(This is Part 1 of a two-part series. Read Part 2.)

Aside from my usual grumbling about Hewlett Packard products, I seldom mention brand names in this column. Today, however, I’m going to mention a whole raft of them. Before I’m accused of selling out, though, let me say that none of the firms I mention have paid me to drop their names, nor so much as taken me out to lunch. However, just for future reference, I could probably be easily bribed with a nice fresh rhubarb pie.

Today’s building materials market is flooded with newcomer brands. While choice and competition are generally a good thing, the current galaxy of choices in the building field are largely among a whole raft of Johnny-Come-Lately manufacturers, many based overseas, whose main objective is simply to cash in on America’s vast home-improvement market. This unpleasant fact ought to make consumers think twice before purchasing brands they’ve never heard of before, no matter how slickly advertised.

Quite a few American brands, by comparison, have histories dating back a century or more. While a distinguished past doesn’t necessarily guarantee modern worth — as General Motors can amply attest — there’s nevertheless no substitute for experience. And there are plenty of experienced old brands to go around.

One well-known American plumbing-fixture maker, for example, traces its lineage back to 1872, when John B. Pierce opened a tinware shop in Ware, Mass. Pierce later founded one of three firms that merged in 1892 to form the American Radiator Co. In 1929, American Radiator in turn merged with The Standard Sanitary Manufacturing Co. By the eve of World War II, products from this unwieldy new combine — it was not called American-Standard until 1948 — could be found in about half the homes in the United States.

Just as venerable a name in plumbing is the company founded by 29-year-old Austrian immigrant John Michael Kohler in 1873 to produce cast iron and steel farm implements. In 1883 Kohler applied a baked enamel coating to one of his company’s horse trough/hog scalders, thus creating the first Kohler bathtub.

Other old hands in the building industry include the window manufacturer Andersen, founded in 1903 by Danish immigrant Hans Andersen and his family in Hudson, Wis. In 1932, in the very depths of the Depression, Andersen introduced the first fully assembled window unit in the industry. This was a revolutionary idea in a day when windows were either shipped in pieces or were locally built from scratch.

Another familiar name in windows got its start in 1925, when Pete and Lucille Kuyper founded a small Des Moines company to manufacture a novel type of window screen that retracted onto a roller. The Kuypers’s Rolscreen Co. moved to Pella, Iowa, the following year, began manufacturing wood windows, and the rest is history.

Innovations, whether large or small, have been central to the rise of the companies recounted above. Next time we’ll look at a few more such stalwart American brands, some of whom essentially invented their own industries. So take note, industry reps — there’s still time to get me that rhubarb pie.

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