The Fascinating Origin Story of a 150-Year-Old Chicago Manufacturer

Posted by: 18. August 2016

It would be an understatement to say that manufacturing has had to weather some turbulent economic times in the past decade. But what about the past 15 decades?

C.H. Hanson, a family-owned manufacturer based in Naperville, Illinois, has done just that. The company, which manufactures stencils, steel stamps, workholding and other metalworking tools, is celebrating its 150th anniversary this week and has shared a couple snapshots of its story.

Christian Henry Hanson, a stencil maker from Denmark, immigrated to the United States during the Civil War and was quickly drafted into the Union army. He fought in several battles until he was wounded at Gettysburg in 1863. He was taken to Fort Dearborn in what is now Chicago, Illinois, and was released from duty.

Hanson decided to stay in Chicago and started his business in 1866, producing the same hand-cut stencils he had made in Denmark.


building with water tower‚Äč

C.H. Hanson’s original location on S. Clark St. in Chicago, Illinois. The sign on the building outlines its product range: marking devices, name plates, badges, stencils and metal tags.

For two days in October 1871, the Great Chicago Fire burned more than 3 square miles in the middle of the city, killing as many as 300 people and leaving 100,000 more homeless. The fire also destroyed C.H. Hanson’s stencil-making facility.


aftermath of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871

The Great Chicago Fire of 1871 burned more than 3 square miles in the middle of Chicago, including C.H. Hanson’s facility.

Despite the extensive damage, the railroads had not been destroyed, allowing building materials to arrive for reconstruction. Hanson moved the company a little ways north of its previous location (still well within the area that was impacted by the 1871 fire).


factory workers in 1912

Factory workers for C.H. Hanson pose for a photograph in March 1912.

The company is now located in Naperville, which lies to the west of Chicago.

A few years ago, the company acquired Palmgren Steel Products, itself an almost 100-year-old business, which manufactures positioning tables and other metalworking tools. Most recently, C.H. Hanson acquired Dayton Hand Tools. But even with these acquisitions and the evolution of the industry, C.H. Hanson still produces the stencils and tags that were first introduced in 1866.

“Very few companies can boast of family ownership for 150 years,” says Andrew Hanson, vice president of marketing and Christian Henry Hanson’s grandson.

Indeed, this story is an exception to U.S. manufacturing history and trends rather than the rule. Companies rise and fall, and many that started decades ago (or even centuries, as the case may be) have changed ownership and structure to the point that now they are not so easily recognizable when compared with their origins. But within the prevailing economic paradigm that’s so much defined by the volatility driven by competition, it’s interesting to recognize the diversity of the field and to look back, envisioning not only the disjunctions between past and present, but also the lines of continuity.

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