Conversion of Attleboro jewelry industry to war production
Pithie, Earl George
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Back one hundred and fifty years ago a man only as "the Frenchman" came to this area in Southeastern Massachusetts to establish an industry which later was to be stamped the "Jewelry Center of the World". The various skills, which this man exercised as an individual, eventually extended into the specialized skills and varied machines of several thousand workers. Despite the inevitable set-backs which plague any industry periodically, the jewelers prospered. The industry retained all the virtues of small business and a homey relationship between men and management developed. World War I had not disturbed it much, but the Second Great War rocked the local industry right down to its metal bases. Copper, zinc, tin, steel, the platinums and finally even gold and silver--the substance of its raw materials--were banned by government decree, since these were the essence of modern war instruments. The fact that they knew no other lines of manufacture; that big business was monopolizing war contracts; that both big government and big business looked down upon the jewelers' potentialities as war producers; that everyone regarded this type of manufacture as a luxury anyway--these undeniable facts added to the jewelers' pessimism as war clouds grew more menacing. These circumstances, however, did not cause the jewelers to receive such denials and misunderstandings in supine fashion. On the contrary they fought back! Fortunate indeed they ware to have developed over the past half century a high grade of leadership through their trade organization, the New England Manufacturing Jewelers' and Silversmiths' Association. This leadership, fed and propagated by truly democratic methods throughout the years, pursued an intelligent and courageous course. The early restrictions by government, due to the vigor and validity of their leaders' contentions, were modified and extended. Frequent modifications granted the jewelers time. What time so gained was to afford eventually, they could not perceive in those early days. But it proved an effective weapon and brought blessings. Thus the jewelers' arguments for conversation of the industry bore final fruit. The expanding revenue from excise tax--first 10, then 20 percent--were not to be overlooked in the feeding of so costly a monster as modern war. Their early contention that jewelry was a factor in fortifying the morale of the war worker by psychologically rewarding him for his long hours of labor, likewise can to be acknowledged. Their reasoning that infinitesimal amounts of copper would enable them to karat their gold and produce great quantities of jewelry which would return the Treasury millions in excise revenues proved sound. Their argument that the base metals should be made available in reduced quantities in order to grant the industry time to convert, and that partal continuance of normal manufacturing would keep production teams together and enable the jeweler to accomplish war contracts at a slightly over cost basis, at last became evident. Their opinion that no small business should be sacrificed to war and that big business would finally need their talents and skills were found true. Indeed, all these factors as they were diplomatically yet insistently promulgated by the industrial leaders of the Attleboros were borne out in the long run. Although handicapped by light machinery, handcraft methods, skills which were apparently non-transferable, and managements that were rutted in routine, the Attleboro jewelry industry proved its worth. World War II demanded electrical equipment in quantities never before experienced by the war makers. While the jewelers' initial concepts of war production were based on World War I notions of heavy type manufacture, a more careful analysis of modern war instruments disclosed a need for vast quantities of this electrical equipment and electronics devices. These proved a natural for the jewelry worker. His skills, built around the construction and assembly of small items, could be transferred to the construction and assembly of such products. His knowledge of 'working' metals, the 'plating' of metals, and the small stampings suited to his light power stamps and drop hammers likewise coincided. The ingenuity of the jewelry toolmaker and the long acquaintance of the industry with all types of fine soldering, enabled it to meet a variety of problems. New machines, jigs and fixtures, and new methods were devised in order to accomplish delicate mass soldering operations. These, the larger corporations were pleased to pass on to Attleboro's small industrialists whom they had previously slighted. Management, too, assumed problems and responsibilities with a genuine sense of adventure. Their actual accomplishments, the variety and quantity of war products, astounded both government and big business alike. Tools, taps, and dyes--electronic devices, radar parts, airborne radio equipment, crystals, switch contacts, circuit breakers, condenser assemblies--the plating of radio and radar parts, wave guides, sheet and wire tubing--gun parts, incendiary bomb parts, torpedo components, shells, and ammunition--soldering and assembling, welding, forging, 'tinning', stamping--military insignia, medals, identification bracelets, dog tags--these are but a sample list of the products and processes which the Attleboro jewelers adopted with great success as their contribution to America's war economy. The great record which they spread upon the pages of World War II production was based, nevertheless, on factors other than transferable skill of workers, versatility of management or the all-out efforts of both individuals and their trade association. In plant layout, engineering advice, new production methods, and in contacts with other areas of American industry they were greatly aided by the local W. P. B. engineer. An accelerated war production in the Attleboros dated from the opening of his office. Two surveys of facilities initiated his actions and the successful institution and operation of the 'hen and chicken' methods rapidly followed. The summit of war production for the Attleboros--78 percent of all man-hours worked--as reached in January 1944. This, indeed, was in sharp contrast to the negligible contribution in 1917-18, a mere 5 percent conversion. In some individual cases where small plants converted 100 percent and so lost normal contacts, hardship was realized. Generally, however, definite benefits accrued to the industry. Tools and equipment were brought up to date. More streamlined methods were adopted and the advantages of mass production realized. More specialized machines came about and have become a permanent feature in local manutacturing. Many new contacts resulted and a diversification of products has carried over in numerous instances. These benefits are real and tangible. The intangible benefits, likewise, are of great import. Management has assumed a greater degree of initiative, and a willingness to do the unusual. Workers were awakened to a realization of their talents and their limitations as well. Certain it is that this small industrial segment learned great lessons from its war experience. Equally certain it is that both government officials and big business gained a new appreciation of the Attleboros' place in any future war economy Should another emergency suddenly face this country, we can be certain that the men, machines, and management of the Attleboros will swiftly and effectively join battle.
Thesis (M.A.)--Boston University