ABMA Spotlights Founding Member Elder & Jenks
Thu October 13, 2016
Nine Generations, 43 Presidents, and Why Washington Cut Down Cherry Trees
The year was 1793. Washington had just begun his second term as President of the United States, and the first hot air balloon flight in the US lifted off the ground in Philadelphia, the nation's first capital. As the worst yellow fever epidemic up to that time swept the city of 55,000 people, two young entrepreneurs decided to purchase a small paintbrush-making company.
When William Elder and Jonathan Jenks acquired the George W. Bockius Company, little did they know their bold endeavor, called Elder & Jenks, Inc. (E&J), would persist into the 21st-century to become the oldest brush manufacturer in the country.
The company prospered independently for over 150 years, setting the bar high for the paint applicator industry with their constant innovation and well-made products, and in 1917, E&J helped found the American Brush Manufacturers Association with the other industry-leading brushmaking businesses of that era.
To E&J, brushmaking is more than a business. It's an art and a calling built on the simple philosophy to continually produce an exceptional product - despite the company changing ownership over the years. Transferred from Elder and Jenks to the Maxwell family and eventually bought by Edward Norton and sons in 1945, E&J has retained its core values and essence as a family company.
In November 2015, Florida-based Worktools International acquired E&J. Not having spent much time in the New England area, owner Tom Typrowicz was quite amazed at the impact of E&J paintbrushes on even the modern-day painting industry in the northeast.
"When you look at the New England area, the Elder and Jenks name is unbelievable," says Typrowicz. "We weren't aware of that until we purchased the acquisition. You always wonder what brick's going to hit you and knock you down...talk about an elevator hitting you."
The professional painters still boast a lively culture in the New England area, says Typrowicz, adding that he's excited to expand the 223-year-old E&J brand from a regional high-end quality brush to the national level.
"We really hit a nugget there on reputation and good will," says Typrowicz. "When we started meeting with Elder and Jenks customers, we were really surprised to find how accepted their quality was and the level of confidence of the customers using the brushes."
The confidence-inspiring E&J brushes are made possible by nine generations of master brushmakers - from Elder and Jenks themselves to current master brushmaker, Mike Norton - each passing on their invaluable experience as new employees were welcomed into the fold of the E&J family.
Norton, grandson of Edward Norton, has lived and breathed the paint industry (hopefully not the fumes!) since the 1960's. As a young boy, Norton would visit the bustling workshops, watching the skillful hands of men and women who had been working with E&J brushes for 20 to 30 years.
One employee that young Norton gravitated towards was master brushmaker, Hy Schuman, the son of a brushmaker who had worked with E&J since 1895. Schuman more than happily passed down the art of handcrafting brushes to the eager boy, and en lieu of joining peers on paper routes, Norton would spend his summers and holidays working at the side of Schuman learning the brushmaking craft and building a passion for his grandfather's business.
"Our history of having a master brushmaker on board is a real addition to the company," says Typrowicz. "In terms of what makes Elder and Jenks a good quality brush is that that info has passed on from one generation to the other. Obviously that person is the one that's monitoring the quality. We have that tradition of keeping an eye on the quality and keeping expectations high."
With old and new intertwined, workers today utilize the most contemporary equipment on the market and still boast the art of handcrafted brush products made the traditional way - with mechanical scales, wood pushers and metal combs.
"We innovate wherever new products or techniques make sense," says Norton. "Each generation renews the dedication we've always had here - making the best-performing brushes and rollers available."
"And, like Elder and Jenks did back in the 1700's, we still make bristle brushes," adds Typrowicz.
In 2013, Elder & Jenks reputation earned the company an award for E&J's contribution to the NASA shuttle program when NASA team members visited E&J's headquarters to personally thank workers for their distinguished products used in booster rocket production. Some of the brushes were used to apply materials, while others helped clean, and 12-types of E&J brushes were used overall in the manufacturing of the booster rocket engine.
The most critical use of the brushes involved the application of adhesives and cleaning of propellants, where even the slightest imperfection could mean the difference between a safe launch or an explosion.
"Elder and Jenks helped ensure the quality and dependability of the Reusable Solid Rocket Motor and, in doing so, played a significant role in the safe operation of the space shuttle system," says Jeff Champneys of ATK Thiokol Inc. on behalf of NASA.
So how does a company stay in business as the American economy ebbs and flows?
"Flexibility, high-quality products and a knowledge of the paint business that might be genetic," says former president, James Norton, adding that paint is, after all, in his blood.
"Elder and Jenks has been around for every president of the United States," re-asserts Typrowicz. "I have fun going back to 1793 because now I know why Washington was really cutting cherry trees down: he was using the wood to sell to Elder and Jenks to make paint brush handles!"
While this is said with a hearty laugh in total speculation, Typrowicz loves that Elder and Jenks shared the entrepreneurial spirit and zeal for excellence that the founding father of the United States of America possessed.
"And that hasn't changed," says Typrowicz.