by Charles Richard Lester
America was in the middle of a great depression. Banks were closing and businesses were collapsing. Times were hard. Yet, out of this "brother can you spare a dime" era, people were beginning to sing a new tune that reminded "every cloud had a silver lining." Politicians promised that prosperity was just around a corner and there would be a "chicken for every pot." The nation's people began to hear new phrases .. WPA ... NPA ... and hope began to rise anew. But it was a hope built out of despair. For things couldn't get any worse, it seemed. The people had been hardened by defeat upon bitter defeat.
Against this grim backdrop in the very midst of the turmoil and hardship a small group of European businessmen with a vision made a major decision based upon great faith in the future of the United States. They decided to begin manufacturing, in the US, a quality product that the American public could afford to buy.
And that is where the story of the American Electrolux begins.
However, to fully know this story, we must turn the clock back three more decades; and we must travel around the world to Stockholm, Sweden.
In 1912, AB Lux crossed paths with Axel Lennart Wenner-Gren, also of Stockholm. Wenner-Gren, a salesman of farm goods, was concerned about the time lost between farmer sales prospects, so he began looking for other products to sell. One Sunday afternoon, while strolling down a street in Vienna, Austria, he saw an American-made vacuum cleaner in a store window. He looked at the machine with great interest. Here was just the kind of thing he had been looking for a home cleaning device that everyone could use and benefit from.
The vacuum cleaner in the window was a big, bulky machine with a long handle, a motor, a large cleaning nozzle, and a huge bag to catch the dust. "Why should this be the only way to make a vacuum cleaner?" Wenner-Gren wondered. "Why not a more compact machine, one that is lighter and easier to operate?" Upon his return home, he continued to muse about the vacuum cleaner he saw, and he began drafting out concepts and ideas to simplify and lighten the massive machinery being imported from America.
Satisfied that he had come up with a better idea, he began looking for a manufacturing plant to produce his cleaner. Armed with plans and drawings of a new design of vacuum cleaners, he approached AB Lux, and told the company's production manager of his idea. His concepts were not met with enthusiasm. Production, marketing, and tooling costs to manufacture the vacuum cleaner would be high, and Wenner-Gren could offer no guarantee of his machine's success. However, he was willing to finance the start-up of production, with provision for reimbursement of his investment if the machine was successful.
The Lux company agreed to give the project one year. If the machine did not show a profit they would discontinue production.
Wenner-Gren proposed that instead of advertising the cleaners in magazines and newspapers, the machines would sell themselves if people could see them in use in their own homes. He established home demonstrations and time-payments for the cleaners. Both ideas would prove to be tremendously successful.
Wenner-Gren named his new machine Lux and began hiring and training salesmen. The first year was fraught with very hard work but it brought the success that he knew it would. Several factors sold the Lux over other brands, among them the size and cleaning power of the "little tin can with the motor," as it was dismissed by some of its rivals. But more than that, it was the shape of the cleaner that won it its popularity. Although the tank-type cleaner is widely popular today, it was a new design in the early 1920s. The Lux was viewed at first as a novelty but it quickly became a "novelty" that worked. By the end of that first year, Wenner-Gren and his men had sold over 16,000 cleaners!
AB Lux conceded that the machine was an obvious success and agreed to continue manufacturing it.
In 1915, Wenner-Gren set up the sales company Svenska Elektron after purchasing all the shares of the competing vacuum cleaner company Elektromekaniska, which had been founded in 1910.
In 1919, an agreement was reached between AB Lux and Svenska Elektron AB (of which Wenner-Gren was the dominating owner) giving Elektron the sole sales rights to AB Lux vacuum cleaners. The agreement, which was valid through 1929, obligated Elektron to buy its vacuum cleaners from Lux and show Lux as the manufacturer on all the vacuum cleaners.
In 1920, at its Annual General Meeting, Aktiebolaget Elektromekaniska (wholly owned by Wenner-Gren-dominated Elektron) changed its name to Aktiebolaget Elektro-lux. The new name was a combination of Elektromekaniska and Aktiebolaget Lux. ( Aktiebolaget means Company or Corporation. Most Swedish companies contain Aktiebolaget in the name, or the abbreviation AB.)
In 1924, the Model V was launched and was the first machine to carry the new name of the company ELECTRO-LUX. (*) Its form was that of a broom vac with the motor attached to a long, straight wand. The end of the motor had a pistol-grip type handle along with a woven canvas strap for steering. It was considerably lighter and more portable than its predecessor, which gave it great appeal. (See photos on subsequent pages of this site.)
Soon after its introduction, the design was changed. New sleigh-like runners designed by Wenner-Gren himself were added so it could glide along the floor behind the user. A long flexible metal hose, two sections of wand, and more attachments were added. Initially the runners were detachable so the machine could still be used as a broom-vac. Later, a second change was made whereby the runners were permanently affixed to the machine and this defined the general look and style of the machine for the next 30 years.
In 1924, an American company was organized to import the Electrolux to the United States, and they were a big hit there. The concept of door-to-door selling and installment payments were not new; a number of other vacuum cleaner companies were already using these methods. However, the magical little Electrolux captured the hearts of homemakers throughout the country.
(Image courtesy of Jason Davis)
In 1926, the first plant for the production of Electrolux vacuum cleaners outside Sweden was opened in Berlin, Tempelhof. Axel Wenner-Gren acquired Volta from Skandinaviska Banken and became chairman of the board.
In 1927, Electro-lux vacuum cleaner plants were opened in Luton, England and Courbevoie, France.
Electrolux constantly strove to improve the machine and to lower its cost. A new model, the XI, was introduced in 1927. It was a huge success. In 1930, the model XII was introduced and it, too, sold very well.
In 1931, the first contract for the manufacture of the American version of the Model XII Electrolux was given to a sewing machine firm in Cleveland, Ohio.
In 1933, in the depths of the Great Depression, when the very backbone of the American economy was threatened and business closures throughout the nation were rising at an alarming rate, Electrolux management faced a grave crisis and boldly met this challenge to its young existence. Up to that point, in common with other direct-selling organizations in the United States, Electrolux frequently received cash from its customers for payment at the time of sale. But in March 1933, the nation's banks were closed abruptly by the newly inaugurated President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Almost overnight, ready cash became virtually nonexistent in homes throughout the country. Businesses of many kinds were paralyzed.
But Electrolux management, imbued with strong faith in their country and its future, authorized its salesmen to accept moratorium checks from customers if necessary. As a result, sales hit a new record high. The company's losses were negligible because nearly all the checks were paid or made good when presented to be paid upon the banks' reopening. With sales at an all-time high and prospects for the future even better, Electrolux was given all the more reason to establish a manufacturing plant solely for the purpose of manufacturing cleaners.
In late 1933, Electrolux established their first American plant in Old Greenwich, Connecticut, occupying buildings previously owned by the Dalton Lathe & Tool Company, and prior to that, the Welte-Tripp Pipe Organ Company. Electrolux moved 116 manufacturing and engineering personnel to the small New England hamlet and began to produce the Electrolux Cleaner and Air Purifier.
The original Old Greenwich factory was a single-floor building erected in 1919 and had a total of 55,000 square feet including offices and power plant. It was already outfitted with some very modern features, which made the manufacture of the Electrolux a relatively easy undertaking. An important asset of this location was the railroad tracks running alongside the factory which made shipping easy, safe, and less costly. It was an easy matter to load a boxcar and send it off to Boston, Denver, Chicago, or wherever a shipment was to be delivered.
The manufacturing and engineering staff of 116 persons (several of whom were still with the company when it celebrated its 50th anniversary in 1974) was augmented daily by hiring people for one day's work. Many hopefuls would stand outside the front gate and wait to be called for a day's work. Many of the hopefuls that were hired for one day's work remained on the job for many years. Activity within the small factory bustled, and increased at an amazing pace. New jobs were added almost daily, and the number of employees grew rapidly. By 1974, the staff consisted of 950 employees operating three shifts.
During the first year, the character of the company's relationship with the employee was formed. Practical wages were paid. A Shop Committee was formed to represent employees in reaching agreements with the management. An employee association was formed for the recreational activities of Electrolux employees and their families, and a benefit program better than any other company in the area was initiated. Electrolux was quickly recognized by the people in Old Greenwich as being a first-class company not only manufacturing a top-selling, quality product, but also offering its employees fair wages, fair pay, and fine working conditions.
Many parts for the cleaner were initially purchased outside the factory, but they gradually came inside for manufacture as employees proved their skill and eagerness in manufacturing. By the time the Old Greenwich factory was fully running and well established, Electrolux was making nearly all their own parts. Eventually, every part used in the manufacture of Electrolux cleaners was produced at the Old Greenwich plant except those made from rubber or plastic. Those parts were out-sourced because the plant was situated in a residential area.
The factory was highly automated, and a secondary use was also made of the conveyor lines, in that they were built long enough to also serve as storage space for motors and other parts. So closely was production geared to sales that every cleaner produced in the factory on any day was on its way that very same night to its destination in one of the regional warehouses, usually in full truckloads of cleaners, parts, and attachments.
The grounds at the Old Greenwich plant were maintained in their park-like atmosphere and stringent methods were put into effect over the years to fight pollution of air and water. Electrolux was, from early on, recognized as a pioneer in the anti-pollution movement.
Under the dislocation of the war, the manufacture of most kinds of civilian goods was halted, or at least severely limited, and the Electrolux plant "went to war," along with thousands of other factories throughout the nation. No new vacuum cleaners could be made, although the company was granted permission to continue to turn out parts and service for its countless thousands of machines already in use.
Electrolux's principal, direct contribution to the war as a company was to convert its factory to the "round-the-clock" production of more than 35 kinds of electric motors and precision controls needed by the armed forces. The work force at the factory was considerably enlarged and a schedule of three eight-hour shifts was put into effect, under which employees had only every sixth day off. Only the secret archives of the old War Production Board could have disclosed how many vital instruments of war were made at the Old Greenwich plant during that period.
Before the war ended, a couple of additional, but highly classified, other wartime production operations also were added to the work at the factory, but they were not permitted to interfere with the steady outpouring of the mighty flood of motors and controls.
In 1942, the Company devised four "Duration Specials," which were made available to owners of its machines. These, at different price levels, involved the inspection, cleaning and servicing of Electrolux cleaners and/or the replacement of motors if necessary. Through to 1944, Electrolux was able to fulfill all service calls received from customers.
The Company experienced one of its proudest moments when, on December 30, 1943, the Army-Navy Production Award was presented to it in impressive ceremonies at Old Greenwich. The accompanying citation was addressed to the Men and Women of Electrolux Corporation for Worthy Achievement in the Manufacture of Precision Equipment for the Fighting Forces. Before the war ended, the Company proudly added three Silver Stars to its "E" Pennant, to symbolize the winning of three additional awards.
In 1944, the Company created a sales program which proved to be sound and of far-reaching importance. It consisted of offering a Preferential Post-War Sales Contract to prospective customers for $25. Under it, the purchaser's name was placed, in order of receipt, on a preferred list for the delivery of a post-war Electrolux cleaner as soon as manufacture could be resumed.
This plan kept together an important nucleus of the sales organization at a time when civilian production was at a standstill, and also kept the Electrolux name alive in the minds of American households and other potential users at a time when the company had nothing to deliver.
In 1944, the War Production Board granted the Company permission to resume, on a limited basis, the output of cleaners for civilian use, for the first time since 1942. Therefore, even before the factory itself was given the green light to reconvert from war work, the Company was able to make a start on the big job of filling the great backlog of Preferential Postwar Sales Contract orders. Finding that it still had a fairly substantial stock of parts on hand, Electrolux opened a temporary assembly plant in an old garage in New York City. It was staffed with wounded war veterans, and the assembly of cleaners began.
In 1945, the long and difficult war years were brought to a close. While the welcome advent of peace meant the end of numerous problems for Electrolux and other American firms, it also created new problems of many kinds to be met and solved in the years ahead. Getting back to normal operations, and to bring the sales organization across the nation back up to strength again, was a long, slow, hard process.
But perseverance paid off: On June 11, 1947, a triumphant milestone was reached: On that day, the one-millionth Electrolux made since the re-conversion to civilian output came off the production lines at the Old Greenwich plant.
A huge President's Banquet was held April 18, 1949, at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York, to celebrate the silver anniversary of the company. The largest and most enthusiastic banquet held up to that time, it was attended by 1,545 salesmen and their wives, branch and division managers and their wives, and Company executives and their wives. Many new products were unveiled to the sales force at a meeting preceding the banquet, including an air-driven floor polisher/scrubber, an automatic cord winder, a new Garment-Aire clothing storage vault, and other new products.
Axle Wenner-Gren died in 1961, a very different man than the farm equipment salesman that he was in 1912. By the time of his death, he had been proclaimed "the richest Swede in the world" and was among the globe's greatest industrialists.
As an example of the kinds of materials I'd love to have, see George Nilson, Electrolux Salesman.
Index of pages on this web site, which include a detailed survey (text and photos) of all tank-type Electrolux cleaners sold or manufactured in the U.S.:
(This Page - Historical Narrative)
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