossy, enameled surface.
After paying approximately $5,000 to the manufacturer of these enameled products, William spent several weeks in the factory, learning how to make and apply the coating to sheet iron, before he returned home. In 1874 the St. Louis Stamping Company began manufacturing graniteware, so called because ground granite was used in the shiny coating. Patents were issued in 1876 and 1877. Sales of “Granite Ironware” grew rapidly as housewives and others recognized its practicality and attractiveness.
For the production of graniteware, the brothers imported sheet iron and tinplate from Wales and England. However, after a fire in 1877 destroyed the Welsh factory from which they purchased sheet iron, they decided to produce their own. By 1878, the Granite Iron Rolling Mills had been built at Second and Destrehan streets in St. Louis and was producing sheet iron. Skilled workmen came from Wales to work in the plant. Tinplate continued to be imported from England.
Because the current enameling process would work only on sheet iron (the enamel peeled off tinplate), William worked in the 1880s to find a formula that would enable enamel to stick to tinplate. Finally, late in the decade, he was successful.
As the 1890s began, business increased greatly due in large part to the McKinley Tariff Act, which became law in 1890 and provided a protective tariff for tinplate. Shortly after passage of the law, the Granite Iron Rolling Mills began producing its own tinplate, and the stamping works manufactured large quantities of enameled tinware. The Niedringhaus brothers decided that it was time to expand their company.
After encountering difficulties expanding in St. Louis and the St. Louis area, the brothers turned their attention to the east side of the Mississippi River. In August 1890, William and his eldest son, George, crossed the river by ferry into Illinois and drove their buggy to a small railroad station named Kinder. As recalled later by George, his father realized that the surrounding farmland would be an excellent site for expansion of the family business. The area had a number of advantages, among them cheaper land than that on the Missouri side; good roads, railroads, and water supply; and many workers in St. Louis eager to cross the river for jobs.
Mark Henson, a local schoolteacher, was hired by the Niedringhauses to be their land agent. Henson acquired options on 3,500 acres, which were then purchased by the Niedringhaus brothers. An engineer was found to plan the town, with areas designated for industrial, small business, and residential use.
Although names proposed for the new town included “Tinville” and “Niedringhaus,” the Niedringhaus brothers preferred to call it “Granite City.”
Suspicions arose in some quarters in 1894, the year of the infamous Pullman Strike, that the Niedringhauses intended to make Granite City into the same kind of paternalistic company town as the one George Pullman had created near Chicago. However, there is no clear evidence that this was the intention, and it was disputed by members of the Niedringhaus family and officers of the company.
In 1894 the brothers sold much of the land that was not needed for their graniteware business. The Catalogue of Real Estate to Be Sold at Auction…1894, at Granite City, Illinois called Granite City “a new manufacturing suburb of St. Louis.” On each page of the booklet, statements such as the following were printed to promote the new town and encourage purchase of real estate:
- Granite City will be the manufacturing city of the West.
- To builders—Come with us; you will make no mistake.
- To the public—Keep your eye on Granite City.
- To investors—1,000 houses needed at once.
- To home-seekers—See Granite City before locating.
- Mammoth manufacturing plants now being built.
- Don’t miss this opportunity to make money.
- All railroads entering St. Louis either run through Granite City, or are connected with it by terminals.
In 1895 a large stamping and enameling plant as well as a plant housing the steel works and rolling mills began operation in Granite City. The two plants were the largest employers in town. The latter eventually became Granite City Steel Company.
Although the Niedringhaus family had many business interests in Granite City and exerted a strong influence on local matters, a growing number of businesses and industries in town had no connection to the founding family.
In the last years of the nineteenth century, Granite City prospered and grew. New businesses, industries, and residents in large numbers were attracted to the booming town, which was incorporated under the laws of Illinois in 1896.
In 1899 the National Enameling and Stamping Company (NESCO) was formed when the St. Louis Stamping Company combined with companies in Milwaukee, Baltimore, and New York. These companies also made household enameled ware, and lawsuits charging infringement of patents had to be settled first. A compromise resulted in the establishment of NESCO. The new company was capitalized at thirty million dollars and established its headquarters in New York City. The first president was Frederick G. Niedringhaus.
At the turn of the century the “Granite Ironware” brand was replaced by “Royal Granite Steel Ware.” By early 1901 the steel works employed 1,300 workers and the stamping works 1,100. The steel works alone covered 33 acres.
During the period 1899-1902, NESCO acquired several other manufacturing companies, including a second company in Baltimore and one in New Orleans.
Very early in its industrial history, Granite City developed strong ties to labor unions. Ten months after NESCO’s incorporation, Lodge No. 11 of the Amalgamated Association of Iron, Steel & Tin Workers was organized in Granite City. NESCO’s management looked favorably on organized labor, and relations between labor and management were good.
NESCO thrived during the early years of the twentieth century:
A sales office was established in London, England.
- At the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World’s Fair) in 1904, the company erected a large exhibit of NESCO products.
- Pet Milk Company became NESCO’s first outside customer for tinplate.
- The brand name “Royal Granite Steel Ware” was changed to “Royal Granite Enameled Ware”; the new brand was used with the distinctive red diamond graphic and with “NESCO boy,” the company’s trade character.
- New products were introduced, including Venetian Enameled Steel Ware (blue enamel streaked with white on the outside and all white on the inside), Whitestone Enameled Ware (entirely white inside and out), aluminum goods, and oil heaters and stoves.
- The company began to use the term “Nescoware” to include all products of its seven factories.
- During World War I, demand for NESCO’s products increased rapidly. The steel works manufactured heavy plate steel for ships and thus contributed to the war effort.
- By 1919, the Steel Works and Rolling Mills in Granite City had expanded to ten open-hearth furnaces, twenty-four sheet and tin mills, and one plate mill, occupying a seventy-two-acre site. The Stamping and Enameling Works, producing graniteware and other products, had grown to occupy a forty-acre site.
- In 1927-28, the manufacture of graniteware and similar products was split from the manufacture of steel when the Granite City Steel Company was formed and incorporated. Granite City Steel became a completely independent entity.
The next two decades brought changes in demand for NESCO’s products, and it ceased to exist in the 1950s when it was acquired by Knapp Monarch Company. The stamping and enameling building in Granite City was used as a warehouse until October 2003, when it was destroyed by fire.
Granite City Steel has continued, with many improvements and changes over the years. It was bought by National Steel Corporation in 1971, but in 2003 was acquired by United States Steel Corporation after National Steel declared bankruptcy. It is now operated as Granite City Works, a division of U.S. Steel. With over 2,000 workers, it is the largest employer in Granite City.
NESCO lives on in the memories of residents old enough to remember its heyday and in shiny pieces of graniteware, now sought by collectors but once found in kitchens throughout America.
[Baxter, James F.] History of Granite City, 1896-1946.
Beuttenmuller, Doris Rose Henle. “The Granite City Steel Company: History of an American
Enterprise.” Bulletin of the Missouri Historical Society 10 (January 1954): 135-55, 199-282. Published with some additions and deletions from author’s Ph.D. dissertation, St. Louis University, 1952.
DeChenne, David L. Labor and Immigration in a Southern Illinois Mill Town, 1890-1937. D.A. dissertation, Illinois State University, 1989.
Granite City: A Pictorial History. St. Louis: G. Bradley Publishing, 1995.
Niedringhaus, Lee I. National Enameling & Stamping Company: The Early Years, 1899-1928. New York, 2005.
75th Year Celebration of the City of Granite City, Illinois. Granite City, Ill., 1971.