Filed Under Industry

Van Dorn Iron Works

The Van Dorn Iron Works Company was one of the leading companies in the iron industry and later plastic molding industry throughout the twentieth century. J. H. Van Dorn started his business in 1872 from the basement of his Akron home where he created a unique style of wrought iron fencing that he displayed in his own front yard which was said to be “such an interesting exhibit that it became town talk.” In 1878, Van Dorn moved his expanding business to Cleveland renaming it the Cleveland Wrought Iron Fence Company.

With the expansion of their product line into ornamental iron objects, Van Dorn renamed the company the Van Dorn Iron Works and became incorporated under The Van Dorn Iron Works Company in 1891. The company produced a variety of different products including ornamental iron products, metal office furniture, structural steel, and automobile parts.
By the 1910s, Van Dorn Iron Works became best known for manufacturing jail cells, which J. H. Van Dorn claimed to be no more than “fences built indoors.” The company became the largest manufacturer of jail cells in the world for several decades in the twentieth century, assembling nearly 28,000 jail cells from 1918 to 1938 that it sold throughout the U.S. and foreign countries. Van Dorn supplied cells for a variety of prisons across the U.S., including the Connecticut State Prison, Nebraska State Prison, West Virginia State Prison, Maryland State Penitentiary, and the Tombs Prison in New York. Van Dorn also assembled jail cells throughout Ohio, including for the Cuyahoga County Jail and the city jails in Cleveland, East Cleveland, and North Royalton.

One of Van Dorn’s unique contributions to the city of Cleveland was the company’s role in constructing the superstructure of the Detroit-Superior Bridge, which was among the world's largest steel and concrete reinforced bridges at the time. Van Dorn built the steel frame of the Williamson Building in 1899 situated on Public Square, which was long considered to be the city’s largest and best building. The Van Dorn Iron Works also constructed the steel crib that was sunk in Lake Erie to supply the city’s fresh water. Other notable contributions made by the Van Dorn Iron Works were contracts to supply iron work to the Cleveland Arcade, the central police station, and the new city hall.
Van Dorn Iron Works was contracted by companies throughout the entire country for their iron products. In 1905, Van Dorn was contracted by the United States government to manufacture 8,000 mailboxes, which offered the company approximately $25,000 in profit. Van Dorn supplied metallic furniture to the Library of Congress and the Post Office Department in Washington D.C.

Van Dorn became an important wartime production company to supply the United States military. During World War I, the Van Dorn Iron Works Company produced Renault six-ton tanks and was only one of three companies in Ohio to produce tanks. Van Dorn also produced a variety of marine furniture for the navy including cots, desks, lockers, and mess tables all of which had to be specially enameled and lacquered. Van Dorn also produced armor plating for military vehicles and aircraft during both World Wars. The Van Dorn Iron Works Company was rated one hundred percent for their wartime production during the First World War, while they received a pennant for outstanding performance in wartime production during World War II.

Following the end of World War II, Van Dorn began diversifying their manufacturing production into the container and plastics fields with the purchase of the Davies Can Company and the Colonial Plastics Mfg. Co. The company also expanded by creating a plastic molding division as early as 1946, which would dominate the company's future success. Throughout the 1950s, Van Dorn grew to become one of the nations leaders in the plastics and container industries. The 1960s was a prosperous decade for Van Dorn as it continued to expand its product line. Van Dorn’s new direction towards producing containers and plastic injection molds led the company to change its name in 1964 to simply the Van Dorn Company.

During the 1970s, Van Dorn participated in the Woodland East Community Organization, or WECO, one of Cleveland’s neighborhood revival programs that intended to revitalize the neighborhood. The Van Dorn Company led the efforts of WECO as Van Dorn’s industrial planning coordinator was the WECO project director. By 1980, the Van Dorn Company was the largest neighborhood employer out of the 26 members of WECO.

During the 1980’s, the Van Dorn Company began to consolidate their subsidiaries due to pressure from Cleveland’s deindustrialization. By 1985, the Van Dorn Company had 19 plants throughout the world following their consolidation and reorganization efforts. The Van Dorn Company closed its East 79th plant in 1991 after being in Cleveland for over one hundred years. The effects of deindustrialization ultimately struck the Van Dorn Company in 1993 when the company was sold to the Crown Cork and Seal Company.

Van Dorn’s survival in Cleveland for over one hundred years contributed substantially to the overall growth of the city. Van Dorn prospered throughout Cleveland’s industrial revolution and did not suffer from the effects of deindustrialization until the late 1980s. The Van Dorn Company led a variety of different industries including the wrought iron fence, jail cell, plastic injection molding, and container industries throughout the twentieth century. Van Dorn’s long existence was due to their successful ability to expand their lines of production into different industries. The Van Dorn Company saw the potential in a variety of different products and maintained a diverse line of production.

Images

Van Dorn Iron Works Aerial View This artist rendering of the Van Dorn plant, reprinted in the Plain Dealer in 1972, shows its sprawling expanse along the Pennsylvania Railroad tracks in the mid 1940s. Source: Cleveland Plain Dealer Date: ca. 1945
Front of Van Dorn Iron Works Plant Pictured is the front of the Van Dorn Iron Works Company across the Nickel Plate road crossing. Source: Cleveland Memory Project Creator: Gerald Adams, Nickel Plate Road Right-of-Way Collection Date: 1926
Cleveland Wrought Iron Fence James H. Van Dorn started his company with the creation of a distinct style of fencing which came to be known as the Cleveland Wrought Iron Fence. Van Dorn advertised his fencing by displaying it in front of his home for people to see. Source: Columbia University Libraries Creator: archive.org Date: 1884
Cleveland Wrought Iron Fences Van Dorn created a variety of different style wrought iron fences which customers would order through a mail-in catalogue. Source: Columbia University Libraries Creator: archive.org Date: 1884
Van Dorn Jail Cell Van Dorn Iron Works was the largest jail cell producer in the world throughout the twentieth century. Van Dorn supplied jail cells throughout the U.S. and greater Cleveland area until 1967 when they ceased jail cell production. Source: Columbia University Libraries Creator: archive.org Date: 1884
Iron Products Van Dorn created a variety of iron outdoor decor for residential as well as commercial use. The company produced an array of iron products including fencing, wire window guards, lawn seats, iron vases, automatic gates, weather vanes, crestings and finials. Date: 1910
Tank Assembly Van Dorn Iron Works primarily manufactured tanks during World War One. The company also produced armor plating for military vehicles and aircraft during both World Wars. Source: U.S. National Archives Date: 1918
Renault Six-Ton Tank Van Dorn Iron Works was one of only three companies in Ohio to produce tanks during World War One. Van Dorn manufactured the turrets for all of the tanks produced in Ohio. Source: U.S. National Archives Date: 1918
Testing Field Van Dorn Iron Works created a practice grounds at their Cleveland plant to test their tanks after assembly. Source: U.S. National Archives
Machine Gun Mount During the First World War the Van Dorn Iron Works manufactured machine gun mounts for tanks and small armored vehicles. Source: U.S. National Archives at College Park, Photographs of American Military Activities Series Creator: Wikimedia Commons
White Armor Motor Car Van Dorn Iron Works partnered with the White Motor Car Company to produce armored vehicles for the First World War. Following the end of the war, the White Motor Car Company and Van Dorn continued to produce armored vehicles to fulfill their commission to the U.S. military. Source: Rock Island Arsenal Museum Creator: militarytrader.com Date: 1920

Location

Metadata

Paul Spencer, “Van Dorn Iron Works,” Cleveland Historical, accessed August 8, 2022, https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/883.