The Life and Death of the Frank Morrow Company
Only a spare few metalworking companies survived the epic decline of the industry between the late 20th century to early 21st century.
The epitome of historic American toolmaking giants, the Frank Morrow Company, stood the test of time. Known for its impressively ornate decorative metals, the Frank Morrow Company was the last operation in the U.S. to offer patterned banding in massive quantities. It thrived in the tumultuous 20th century, survived through the more recent sways of the metals industry and the shifting whims of the Providence Jewelry District, and stood its ground nearly 30 years after their market disappeared.
Between 1929 and 2019, the company witnessed the rise and fall of the metalworking industry, the advent of Peter DiCristofaro’s true “American Jewelry,” the Great Depression, the destructive New England hurricane of 1938, the second world war and survived the dawn of the new millenium.
The history of the Frank Morrow Company is a lesson in perseverance.
The founder and namesake of the company, Frank Morrow (1901-1965), was a first generation American, the son of Polish immigrants—he anglicized his surname, changing it from Morowski to Morrow.
Frank Morrow got an early start in the metals industry in North Attleboro, MA, the heart and soul of American jewelry at the time. The city was “even ahead of Providence,” according to Frank Morrow’s son, Robert Morrow.
At the age of 12, Frank Morrow was working the foot press at a jewelry company in North Attleboro, MA 60 hours each week. At just 14 or 15 years old, he was given an apprenticeship as a tool and roll maker. This was his calling, his son said.
According to Robert Morrow, his father jumped around several different tool and jewelry companies throughout his late teens and early twenties, including a stint at the acclaimed Bates & Klinke, Inc. His yearn to learn made him adventurous. He could never sit in one place doing one job for too long.
“I never wanted to make the same repetitious type of tooling and I wanted to learn as many aspects about the trade as I could,” Robert Morrow remembers his father saying.
The seeds of the Frank Morrow Company were planted in 1928 when Frank Morrow and his brother made decorative channel for purses out of a garage. Production ceased after noise complaints, but he mused starting his own metalworking company.
In February of 1929, Frank Morrow rented a space on lower Eddy Street in the Providence Jewelry District and the Frank Morrow Company was born.
The company started with a skeleton crew of only six employees—all Italian American—and a number of tools: two drop presses, several power presses and foot presses, a rolling mill and tool room equipment, according to the Frank Morrow Company’s website, which is now unavailable.
The company was generous to its employees, Robert Morrow said. Getting its start during the Great Depression, Frank Morrow did everything in his power to keep his workers afloat, his son explained. This included remarkably high salaries.
“[The employees] were really loyal. You know, during the Depression, it was very difficult,” Robert Morrow said. “I remember the old timers saying, ‘Bob, your father was so fantastic, you know. He would get a $25 check from a customer for some order, he would break up that check and cash it and give each of us $3 and sometimes he would keep $2.’ We always had that family thing, which I think I carried on.”
Robert Morrow explained that in his father’s later years, he was paying his employees between $14 and $26 per hour, depending on their years and expertise, prior to 1965.
In the early days, Frank Morrow developed a line of decorated perforated metal pattern rolls. His father’s technique became the standard for the Cranston Fancy Wire Company, now owned and operated by Potter USA, through the expertise of company founder Al Barrette. Frank Morrow taught Barrette everything he needed to know about rolling patterned wire. Frank Morrow’s influence could even be found on the West Coast, Robert Morrow said, where his god-uncle Alowiscous Cyr—related to the strongest man alive Louis Cyr—took his learned techniques and became the king of roll-making.
The next evolution of the Frank Morrow Company was swept along by the Great New England Hurricane of 1938. The storm flooded the lower Eddy Street location with 10 to 11 feet of water. Robert Morrow recounted cleaning sea salt from miles of brass coils of that year. He described half a dozen men hauling so many loads of 200 foot long brass coils in an old truck to a farm path in Johnston, RI to unspool, clean and re-roll them by hand. His father cooked steaks in the woods for everyone while they worked.
The flooding of the Eddy Street building heartened Frank Morrow to move locations. He said, “I’m not gonna have this happen again. I’m gonna find a place on a hill,” according to his son. In early 1939, Frank Morrow moved his company to the 10,000 square foot building at 129 Baker Street in Providence, RI, where the company remained until its closure.
Over the next few decades, the company once again flourished in the turbulence of the 20th century. During World War II, the Frank Morrow Company joined the war effort by producing torpedo bearings, which Frank Morrow flaunted as superior bearings to those made by the Newport Naval Base. The company grew substantially, and the pay of Frank Morrow’s employees followed suit. In 1965, Frank Morrow passed away and left the future of the company in the hands of his son.
Robert Morrow was a different man than his father, but they shared the same trait of familial generosity. At the time of his father’s death, Robert Morrow was working at the company while maintaining his foundation Tools For Freedom out of Manhattan.
Robert Morrow founded Tools For Freedom after his term in the Navy. He explained that while on shore patrol in different countries, he was struck by the immense poverty of some of the communities in those nations. When he returned home, he concocted a scheme to give them resources:
“Concrete in developing countries was so scarce and expensive,” Robert Morrow said. “And my father had all this surplus machinery.”
The machinery in question sat unused, a remnant of over-cautiousness on his father’s part from surviving the depression and the war. It sat there just in case a piece of equipment in the shop broke during a time of crisis, during another war, and there was no machinery to be bought.
“Well, I was thinking, if my father has all that,” Robert Morrow continued, “how many tens of thousands of companies probably also have similar situations—surplus machinery, stuff standing on the floor that they have no use for?”
The project kicked off in 1959 when Robert Morrow met an engineer coming back from New York. Upon hearing about the project, he was written a check for $250, and he was emboldened to begin asking for funding from bigger industrial corporations. Robert Morrow went on to garner the support of the National Machine Builders, the American Welding Society, the Engineering Society, Brooklyn Tech and Rockefeller Brothers Foundation. For many years, Tools For Freedom was widely successful for a number of years until Robert Morrow left his seat to take on the giant that was his father’s company.
Tools For Freedom remained one of Robert Morrow’s most prideful accomplishments, and he continued to work on his project independently, giving communities software and funding out of his pocket. In February of 2020, he again visited friends in Columbia, Costa Rica and Honduras to say goodbye to some of the Catholic fathers he had worked with for so many years, including a Father Guerrero in Bogota, who Robert Morrow had known for 59 years.
Under Robert Morrow, the Frank Morrow Company changed with the sways of the market. Seeing the changing industry and wanting “everything possible automatic,” he shifted production from jewelry manufacturing tools to home decor in the late 1960s. After that, the Frank Morrow Company was no longer a jewelry manufacturing supplier.
“I’m not a toolmaker, but I have a very good eye for design, and I like to develop ideas and things of that nature,” Robert Morrow said. “But I didn’t have the mechanical background that my father certainly did.”
In 1978, Robert Morrow married Karen Morrow, neé Muhler neé Badhumburg. Karen Morrow was a force of nature in her own right. A brilliant artist, Karen Morrow designed everything the Frank Morrow Company sold by 1980. The Frank Morrow Company continued to be a family affair. In 1996, Robert Morrow’s son started to join the business side of things. He became acting President of the company after a time, though his father remained as chairman.
During the early 2000s, the home decor industry took a turn.
“Our sales just kept shrinking and shrinking. Every industry we made decorative metals for, the Chinese just took it over,” Robert Morrow explained.
Despite scores of customer groups finding cheaper materials from Chinese industries and American companies moving production to China, the Frank Morrow Company survived for another two decades.
The Frank Morrow company finally shuttered its doors in 2017. Its assets were auctioned off to a number of individuals and companies, with Potter USA being one such company. The long-standing building is finding new life as well. The graceful and ornate aesthetic of Frank Morrow Company die and pattern roll designs live on at numerous companies across the country to be reproduced for jewelry makers in the modern day, in memoriam of a goliath.
--Written by Amber Soland