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date: 17 October 2019

Remington, Philofree

(31 October 1816–04 April 1889)
  • Fred Carstensen

Remington, Philo (31 October 1816–04 April 1889), manufacturer, was born in Litchfield, Herkimer County, New York, the son of Eliphalet Remington, a farmer and mechanic, and Abigail Paddock. His parents soon moved to his grandfather’s farm, on Steele’s Creek, near Ilion, New York, a farm that included shops and a foundry. Remington received his formal education locally in public schools and then at the Cazenovia Seminary, but his real education came at home, in the family shops and foundry. His father, supposedly refused a rifle by Remington’s grandfather, gathered up scraps of iron, forged a barrel, and walked to Utica to have it rifled. The resulting quality was so high that his neighbors asked him to make more barrels, and later government contract permitted expansion into producing the entire gun. Thus, Remington grew up amidst an expanding, successful gunsmith business. By age twenty-four he was in charge of manufacturing, and when his father died in 1861, he took over as president, assisted by his two brothers. He married Caroline A. Lathrop in 1841; they had two daughters.

The Civil War brought Remington large orders for armaments and initial financial success. But the company was unprepared for the end of the war, when it was left holding large inventories and a factory too large for the civilian market to support. Remington responded by seeking international orders and expanding into other lines of manufacturing. To facilitate this process, he reorganized the company, creating E. Remington & Sons to handle the gun business and a separate entity, in partnership with his brother Eliphalet, for manufacturing other products. In 1866 his brother Samuel went to Europe to represent the gun company; he stayed until 1877, and from 1870 he served as France’s procurement officer for American ordinance. In 1867 the Danish government placed an order for nearly $40,000 of armaments after sending inspectors to Ilion. The Swedish government soon followed. In the next few years Remington signed contracts with Spain, Egypt, Mexico, Japan, and other countries, and by 1875 he had delivered over 1,000,000 arms to foreign governments.

For the civilian market, Remington concentrated on pistols that offered the highest profits. By 1875 the company offered eighteen sizes and patterns, from a .50 caliber single shot to a “vest pocket companion” of 3.5 ounces. In rifles Remington was first to introduce steel barrels for sporting guns, and he pursued experimental work on a breech-loading design, one of which was eventually adopted by the United States and many European armies.

To utilize manufacturing capacity fully, Remington began producing farm implements, principally mowers and cultivators. But these had limited success, and the business was sold in 1887. With assistance from a former Singer executive, Remington developed the Remington Empire sewing machine in 1870. As with the farm machinery, it was never a true commercial success, and it was organized into the Remington Sewing Machine Company and sold in 1882.

In 1873 Remington began working on what was arguably his most influential business activity. Early that year he had received a letter from James Densmore, asking to exhibit his typewriter. On 1 March Remington signed a contract with Densmore and his partner G. W. N. Yost to manufacture the machine and handle distribution and sales. On 30 April 1874 the first Remington-made typewriter arrived. Although well made, it was a cumbersome affair, with all type in uppercase. Moreover, Densmore and Yost did a poor job distributing and selling the machine. But Remington saw the potential, and on 1 November 1875 he signed a new contract that gave his company exclusive rights to manufacture and sell typewriters under the patents held by Densmore and Yost. In 1876 Remington built a special display model for the Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia, which drew considerable notice but did little to strengthen sales.

Remington introduced the redesigned Remington No. 2, the first typewriter to offer upper and lowercase type, in 1878. He arranged an exclusive sales agency with Fairbanks & Company, famous scale manufacturers of St. Johnsbury, Vermont, believing that its well-developed distribution network would generate larger sales. But offices in which typewriters would find their primary market were not places where Fairbanks typically sold scales, and in 1881 Remington re-established its own sales department, headed by Clarence W. Seamans, aged twenty-seven, who had handled typewriter sales for Fairbanks. Then, in 1882 Seamans, in partnership with Yost’s former salesman William O. Wyckoff, and Henry H. Benedict, a Remington official critical to recognizing the potential of the typewriter in 1873, contracted to sell all Remington typewriters. In spite of numerous new competitors entering the market because of the typewriter’s increasing acceptance, Wyckoff, Seamans, & Benedict did well, more than doubling sales in two years.

By the mid-1880s, due in part to a severe economic recession, Remington was in deep financial trouble. He had sold off the sewing machine business in 1882, and in March 1886, in a bid to stave off bankruptcy of the firearms company, Remington sold the typewriter business, including the Ilion plant, to Wyckoff, Seamans & Benedict, who reorganized as the Remington Standard Typewriter Company. This ended Remington’s connection to the typewriter. In 1887 he also sold the agricultural implement business, but he was unable to avoid bankruptcy. Hartley & Graham of New York City bought the firearms company at auction in 1888, which they then operated under the name Remington Arms Company.

Although Remington’s career ended in business failure, his companies played a central role in pushing development of the machine tool industry through his innovations in production techniques; the design of Remington firearms had an enduring influence on both civilian and military arms; and he played a central role in the development and adoption of the typewriter. But because he focused narrowly on production, failing to make critical investments in management and distribution, others captured leadership.

Remington served as mayor of Ilion for many years, and he was a generous supporter of the Methodist Episcopal church. Along with his brother, he gave Syracuse University $250,000. He died in Silver Springs, Florida, where he had gone to try to regain his health after bankruptcy.

Bibliography

There are apparently no original manuscript sources about Philo Remington or his companies, although Richard N. Current had access to privately held correspondence dealing with some critical aspects of the typewriter industry’s development. Even so, there is useful material available about Remington, his businesses, and his products. For the typewriter industry, see Wilfred A. Beeching, Century of the Typewriter (1974); Richard N. Current, The Typewriter and the Men Who Made It (1954); and Donald R. Hoke, Ingenious Yankees (1990). James M. Utterback’s Mastering the Dynamics of Innovation (1994) discusses the emergence of dominant designs in a variety of industrial products, including typewriters. For information about firearms, see Louis A. Garavaglia and Charles G. Worman, Firearms of the American West, 1866–1894 (1985); and Charles H. Fitch, Report on the Manufacturers of Interchangeable Mechanism (1883). For the importance of investments in management and distribution, see Alfred D. Chandler, Scale and Scope (1990).