Philip H. Yawman and Gustav Erbe, two former employees of Bausch and Lomb of Rochester, New York, formed a partnership and formed their own company, “Yawman & Erbe” in 1880, in Rochester, New York. These two men would build “Yawman & Erbe” to be one of the world’s largest office furniture manufacturing firms in the world.
The following is a brief history of the Yawman and Erbe Mfg. Co. as printed in the company magazine “The Y & E Idea”, of March, 1909:
THE STORY OF “Y AND E”
By R. E. Maurer, Manager Educational Department
Chapter 1: A brief History of The Yawman & Erbe Mfg. Co.
In the beginning of the year, 1880, two young men – Philip H. Yawman and Gustav Erbe – were, and had been for some time, employed by a Rochester concern: Mr. Yawman as their Master-mechanic, who gave most of his attention to the making of fine tools and the designing of new, special machinery, revolutionizing old methods by the introduction of new and, at that time, radical ideas. His work brought him frequently in contact with Mr. Erbe, then Foreman of a Department, himself a thorough mechanic and one who was constantly thinking out new ideas looking toward the improvement of tools and machinery. Mr. Erbe’s ideas were usually put up to Mr. Yawman for actual development, and in this way the two men learned to know each other through and through.
It had frequently occurred to them that they could do equally well for themselves what they were doing for others, and they were constantly agitated by a consuming desire and ambition to have a business of their own. Neither one found entirely within himself all the requisites to success, and they felt drawn to one another as two men having the same idea in common. This resulted in frequent discussions of the matter, and it soon developed to a point where all that was lacking to the launching of these young “hopes and fears” on the sea of business was satisfactory evidence that the “psychological moment” had arrived for the two men to join hands for “good or ill”--”to do and dare” for themselves.
May 1st, 1880, witnessed the starting of the infant enterprise called “Yawman & Erbe,” and it was housed in a little room about 20’ by 30’, or 600 square feet, located at the corner of Exchange Street and the Erie Canal, Rochester. A firm agreement, requiring strict adherence to high principles, whether it was in their manufactured product or the management of their affairs, was entered into. This policy, at the very beginning of their career, dominated the administration of the business and is still the leading factor in any and every thing pertaining to “Y and E”. The firm’s total capital ($6,000) was very soon invested in tools and machinery, and the manufacture of microscopes and other scientific instruments was begun.
When the firm was four weeks old they hired their first employee--a boy to run errands and learn the business. He was Robert Schmidt, who is still in the employ of the Company as Superintendent of the Canadian factory at Newmarket, Ont., known as The Office Specialty Mfg. Co., Ltd., with executive offices at Toronto. In about six months the first full-fledged workman was engaged, whose support seemed assured through a slight increase in business. But both partners were somewhat discouraged, and it was never known from one week to another whether the frail craft would weather the sea.
In the latter part of 1881 an inventor of an electric battery for medical purposes brought in his model and arranged for its manufacture. At first these were made by the dozen; then by the gross; and later by the great-gross, the inventor conducting their sale. In this electric battery was the turn of the tide and the beginning of real, tangible success. Business increased to such an extent that it was found necessary to get larger quarters, and, accordingly, the next floor above, containing 2,400 square feet, was leased. The employees now numbered fifteen.
Toward the close of the year 1882 the building in which the business was located was sold to persons who desired the use of it entirely for themselves. Again was the young firm obliged to move, and a new location--the third in little more than two years--was secured on South St. Paul Street, now known as South Avenue. It was directly opposite the present Cook’s Opera House and consisted of two floors, having a total capacity of 8,400 square feet.
The year 1883 was soon reached, and before May 1st --third anniversary of the enterprise--additional business of new kinds came in, materially adding to its success. This year was, in many respects, of momentous importance--one heavily fraught with the future destinies of the now fast-growing business, and it was to witness the birth of all that is known today as “Y and E.” In this short time the firm had thoroughly established a reputation for quality work--both in material and workmanship, and that reputation was rapidly spreading with beneficial results.
Taking up the special events of this year in the order of their occurrence, we begin with a call one day by Mr. James Cutler, of Rochester, in reference to the manufacture of a metal chute for convenience in collecting mail in public buildings. A satisfactory agreement being reached, the first of what was to become the widely-known Cutler Mail Chute was soon made and set up in the old Osburn House Block, corner St. Paul and Main Streets, Rochester. Yawman & Erbe only manufactured the chutes, the sale of them being conducted by the Cutler Co. This relationship continued until August 1st, 1908--twenty-five years--when, because of lack of room, it was found necessary to relinquish this--one of the last of the products which formed the backbone of the business in its early stages. An examination of any Cutler Mail Chute, to be found in nearly every public building, will reveal painstaking care in both the selection of good material and the application of high-grade workmanship--a demonstration of the quality policy which characterizes anything of “Y and E” manufacture.
Following the arrangement with the Cutler Co. another one was effected with The Eastman Kodak Co. through its President, Mr. George Eastman, to manufacture photographic roll-holders to hold sensitized film for cameras. Later on, the making of other metal parts of Kodaks of several styles was undertaken, this business continually increasing and requiring seventy-five employees to handle it alone, when in 1890 the Eastman concern built their own plant and began to manufacture their own goods.
At this point we will record the very beginning of all that is known to-day as “Y and E” System Equipment, but then there was not the slightest indication--not even the faintest whisper--that future developments would place “Y and E” in the foremost rank of manufacturers of record-filing devices.
About 1877 a contrivance called the Shannon Arch File, for filing letters, bills, and other papers, was invented, patented, and put on the market by a Mr. James Shannon. It passed through the ups and downs—vicissitudes--in short, the usual career of a new idea or invention, but succeeded in getting on the market. It was being manufactured in Chicago, and what is today known as our No. 4-A Shannon File, consisting of a board, an arch, a compressor cover, an index, and a perforator, then sold at retail for $2.50.
During the year 1883, the Shannon Arch File, with all its patents and other rights, was purchased by a Rochester concern known as the Schlicht & Field Co., who had only a selling organization, possessing no manufacturing facilities. Yawman & Erbe were negotiated with in reference to making the Shannon Arch File, and an agreement covering this was entered into. At the start, only the arches were made, but at intervals there was added the manufacture of file perforators, and lastly of compressor covers. In the beginning quantities of 200 to 300 per month were manufactured, the business constantly growing until at the close of the year 1883 the monthly production ran into the thousands.
In the summer of 1883, Mr. Frederick Wagner, a New York capitalist, with whom Mr. Erbe had enjoyed a friendship reaching back to their boyhood days, was paying one of his periodical visits to Mr. Erbe’s family. As was usual, the Company’s business affairs were freely discussed, pro and con, and Mr. Wagner spent a part of the time in the South St. Paul Street factory. He was a keen businessman and commented upon the possible loss of the total plant in case of a serious fire, suggesting a more modern fireproof building, in a better location, affording space for expansion. With some financial assistance from Mr. Wagner, the firm purchased two lots at No. 344 and No. 346 North St. Paul Street and began the erection of a factory building 135’ by 38’, four stories in height, containing 20,520 square feet, with power-plant adjoining. This building, as shown by an illustration on another page, was finished in 1884 and immediately occupied. Business kept on increasing, the next addition being the manufacture of metal interiors for vaults, bank buildings, court houses, etc.
In 1888 the Schlicht & Field Co. was reorganized as The Office Specialty Mfg. Co., and the business was conducted under the same plan as formerly, the line being somewhat increased. Their relations with Yawman & Erbe were fully as close as under the previous administration.
In 1890 it was found necessary to increase the factory facilities, and this was accomplished by extending the building so as to take up the front portion of that lot, and, when finished, it appeared as shown by the illustration in the next column.
The efforts of the new Office Specialty Mfg. Co. were being spread over the country, resulting in the opening of several branch offices in both the United States and Canada. But the lack of their own factory facilities was a serious handicap, and having no disposition to go so extensively into manufacturing, their entire business, consisting principally of a selling organization and including their Canadian interests, was sold, in 1898, to Yawman & Erbe. This acquisition required a still further increase in factory and office equipment--in the United States by the erection of a building taking the remaining portion of the lot at No. 346 North St. Paul Street; in Canada by the building of a factory which has since developed into the extensive plant of The Office Specialty Mfg. Co., Ltd., located at Newmarket, Ont.
At this time the firm was incorporated as the Yawman & Erbe Mfg. Co. and began to conduct the sale of its own products.
The wood and paper parts of the line were then made on a co-operative basis in other Rochester factories, but it soon became apparent that the Company could do better by itself and by its rapidly-growing trade if they could, themselves, manufacture their entire product. This need received the usual careful consideration and planning, resulting in the erection, in 1900, on some lots in the rear of the original plant, of a building larger than all the others, containing 90,000 square feet, and which was designed to house the Cabinet and Paper Product Departments. It was supposed the new addition would satisfy the needs of the growing business for a long time to come, but it was outgrown in just five years’ time, and, from 1905 to 1908, to cope with the business, the Company was obliged to operate the factory day and night.
In the meantime, the branch stores were enlarged, territories were increased, more salesmen engaged, and the whole organization, including the Canadian interests, was gradually and firmly strengthened. Not only was every article sold by the Company now being manufactured by them, but also the tools, dies, and much of the special machinery required for their production.
In 1906, a further addition to the plant was made by the purchase of a building occupying the lot at No. 342 North St. Paul Street, immediately adjoining the original building of 1884 and its addition of 1890, thus increasing the entire floor area to over 250,000 square feet. The great contrast between these facilities and those in the little room on Exchange Street, which contained a total of only 600 square feet of floor space, is at once apparent.
In 1907 it was again apparent that the demand for “Y and E” equipment was fast outgrowing our factory facilities. This time it was determined to lay out a plant for future increase which would be adequate, no matter what the added volume might be. The story of the new factories and all that they stand for is a tale by itself and will be featured in the April issue.
Mr. Yawman and Mr. Erbe are still very active in the business. At almost any hour of a working day you can readily find, moving about the factory, a gentleman of quiet manner, stopping here and there to examine a piece of work or to discuss with a mechanic some new improvement either to a machine or an article of “Y and E” manufacture. He is our President, Philip H. Yawman, the moving spirit behind all that is down-to-date in “Y and E” products; in fact, he is the mechanical expert of the organization.
You can also find during business hours, in constant conference with the various departments, another gentleman, a little more hurried in his movements than Mr. Yawman. He is in close touch with what might be termed the executive part of the business and is our Treasurer and General Manager, Gustav Erbe.
Both men, honored and respected by every employee of the entire organization, give full promise of rounding out many more years, safely guiding through the ups and downs of commercial life the business which to-day stands as a monument to their life work and as an example of what can be accomplished with no other capital than brains and brawn honestly and intelligently applied.