America, A New World Arsenal

By French Strother

[The Century Magazine, February 1916]

War orders in one year have made the difference between semi-starvation and a feast to the metal working manufacturers of the United States. In that year, the making of munitions has become a colossal industry in this country. Dozens of great manufactories of steel, brass, and copper have turned their equipment to the production of shells, rifles, and ammunition. These big concerns, in turn, have demanded unprecedented quantities of machine tools from the tool makers. And they have sublet parts of contracts to hundreds of unknown smaller concerns. Thus the munitions business is so stupendous and so complex that the mind cannot grasp it entire.

But Bridgeport, Conn., is a comprehensible example of the effects of this new industry on the United States. P. T. Barnum and Fanny Crosby are the names that probably occur first to most people when Bridgeport is mentioned. They 'lived and died there, and carried its fame wherever circuses and churches traveled. But, though both left indelibly their impress on the town, the thoughts of the natives swiftly passed on to other local celebrities. Of these one of the most interesting was young Marcellus Hartley Dodge. His career appealed to the romantic imagination of his townsfolk. His grandfather was Marcellus Hartley, a shrewd Connecticut Yankee who built up, and made a fortune in, the Union Metallic Cartridge Company—a concern that is famous wherever rifles, revolvers, and shotguns are used. In default of a male heir, Marcellus Hartley left his million's, and the business that made them, to his daughter's son, who bore his name. Young Dodge thus became one of the first of the "millionaire babies." He disappointed the expectations of people who naturally doubted the benefits of a ready-made success by plunging head-first into business the day after he graduated from college in 1903. He soon showed an understanding of the tendency of modern business to consolidate allied lines of manufacture by buying a rifle factory to supplement his cartridge factory. And he became a member of one of the most astute business families in the world through his marriage with the daughter of Mir. William Rockefeller.

Thus, in 1914, Mr. Marcellus Hartley Dodge, aged 34, possessed the big plant of the Union Metallic Cartridge Company at Bridgeport, the big plant of the Remington Arms Company at Ilion, N. Y., and business connections that radiated from the very heart of the powerful Standard Oil group of financiers in New York.

Then came the European war—and war contracts.

The inside story of the Dodge war contracts is probably known only to the insiders. But the material effects of them burst upon Bridgeport like the efflorescence of a tropical jungle under the influence of a summer's sun. Where had been vacant lots or rambling houses, swiftly rose seven four-story brick buildings, fronting the full length of a city block apiece—new buildings of the Union Metallic Cartridge Company. Where one shift of working people had been employed nine hours a day, suddenly three shifts of eight hours each were substituted, at better wages. Where 2,200 people had been an] average working force, more than 7,000 now crowded the street between the twin rows of factories. Electric lights glared on every foot of yard and wall, armed men mounted guard at every gate and passageway. As the product of these stimulated factories was destined for the Entente Allies, the possession by an employee of a German name became at once a suspicious circumstance that earned discharge unless proof, in pedigree and past performance, could be furnished of indubitable loyalty.

Bridgeport quickly showed the effects of the first war orders. Street cars were crowded, jitney buses multiplied, "rents" became scarce, real estate rose in value, theatres and hotels did a big business, bank deposits began to grow, shop-keepers prospered. Bridgeport was in the first stage of a war boom.

But more was to come. A rumor reached the ears of the Board of Trade that Mr. Dodge intended to build an immense new plant of the Remington Arms Company, to supplement the plant at Ilion, N. Y. The rumor located this new development in Canada. This was intolerable to the Board. They first verified the rumor, and then demonstrated to the Dodge interests that Bridgeport was better equipped to supply skilled laborers, and houses for them to live in, than their Canadian rival. The new factory came to Bridgeport.

Probably no more dramatic illustration of the power, of money and organization has lately been given anywhere than was given by the magician-like creation of this mighty plant. In the five months from March 15 to August 16, 1915, a row of one-story brick buildings and a parallel row of five-story brick buildings a quarter of a mile long rose upon a site north of the Union Metallic Cartridge works. Where before had been only cheap frame dwellings scattered through a desert of vacant lots, suddenly swarmed two thousand workmen, tearing down old structures, digging up the earth for foundations, arranging mountains of brick into orderly walls. Carpenters and glaziers and roofers followed, and before the first dead leaves of autumn had reddened the ground, machinery was installed in eight of the eighteen buildings and three thousand mechanics were making rifles and bayonets for the Allies.

And all this had come to be because the Allied Governments had put in the hands of the House of Morgan large sums of money, that had coaxed into activity other large sums of money in the hands of Marcellus Hartley Dodge, which had attracted still other large sums of money in the hands of the Rockefellers and others. A few conversations in London and New York had been translated into 8 or 10 million dollars' worth of visible new value in land and buildings in Bridgeport, Conn., besides daily work for thousands of flesh-and-blood American men and women.

The organizing genius displayed in mobilizing the man-power of this undertaking was as striking as the financial genius that mobilized the money which made it possible. The mere erection of the buildings had, of course, been committed to a construction company that had its organization already in existence and trained for rush work. But how man this new factory, so suddenly called into being? How create quickly from nothing that delicately balanced mechanism of skilled hands and heads, working harmoniously and effectively, that is called an organization—and that usually is the product of years of carefully nurtured growth?

The employment of high-priced specialists was the solution. Major Walter G. Penfield was placed in command of the works. By his military training he was an organizer and disciplinarian; by his special studies he was an expert on small arms; and by his long service as superintendent of a Government arsenal he was a practical employer and manufacturer. He in turn committed parts of the management to other men equally experienced in specialized work. The employment director of a big corporation in Pittsburgh was commissioned to hire the mechanics to man the machinery. The president of a large company near Philadelphia was engaged to solve the problem of housing the men whom the factory would call to Bridgeport. Men of like kinds were set at the other big tasks of organization.

HIRING A MAN EVERY TEN MINUTES

One of the biggest jobs was the hiring of men. For several months the employment bureau of the Remington Arms Company has been one of the sights of Bridgeport. It occupies a small detached building at one corner of the group of factories. All day long a line of men stands on the sidewalk in front of it. Each man in his turn has to satisfy an armed guard that he is a bona fide applicant for work before he may even enter the building. Once inside, he may have to wait twenty minutes before he can get the ear of the secretary to the director of employment. The secretary stands behind a counter, and the director sits behind the partitions of a private office. The secretary eliminates at once men who are obviously unfit for the work. They must be skilled—whether mechanics, draftsmen, statisticians, or what-not. If a man seems to be a likely candidate, the secretary hands him an application blank. It is a big sheet of paper, and the questions are as searching as the medical examiner's when a man is seeking life insurance. Name, address, age, education, trade or profession, experience, nationality, citizenship, references, even religion, are required. After a man has filled out his application he hands it to the secretary. In the next few days his answers are checked up from independent sources, and if he still seems worth while, he is again interviewed or employed outright. For several months, lately, between 1,400 and 1,600 new men a month have been employed. Though only 3,000 were working last November, the plant as then built, when fully equipped with machinery, will require the services of from 16,000 to 20,000 men; and that number will probably be at work by the first of April.

The housing of these men and their families has required the work of an expert director and a staff of assistants. In his office in a tall building downtown, overlooking the city, he has kept a card index file of every room, house, or apartment in Bridgeport that could be rented. New workmen are placed in homes through this agency. But long ago Bridgeport exhausted most of its resources in lodgings. Last February, the seven leading real estate dealers reported to the Board of Trade that they had 527 houses available—some of them two-family, some six-family, houses—so that perhaps 800 "rents" were in the market. Practically every one of these was occupied before the summer was over. New houses were built, and were rented before the framework was up. Individual rooms grew so scarce that newcomers often had to sleep in the railroad station a night or two before they could find lodgings. Many housekeepers that had never opened their homes to lodgers were persuaded to do so; and in a number of regular lodging houses the rooms were occupied by three sets of tenants every day, the beds vacated by the morning shift being remade to accommodate the dog-watch night shift just home from work—and so on through the twenty-four hours. Naturally, rents have risen, and Bridgeport landlords and housekeepers are taking a profit.

But, at the best, Bridgeport was unable to supply the demand for living quarters. The Remington Arms Company had to go into house-building on a big scale. Last November it was erecting 84 brick dwellings—the smallest of them being two-family houses and the biggest of them duplex six-apartment houses. All these houses consist of either four or five rooms and bath, and they are furnace-heated and electrically lighted. In this way 196 families were being provided for. The Company even then had plans laid out, however, by which it will ultimately provide modern dwellings for 2,500 families. And it has enlisted the cooperation of professional real-estate operators from as far west as Chicago in the development of new residential tracts in Bridgeport to care for the thousands of additional families for whom homes must be provided during this year.

The welfare of the men at their work has been equally considered from the first. The factories contain the most modern sanitary appliances—steel lockers for the men's clothes, shower baths, gymnasium, emergency hospital, and a kitchen from which 10,000 people can be fed in thirty minutes. The man whom the Government borrowed from the Y. M. C. A. to manage the welfare work in the Canal Zone during the digging of the Panama Canal was employed to install and direct the welfare work of the plant. His duties include the supervision of the details mentioned above, and, besides, the formation of baseball teams, rifle clubs, and other recreational agencies; the organization of the work for "safety first" and of "first aid" squads; and the arbitration of individual cases of friction in the relations of the men and their bosses.

200 ARMED GUARDS ON DUTY

Military discipline is maintained throughout the works. Two hundred armed guards are posted around the grounds and throughout the buildings. They are not in uniform, but they wear a distinctive badge; and every one of them is an ex-United States regular soldier and means business when he says "Stop!" Every person who enters the grounds, workmen included, must have a pass, and the pass expires during the current day at an hour that is marked on it. At every doorway in every building a guard halts the bearer and inspects the pass. It is as hard to get out as to get in. If a man loses his pass while inside, the next guard he meets takes him to the guard house, and he is not released until he gives a satisfactory account of himself and gets a new pass from the head office.

In this atmosphere of military efficiency and under the mellow glow of so much new gold, Bridgeport blossomed into a rapid business growth. The "Remington-U. M. C." had not only brought to town men and money: it had come demanding tools as well. Even by November it had managed to equip only the five bayonet factories and three of the rifle factories with tools for the men to work with. It placed orders with practically every machine shop in Bridgeport that could work in metal, so that concerns that had nearly starved during the lean summer of 1914 were running three shifts a day in the summer of 1915. Shops that could not make tools were set at other useful tasks; one company that normally manufactured chains and locks was soon turning out nothing but the little metal clips in which soldiers carry cartridges in rounds of five.

But Remington-U. M. C. was by no means the only concern in Bridgeport that profited by war orders and contributed to the booming of business: it was simply the biggest and the most spectacular. The great Bridgeport Brass Company took contracts and enlarged its staff of mechanics. The Locomobile Company increased its working force from a normal average of about 1,200 employees to about 1,800 employees; and soon motor trucks, laden with test loads of old iron, were careering around the streets and suburban highways of Bridgeport—going, after final inspection, under their own power to the piers in New York from which they embarked on ships for Europe. Here, too, a curious and profitable indirect reaction of war orders was felt: the depression of 1914 had hard hit a company in Bridgeport that manufactured monumental bronze castings, chiefly for cemeteries. After the Locomobile Company got its contract for trucks, it gave to this company an order for castings, to be used in their construction, that far more than made up for its sluggish business of the year before.

All these accretions of men and money in Bridgeport were utilized on behalf of the Entente Allies. Meanwhile, the Germans also were busy. As the New York World's exposure of the activities of German agents showed, the seven-acre plant of the Bridgeport Projectile Company, which was created from nothing in the last year, was erected to manufacture munitions for the Central Powers. Some evidence exists to suggest that it was intended chiefly to give a material basis for a gigantic game of bluff by which the Germans should be enabled to contract for great quantities of shell-making machinery and thereby hinder the manufacture of shells for the Allies. However that may be, land was bought and large factories erected at a cost of several millions of dollars; and Bridgeport prospered accordingly.

Meanwhile, our own Government was stimulated to begin taking military precautions, and Bridgeport got the benefit of some of its near-war orders. These came to the Lake Torpedo Boat Company, which manufactures submarines after the designs of Mr. Simon Lake. When the war began, this, company was making few boats and had no immediate prospects of expansion in business. But a month ago, the company; having bought new water lots adjoining its old plant, was finishing work which would quadruple its capacity of 1914, Whereas it could build five boats a year at that time, it can now turn out twenty. And the product is intended for the American Navy, as the company has so far refused all foreign orders, though it has been able to maintain this position only with great difficulty.

THE WAR GROWTH OF BRIDGEPORT

Before the war began, a recent careful census showed that 102,000 people lived in Bridgeport. Very conservative estimates, based, upon the known new mechanics employed in the factories, upon school statistics, and upon other dependable indications, prove that at least 20,000 people have been added to the population in the last year. By next April, when the Remington plant will probably be fully manned, at least another 20,000 can fairly be added to the estimate. An increase of 40 per cent, in population in eighteen months is a pretty good performance for even a small boom town in the West; to achieve it in a staid old manufacturing city in New England is to give striking evidence of the significance of war orders in the economic life of the country.

The war, of course, has not created any new mechanics. It has not caused the immigration of mechanics from abroad, for they are all needed at home. Indeed, many American artisans have gone to Europe to work at high wages in Government arsenals. Hence the newcomers in Bridgeport are workmen from other parts of the United States. But the significance of their employment here is that they are employed. In 1913 and 1914 manufactures of all kinds had lagged. Many men were laid off; many more were working only part time. The war itself threw still more men, in certain manufactures, out of work. Textile mills, especially, were forced to cut down their staffs because they could not get German dyestuffs through the British blockade. But for men thrown out of work by industrial depression and by the war, the war created new jobs.

EFFECTS ON LABOR

And these new jobs were of a character that gave the men an opportunity of which they quickly availed themselves—an opportunity to make new and better terms for the sale of their labor. Speed is of the essence of war contracts. Thus the Remington-U. M. C. early went on an eight-hour day to get continuous operation at the highest possible efficiency. The choice was between two shifts of twelve hours each and three shifts of eight hours each. With American skilled workmen accustomed to the nine-hour day as the outside limit, the three-shift eight-hour day was the only possible alternative. The company accepted the situation—war contracts are highly, profitable if the goods are delivered and worthless if they are not. And to get the men they needed, and to keep them, high wages were offered. The effect of this situation on labor conditions in the older establishments in Bridgeport is easily imagined. Here was a powerful new company come to town, needing altogether probably 25,000 men—about as many as the whole town had hitherto employed. It was bidding high to get them. The old concerns simply had to meet the competition. Strike after strike was declared—some of them foolish, some unsuccessful. But the net result was the general adoption of the fifty-hour week in Bridgeport in the place of the old nine-hour day, without reduction in wages. Thus the conflict of Kaiser and Czar benefits obscure corset makers, silversmiths, and brass workers in New England.

And not New England only, of course. Even above the excited hum of its own accelerated industry, Bridgeport reëchoes to the sound of like industry in other centres of war manufactures. Add to Bridgeport the activity in Pittsburgh, Schenectady, Dayton, Providence, Bethlehem, Brooklyn, Hastings-on-Hudson, Philadelphia, Toledo, Milwaukee, Birmingham, and other major centres of the manufacture of munitions; add to that the multitudinous ramifications of sub-contracts—and the total will yield an impressionistic picture of the effect of war orders on the United States in terms of smokestacks fuming, lathes and drills turning, new houses and factories rising, men at work, children in school. Whatever opinion one may hold of the ethics of the business, its benign effect on the bread-and-butter side of life, for the present at least, is dazzlingly apparent.

CAN WAR PROSPERITY LAST?

Can it last? Already people are discussing that question in Bridgeport as a local problem just as seriously as economists and financiers in New York are discussing its national aspects. The man in the street thinks not. He sees in the coming of peace a sudden end to an artificial activity—factories closing or going back to one shift, idle men looking for jobs, empty dwellings, a collapse of real estate values, the usual "morning after" effects of a dead boom. A few men, of more practical if less vivid imagination, see a fairer picture. They acknowledge, of course; that when war stops war orders will stop. But they see the United States continuing for the next half dozen years the working out of a great plan of military preparedness that would keep even the Remington plant busy for a long time. They see the neutral nations of Europe and South America taking the same hint from the war and continuing the work of armament. China, they believe, has already placed huge orders for war supplies in this country, orders that have been sidetracked until Europe's demands are met. These things may very well take care of the next few years.

But even if they should not, these men point out, such concerns as the Remington-U. M. C. could continue at work. For they are adapted, both structurally and in their equipment, to the manufacture of almost any sort of tooled metal product. And their owners are the "Standard Oil crowd"—men whose interests are not merely in oil but in chains of retail stores, in mining, in all kinds of business in which great accumulations of capital may make a profit—and members of one or another, of the big banking groups—men whose business and whose world-wide outlook puts them earliest in touch with new. avenues of profitable investment. What more simple than for men of such power and such vision to find a substitute for munitions with which to keep their factories busy? Surely they are not making an investment in Bridgeport alone—in factories, machinery, land, and houses—that probably totals 20 million dollars, without some such insurance against sheer waste on such an extravagant scale.

What will happen to the sub-contractors and their employees, who have no such insurance, time alone can tell. Doubtless the manufacturers who are not quick enough on their feet to shift into new kinds of profitable manufacture will feel the slump severely—and their working people with them.

But for the present Bridgeport bears witness, along with the dozen or more other cities that are in the business, that war orders pay. Statisticians may prove by abstract figures that the United States is prospering as a result of the war, but in Bridgeport that prosperity is not vague in origin nor intangible in effect. Each man, asking his neighbor, "How's business?" gets the hearty response, "Never better."

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013



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