Description: The untold story of one of the earliest lockmaking families in America.
In discussing the early history of lock manufacturing in America, we necessarily focus on Hobbs, Yale, Sargent and a very few others. These were the men who advanced the art and paved the way to the future of mechanical security and are rightly the subject of most of our attention. I'd like to cast a light, though, on one of the first families of American lock making. Theirs is a story of great promise that is time after time undercut by poor luck, bad business and a failure to adapt.
Thomas Pye arrived in the United States sometime between 1793 and 1795, bringing with him his family, some funds to establish himself and an expertise in the most modern British lock making techniques. He established a factory in New York City where he crafted beautiful, hand made locks. He quickly found steady business in the new world and enjoyed his success even more when his sons, Simeon, William and Thomas Jr. began to learn the trade. He raised them to be locksmiths and taught them the best of what he knew. While Thomas Jr. found his own way, both Simeon and William joined the family business.
William excelled in lock making and had a keen mechanical mind. He loved to tinker and play with new ideas. He more fully embraced New York's burgeoning, competitive community of mechanical engineers and as a result in 1818 he received the 3rd and 4th ever US patents for new locks, preceded only by Stansbury and Perkins. Sadly, both of his patents, numbers 2947X & 2948X, and any mechanical description or drawings of his "Union Lock", were lost to the patent office fire of 1836. With his success and innovative ideas only growing, he struck out on his own, starting the "William Pye Patent Lock Manufactory" to produce locks of his own design. By 1827 he had put enough away to move to a new facility on Canal Street in lower Manhattan. In 1831, in an effort to secure his future business he petitioned congress to renew his 1818 Union Lock patent, but was denied his request.
As frustrating as that must have been, his real trial came in 1836. The same year his now defunct patent would burn away, his factory also caught fire. The building burned through the night, threatening an adjacent chapel and 2 residences. The factory was a complete loss, and the only other building that was damaged in the blaze happened to be William's home. His modest insurance covered less than half the total damages. In one fell swoop, everything he had worked so hard for came crashing down. It was a devastating loss, but he regrouped. With the insurance settlement, his savings and the support of his family he rebuilt on a nearby lot. His own son Thomas L, and nephew, Sanford eventually joining him in the business.
Simeon, William's brother, was similarly gifted, but remained working at their father's factory on Leonard Street in mid-town Manhattan. At the 6th annual fair of the American Society in 1833, Simeon and his father took a silver medal for their hand made knob lock. Thomas moved the factory and family to New Jersey, but Simeon continued to do business in New York, commuting daily. As his father before him, Simeon passed the craft down to his sons, Sylvester, Sanford and William M.
Sadly, his youngest, William, lost the family trade and led a scattered, itinerant life. He married young and moved his wife to Texas, ostensibly to recuperate his failing health. At the outset of the civil war he attempted to travel alone from Texas to see his family in New York. Along the way he was arrested and temporarily imprisoned several times while failing to travel quickly and quietly through the southern states. Eventually he made it home, and even managed to get his wife and child out of Texas. They spent a few years moving from city to city in Minnesota, and finally settled in North Dakota. He had a child in every state they lived, none of whom he taught the art of lock making.
Simeon’s middle child, Sanford, was talented enough with locks to join his uncle's new factory, but it was Sylvester who showed the most promise as an engineer.
Sylvester worked with his father, but before long surpassed him, securing his own patents, one in 1848 for an interesting latch and another in March of 1849 for an improvement on a lever lock design that incorporated his innovative latching mechanism. Sylvester, though, unlike anyone else in his family, saw clearly that the lock industry was very rapidly moving from expensive, hand made locks to large, affordable, commercial productions. Within a decade of his prediction, the sprawling, automated factories of Connecticut would be producing twice as many locks annually as the rest of the country combined.
Recognizing that the era of the craftsman had ended, Sylvester used his connections and knowledge to start a retail hardware business with a good friend. They opened their first store on Broadway in 1852. The store was a blistering success, Sylvester had managed to seamlessly transition from the old economy to the new and profited well as a result. By 1864 he could afford to travel freely and took his wife to visit his brother William who had moved to a new, small town in Minnesota named Faribault. He and his wife fell in love with the land and the possibilities of that unspoiled expanse of America. While William uprooted again and continued on his way a year later, Sylvester decided to settle. He and his wife purchased a large plot of land and built up a beautiful homestead.
He remained in Faribault for decades, and even spent four terms as the Mayor. As he and his wife got older they wintered elsewhere, but always returned for the spring and summer. Sylvester's early business success never seemed to leave him and he was able to contribute greatly to the community of Faribault while providing a more than comfortable life for he and his wife. When he passed away in 1910 his estate was valued at $2,000,000. He had no children to pass the money or the lock trade on to. Thankfully he wasn't around to see the ugly legal battle that ensnared his extended family and community as they clamored for his wealth.
THOMAS ALEXANDER WHALEY & RACHEL PYE
Thomas Pye found himself blessed by a son-in-law who took an active interest in his business. Thomas Alexander Whaley, a talented engineer from a long line of gunsmiths found lock making to be a natural extension of his family trade. He married Thomas' daughter, Rachel Pye in 1814 and became a partner in his lock factory. They renamed it Pye and Whaley Locks. In 1821 he received a patent for a lock that Pye and Whaley produced, but sadly that too was lost to the patent fire.
Whaley passed away at 42, leaving the business to be run by his aging father-in-law and widow. But he also left Rachel with three sons, Henry, John and Thomas Jr. Henry and John had been learning the lock making trade alongside their father and grandfather, so with their father gone, they turned their full attention to the factory. Their father had made one demand of his estate, however. He and Rachel were both as clever at business as he had been with locks, and they saw the same aptitude in Thomas Jr. To foster what they considered a more valuable sort of intelligence, they set out to give Thomas Jr. the best education possible. Rachel had managed to grow the modest returns from the business by making a number of shrewed real estate investments, the most famous of which would later become Sheep's Meadow in Central Park. Sparing no expense, she sent Thomas Jr. to the best schools, and when he returned, she hired a private tutor to take him to Europe for 2 years to continue his education. While he was gone, Henry and John took over the lock factory.
JOHN, HENRY AND THOMAS JR.
John and Henry, though not as savvy at business as their Mother, managed to take the lock factory to new heights. They won government contracts in Washington D.C. and Harper's Ferry. The mechanical properties of the locks didn't go through any important changes during this time, but they sustained and even grew the business. So, when their younger brother returned from Europe and systematically took over the administration of his Mother's investments and businesses, they were more than a little resentful. The troubles with managing the lock factory grew so intense that Thomas Jr. divested and bought into a shipping company instead, completely eschewing lock manufacturing.
In 1851 Thomas decided to sail to California to sell goods and supplies to those who had traveled west in the gold rush. He and a business partner set up a small general store which proved quite successful. He followed up on this success by starting a brick kiln, and then advertised it by building the first brick house in San Diego on land that was locally infamous as the location of a public execution. He outfitted the house with hardware supplied by Pye and Whaley and stocked and sold his brother's locks to other Californians. Though he had left the trade behind, his travel and business savvy managed to bring his family's locks further than they had ever been before.
In 1855, his brother Henry left the lock factory and brought his wife out to San Diego. They moved into Thomas' spacious house and soon Henry and Thomas tried to go into business together. They converted the bottom floor of the house into the Whaley and Whaley General Store. The store was successful and Henry and his wife were even able to afford a small property of their own. Sadly, Henry was a drunk, a very public and mean drunk. He was confrontational with customers, charged arbitrary prices when his brother wasn't around and frequently got into screaming matches with his wife in the street outside the store. Eventually things came to a head in a violent fight between the brothers. Henry was thrown out of both the store and the partnership, and it was said that they never spoke again.
Thomas continued as a successful and proud member of the community, he took political office, stood watch in the local militia and in an act that called to mind the brick house he had built years before, participated in the execution of a convicted murderer. Henry, on the other hand, was later inexplicably stabbed in an unprovoked attack in which he lost an arm. And back east John, perhaps the least motivated of the trio, simply allowed the lock factory to decline. None of them passed their trade on to another generation.
While members of both the Pye and Whaley clan are remembered individually, their lock making, which was the foundation of the Pye family in America, has been all but lost. There is still a trace, though, and it's what put me onto this line of investigation in the first place. William Pye, the brother who's factory and patents burned all in the same year? His son, Thomas L Pye studied under his father's tutelage and joined him in the lock business. Eventually he even secured a patent of his own for a compact lever padlock. It was a good, clean, efficient design and became popular enough to be used in several railroad padlocks. Some examples, stamped with "PYES PATENT" can be found in private collections today.
It's easy to look back and recognize visionaries, but I find myself fascinated by the stories of generations of lock makers who toiled in relative obscurity, working hard and nudging the art forward. They just happened to be working in a moment that was filled with rapid, bold and public innovation, and as a result, their masterworks were left in the dust of history.
This post is part of my ongoing research into the security patents lost in the Patent Office Fire of 1836. You can find more information at X-Locks