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Gleason, Katelocked

(25 November 1865–09 January 1933)
  • Milton Berman

Gleason, Kate (25 November 1865–09 January 1933), businesswoman, was born in Rochester, New York, the daughter of William Gleason, an industrialist, and Ellen McDermot. She was educated in the parochial and public schools of Rochester. At the age of eleven she began assisting her father in his machine shop after school and by the time she was fourteen worked regularly as a bookkeeper. In 1884 Gleason enrolled at Cornell University to study engineering but left before the end of the academic year to rejoin her father’s business.

When the Gleason Tool Company was incorporated in 1890, Gleason became secretary-treasurer, a post she held until she left the company in 1913. She ran the office and also played a major role in marketing. She convinced her reluctant father to permit her to go out on the road as the company sales representative, the first woman to do so in the field of machine tools. Gleason proved an effective sales agent; her knowledge of machines gained from years in her father’s shop amazed many customers and gave rise to anecdotes that credited her with engineering accomplishments far in excess of reality. In 1894 she traveled to Europe, soliciting orders in Scotland, England, Germany, and France.

The depression of the 1890s dried up demand for machine tools, and in response the Gleasons decided to concentrate on the production of gear-cutting machinery. William Gleason had invented the first machine that could replace hand methods in the production of bevel gears in 1874; over the years he and his two sons accumulated related patents. Use of bevel gears, which transmit power between intersecting shafts that meet at angles, grew after the Gleason machines permitted mass production of standardized gears. The popularity of automobiles resulted in an explosive growth of demand for such gears and for machinery to produce them. When the firm needed to build a huge foundry in 1904 to cope with expanding business, Kate Gleason suggested basing the design on the nave of the Pisa cathedral, since its high roof would facilitate the movement of traveling cranes; when new offices were built she copied the facade of the impressive Pan-American Building in Washington.

After leaving the family firm, where her two younger brothers now played the major role, Gleason was appointed on 1 January 1914 as receiver in bankruptcy for another machine tool company, the first woman to hold such an office. Under her management, the firm repaid its outstanding debts and was returned to its stockholders as a profitable concern before the end of 1915. She became attracted to the village of East Rochester where she helped finance and build eight factories. When the president of the First National Bank of East Rochester was called to war service in 1917, Gleason replaced him for three years, becoming the first woman president of a national bank.

While she was president of the bank Gleason’s interests shifted to home construction. Her own palatial home had been designed to her specifications in a Spanish style inspired by the Alhambra, but in East Rochester she began to focus on more modest houses. One of the bank’s problem loans was to a local builder who failed to complete the workers’ houses he had begun. Unable to find anyone to take over the loan, Gleason finished the houses herself and paid off the loan. She then began to experiment with the use of concrete to mass-produce fireproof homes at an affordable cost; before she was done she had erected a community of nearly one hundred houses of varied architectural styles, along with a golf course, a clubhouse, and several apartment houses.

Attempts to create a colony of concrete homes in California proved less successful but did not end her building activities. In the 1920s she began to spend three months every autumn in Septmonts, France, where she rebuilt for herself a castle that had been ruined in the war. In addition she constructed a public library and motion-picture theater as a memorial to the First Division of the American Expeditionary Force. At her winter home, a large estate in Beaufort, South Carolina, she planned to establish a community of garden apartments where northern professional people and artists of limited means might spend their winters, but only ten apartments and a hotel were completed at the time of her death.

Gleason claimed to have been inspired by Susan B. Anthony, who had been a friend of her mother. She was very proud of the number of times she had herself widened women’s roles and was especially pleased by her own election as the first woman member of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in 1914, an honor that validated her claim to engineering skills. She was also the first woman elected to membership in the Verein Deutscher Ingenieure in 1913.

Gleason never married. She died in Rochester, to which she had returned to spend the holidays. After specific bequests to her sister and various charitable and educational institutions, her will left the residue of her estate, estimated at more than $1 million, to establish a Kate Gleason Fund to be used for the welfare of employees of the Gleason Works and other philanthropic purposes.

Bibliography

The Rochester Institute of Technology archives has photographs, newspaper clippings, and articles relating to Kate Gleason. Two interviews contain useful information: Eve Chappell, “Kate Gleason’s Careers,” Woman Citizen, n.s., 10 (Jan. 1926): 19–20, 37–38, and Helen Christine Bennett, “Kate Gleason’s Adventures in a Man’s Job,” American Magazine, Oct. 1928, pp. 42–43, 158–75. Three celebratory publications of the Gleason Works contain information on the firm: Fourscore Years of Bevel Gearing (1945), The Gleason Works, 1865–1950 (1950), and The Gleason Works, 1865–1965 (1965). Obituaries are in the journal of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, Transactions 56 (1934): RI–19, and in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle and the New York Times, both 10 Jan. 1933. Provisions of her will are in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle, 14 Jan. 1933, and the New York Times, 15 Jan. 1933.