There is a single poster in the exhibit “John A. Roebling’s Sons Company,” currently at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, which pretty much says it all.
On one wall of the second-floor gallery, viewers will see a chart depicting a host of wire products made by the Roebling Company, flowing down toward industry, commercial, and personal use. We see everything from huge wire rope used in bridge and highway construction, mining, shipping, and other transportation, to the thinnest possible wire utilized in such tiny, innocuous things as safety pins, paper clips, and even in Slinky toys.
That’s always been the special fascination for curator Richard Willinger, chair of the Trenton Museum Society’s collections management committee — just how all-encompassing the Roebling Company and its products were in 20th-century life.
“As the curator, I wanted to show that the Roebling Company made many more products than wire rope for suspension bridges,” Willinger says. “They made wire rope for anything and everything you can think of — elevators, tram ways, ski lifts, cable cars, ships, airplanes, huge steam shovels for mining, and then there was the wire they made for screens, mosquito nets, flat wire for tape measures, and whatnot. This framed poster gives a great summary of this.”
“There is also a small booklet in the collection,with all the different products alphabetized,” he adds. “I was making a copy of it and counting them, and discovered that there were 960 wire products that the Roebling Company produced. What they produced was everywhere and was essentially in everything this country was involved in.”
The second-floor exhibit, which runs through Sunday, December 6, features examples of these sundry wire products, but also art and artifacts such as company catalogs and employee regulations, as well as post cards, advertisements, letterheads, and other memorabilia from the world-renowned John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, which was once the largest employer in Trenton, and a world leader in the construction of suspension bridges.
Items in the exhibit have been loaned to Ellarslie by the Roebling Museum in Roebling, and the New Jersey State Museum. Other items come from Willinger’s personal things, and from the collection of historian Clifford W. Zink, probably the foremost expert on the Roebling family and company and author of the book “The Roebling Legacy” (Princeton Landmark Publications, 2011).
On Saturday, October 3, starting at 10:30 a.m., Zink will conduct an hour-and-a-half tour of the remaining buildings of the Roebling complex in Trenton.
Some of the more unusual objects in the exhibit include a bronze plaque from the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair that commemorates the Skyride, an innovative aerial ride at the fair, that the Roebling Company helped engineer and for which it supplied the rope.
From the Ellarslie’s own collection, viewers will see three boards showing dozens of types of electrical wire made by the Roebling Company. The boards were crafted by engineer Howard Godfrey, who donated them to the museum about 30 years ago.
The exhibit also includes four large, rarely exhibited paintings from the Roebling Company’s exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, depicting the Brooklyn and George Washington bridges, as well as interior factory scenes. If you saw the “New Jersey on Display” exhibit at the New Jersey State Museum last year, the paintings were prominently displayed there, on loan from Ellarslie.
They had been found in the basement of the former Roebling offices after the buildings were purchased by Mercer County, which then donated them to Ellarslie in 1982. Recently a donor paid for the cleaning and restoration of the painting of the George Washington Bridge, which has brought the work back to its original brilliance. The Trenton City Museum is now looking for a financial “angel” to support the cleaning of the Brooklyn Bridge painting.
The late Tom Malloy, a longtime artist based in Trenton whose loving and meticulous renderings of the capital city’s streets, buildings, monuments, and people have graced Ellarslie from time to time, did an exquisite watercolor of the Trenton Roebling Works. Commissioned by Zink, this rarely seen painting is also included in the Roebling exhibit.
On Zink’s website, www.cwzink.com, a recent blog post focuses on the Roebling exhibit at Ellarslie. Zink writes that “Tom (Malloy) worked in the Roebling wire mill during World War II and shared his experiences there in a 1993 oral history.”
Zink also elaborates on another unusual piece seen in the Roebling exhibit: “The most notable artwork is an 1898 ink and gouache painting from the collection of the New Jersey State Museum of the Roebling Works on South Broad Street and the Delaware and Raritan Canal,” he writes. “The Roebling brothers, Washington, Ferdinand, and Charles, commissioned the painting to capture the tremendous growth in the 50 years since their father, John A. Roebling, founded the factory with a single wire rope shop in 1848.”
“Expertly rendered by H.B. Longacre, a Philadelphia artist about whom little is known, the painting illustrates the tremendous investment, employment, and productivity in Trenton during the height of America’s industrial age,” Zink writes. “Longacre meticulously and precisely depicted the incredible bustle at the Works, with numerous billowing smokestacks and steam vents, and with workers, horses, steam locomotives, canal boats, and electric trolleys in motion.”
A particularly significant artifact dates from 1942, as World War II was raging and Americans were on high alert for suspicious and “anti-American” behavior: a document outlining the Roebling Company’s “Plant Rules and Regulations.”
The official no-no’s include: “Sleeping on duty;” “Reporting to work under the influence of liquor;” and “Harboring disease which, through the employee’s own carelessness, may endanger fellow workmen.”
More ominous is the rule that prohibits, “Treasonable acts or statements against the United States.”
“This is an example of one of the rules that was especially appropriate to our nation at wartime,” Willinger says.
The Robbinsville resident says he became interested in all aspects of Trenton’s history when he came to work for the New Jersey State Department of Health in 1984.
“I worked there for 27 years, soon after the state passed a new law, the ‘Worker and Community Right to Know Act,’” Willinger says. “I helped to set up and then run that program.”
A native of Dover, New Jersey, Willinger graduated from Rutgers University in 1973 with a degree in environmental studies, and in 1977 earned his law degree at Northeastern Law School in Boston.
“I was in private practice for several years, but I was also interested in environmental law,” he says. The two interests merged when he came to work for the state. “I felt that the ‘Worker and Community Right to Know Act’ was related to the health of the environment as well as the health of the public. Then, after I got the job with the state, I felt I wanted to learn more about occupational health.”
Willinger returned to higher education in the late 1980s, to the University of Medicine and Dentistry at Rutgers, where he earned his master’s degree in public health in 1991.
Law must run in the family, as Willinger’s Bronx-born father — who got his degree from Brooklyn Law School — launched a law practice in the 1930s, in the middle of the Great Depression.
The practice wasn’t working out for him, so Willinger’s father opened a factory in Rockaway Borough, which complemented his own father’s factory in New York City.
“78-rpms used to come in books or jackets containing five or six individual discs,” Willinger says. “My grandfather’s factory made those books. When my father opened his factory in the 1940s, he manufactured the paper sleeves that held the 78s — so he supplied my grandfather’s jackets with those sleeves. He was in business into the 1960s, when trends went toward single 33-rpms in individual sleeves.”
“Then my father decided to go back into law: he was in his 40s and took the New Jersey bar exam, passed, and was sworn in at age of 49, at that time the oldest lawyer to be sworn in,” Willinger adds. “That was in 1965, and my father practiced law in Dover until 1998.”
Willinger’s mother was also born in the Bronx, and earned a degree in biology at Hunter College, which led to a career as a high school science teacher. After raising the family, his mother went back to work as a substitute teacher. She then got a master’s degree in guidance counseling from Montclair State University.
“Ironically, this was in 1969, the same year I graduated from high school,” Willinger says. “Then for the next 20 years, she was a guidance counselor at the local (Rockaway Township) middle school.”
“When I moved here from Dover, I got involved with the Trenton Historical Society and the Trenton Museum Society, then started collecting and have been interested ever since,” Willinger says, noting that the current exhibit has been in planning for about a year.
He finds historic Roebling items at the Artifacts Gallery on South Broad Street in Trenton, the Hopewell Tomato Factory, as well as the Old Bookshop and Shoppe 202 in Bordentown. He has also found cool Roebling stuff on eBay and by scouring the tables at antiques and collectibles fairs.
“For postcards, the Washington Crossing Card Collectors Club has a postcard show once a year and several of those dealers have paper items I’ve collected, so that’s a good place to go as well,” Willinger says. “There’s so much (Trenton collectible) stuff out there and you find it all over. Roebling was such a big part of Trenton’s history, so very active and essential to Trenton’s industrial might, and the family was so busy in Trenton’s civic affairs, it was natural that I would begin collecting Roebling memorabilia.”
John A. Roebling’s Sons Company, Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Through Sunday, December 6. 609-989-3632 or 609-989-1191, www.ellarslie.org.
Historian Clifford Zink will conduct a 90-minute tour of the remaining buildings of the Roebling complex in Trenton, Saturday, October 3, 10:30 a.m. Meet at the Housing and Mortgage Finance Agency parking lot off Dye Street at the west end of the Roebling Machine Shop. Admission: $10, $5, members of the Trenton Museum Society or the Roebling Museum.