February 9, 2007


And the man behind the brand is...
Thomas Armstrong

By 1860 24-year old Thomas Armstrong had saved up $300 from his job as a clerk in a Pittsburgh glass factory. He was due to be wed that year and it seemed a fine stake upon which to start a married life. But instead Armstrong took the money and invested in a one-room shop run by John D. Glass who cut out cork bottle stoppers. He did, however, hold on to his day job, stopping by the cork shop in the evenings to cut cork by hand.

Each piece of cork sold by John D. Glass & Co. had to be cut and shaped by hand. It was tedious and slow and impossible to deliver cork of uniform quality to customers. In 1862, again with the support of his wife, Armstrong invested $1000 in an unproven machine that cut cork. He quit his clerk’s job and jumped into the cork business full-time.

Armstrong now needed to expand his market greatly to recoup such a large investment. Cork was the only way to plug the bottle of the day, more and more of which were containing the new pharmaceuticals and alcoholic beverages that were appearing everywhere on the market. But at the time cork was sold locally so buyers were able to inspect and choose the cork they wanted. It was a policy of “buyer beware.”

Armstrong knew that to ship his cork to distant markets he needed a way to insure its quality. In 1864 John Glass died and Armstrong brought his brother into the firm as partner. He pioneered brand-name recognition in the cork industry by stamping “Armstrong” on all his bags of cork. The name carried with it a money-back guarantee.

During the Civil War Armstrong made bottle stoppers for the Union Army.
He was singled out for praise for fulfilling contracts at the agreed price with top-grade corks. The favorable publicity and Armstrong’s groundwork for national distribution led to a large drug contract after which the company leapt forward.

In 1878 Armstrong stopped buying cork from importers and set up direct purchasing lines with cork suppliers in Spain and around the Mediterranean.
By 1890 Armstrong was the world’s largest cork manufacturer with 750 employees, all of whom Thomas Armstrong could address by name.

Into the 20th Century Armstrong’s only raw material was cork. But cork harvesting was a seasonal activity and the fluctuations in supply led to fluctuations in price and profit for Armstrong. More ominously there was a growing fervor in America to ban the sale of all alcohol - and the elimination of one of Armstrong’s biggest markets.

The product line in the early 1900s included insulation, cork board, gaskets and flexible coverings. But the year 1908 simultaneously saw a death and birth for the company. Thomas Armstrong died in Pittsburgh, ending the founder’s reign and the company’s ties to the city.

Meanwhile in Lancaster, Pennsylvania the Armstrong Cork Company produced its first linoleum flooring. Linoleum, made from cork flour, mineral fillers and linseed oil pressed onto a burlap backing at high temperatures, was not a new product. But Armstrong was the first to look past its utilitarian uses and add colors suitable for every room in a house. Future generations of Americans would never see an Armstrong cork.

No comments: