The History of an American Legend
1884 was a very important year for H. Gerstner & Sons. It was the year company founder Harry Gerstner was born. Some other very notable and interesting events were taking place around the country at this time: the Statue of Liberty was completed, Boston and New York were first linked by telephone, the Cincinnati Reds held their first game at Crosley Field, and Dayton, Ohio, had its first paved street. Harry Gerstner first started working when he left high school at age 17. He signed on as a woodworking apprentice to become a pattern-maker starting at a salary of six cents an hour. At the completion of his four-year apprenticeship, Harry received a one hundred dollar bonus and was earning ten cents an hour – top wages for a journeyman woodworker in the Dayton area.
Harry Gerstner made his first tool chest while working as a pattern-maker. It took him a year to design and make, as he only spent evenings working on it. After it was completed a friend remarked that he would like to have one of these well-designed chests, so Harry built another one. Some of his fellow workers commented on how well made it was, and this got him thinking that there may be a demand for his chests, as they were better and different than anything on the market at that time. So, in 1906 while the Wright Brothers were perfecting their first airplane, Harry Gerstner used the 100 dollar bonus from his job and founded his own tool chest company. He picked up his first orders by making evening door to door sales calls on his many friends and acquaintances.
Harry decided to name the company H. Gerstner & Sons not only in honor of his father Herman Gerstner who introduced Harry to woodworking, but also because the name sounded established and he hoped that he would someday have his own sons to bring into the business. Indeed, it was a family business from its inception and Harry provided jobs for his father, his two brothers and his two sisters. His first woodworking tools were fairly basic and some of his machines were handmade. His first machine was a “saw-table,” he says he made with an old motor from a washing machine. Harry designed his tool chests to hold the full complement of a journeyman’s precision tools and the basic principle of design for his tool chests was “A place for everything and everything in its place.”
H. Gerstner & Sons was not the only manufacturer of wooden tool chests during the early 1900’s. Because of the allocation of metal towards the war effort, by the close of World War I there were about 15 companies producing wooden chests. The mid 1960’s saw the last of H. Gerstner & Sons competition as all the other companies either closed down or moved on to making other products. As the twenty-first century draws near, H. Gerstner & Sons stands alone in maintaining over 102 years of quality manufacturing of wooden tool chests.
H. Gerstner & Sons has always kept quality as the number one priority in establishing the company’s reputation. The tool chests were never built to be beautiful, but H. Gerstner & Sons products have a certain “look,” and their inherent quality has come to be appreciated as a truly “American” product. Like all articles of merit they have been flattered by cheaper imitations, but the company focus has always been to build the best quality wood products money could buy. Some years ago a man would bring his personal tools to a job interview. If they were presented in a Gerstner Chest, he was virtually assured a position. The name Gerstner has been well established to mean the highest quality in wooden tool chests, and the use of a Gerstner Chest was, and still is, evidence that a craftsman takes genuine pride in himself and his work.
In the company archives are letters from people who purchased our chests as far back as the 1920’s. Many of these early Gerstner Chests are still in use today and their current owners are as happy with them now as the day they were first purchased. The tool chests are built to be extremely durable and some letters we have received told of Gerstner Chests even surviving through fires. The chests were sometimes damaged beyond repair, but the tools they held were protected. Due to the moisture absorbing characteristics of wood, tools stored in Gerstner Chests remain in a rust-free environment. With a little care a Gerstner Chest will last a lifetime and beyond. People have often sent their older chests in to be refurbished to keep them in top condition, as many of them are passed down through family generations. The company has operated from its present location since 1913 and Gerstner Tool Chests are to be found in virtually every quality metalworking shop from coast to coast. In recent years the company has begun to build fine wood products for homemakers and hobbyists. These new products exhibit the same craftsmanship and attention to detail as the reputable Gerstner Tool Chests.
H. Gerstner & Sons is still a family owned business today. While Harry Gerstner and his wife, Emma, never did have any sons, they did have three daughters, and since the beginning, the business has been run by a family member of their descendants.
John A. Campbell was the first “outside” family member to enter the business. He married Charlotte, the eldest of Harry Gerstner’s daughters, whom he met in college. Harry convinced him to move to Dayton in 1938 and join the business. John’s background as a high school English teacher provided him with the writing and communication skills he needed to help develop some early brochures used by the company. He was very active in sales and dealer relations while he was with the company, and was vice president and in line to take over the business until his untimely death in 1961 at the age of 50. He spent 23 years working at H. Gerstner & Sons and the good “old fashioned” friendly customer service policies he initiated are still practiced today.
The next family member to enter the business was Harold Leland. He married Harriet, the youngest of Harry’s daughters. He was president of the company from 1962 to 1976. Harold saw the company through some very difficult times as his competitors began closing down or moving on to other products. His background in engineering helped to formulate cost and control systems that are still used in the running of the business. Under Harold’s leadership the company began to introduce new products that would help assure the future growth of the company.
John Harry Campbell (nicknamed Jack), son of John A. Campbell, and grandson of Harry Gerstner, was president of the company from 1976 to 2016. He purchased the company from his uncle (Harold Leland) in 1976 and has set about reaffirming the policy of building the finest wood products available on the market today. He brought the company into the 21st century through continued diversification into other products designed for home and hobby as well as new tool chests designs for industry.
John Scott Campbell, son of John H. Campbell, and great-grandson of Harry Gerstner, is currently the 4th president of the company. He started at the company in 1994. During his time at Gerstner, he has worked in every stage of production, as production supervisor on each floor and through all management positions. He has spent the last few years running day-to-day operations, with Jack as his mentor, before he became president of the company.
H. Gerstner & Sons started making tool chests exclusively, but throughout the years many other products have been introduced by the company. Today though, tool chests are still the most popular item in the Gerstner line. People have discovered that in addition to their use for tools, Gerstner Chests are ideal as jewelry chests, hobby chests or because of their unique styling they can be used as ideal accent pieces for home decor. The distinctive styling of Gerstner Chests has had a definite influence on other Gerstner products such as: attaché cases, collectors chests, fly tyer cases, and cigar humidors to name a few. Numerous movie stars and film personalities use Gerstner make-up cases and Gerstner customers include sports figures, famous statesmen, and even several former presidents of the United States. Gerstner Tool Chests and other wood products represent both the quality of fine woodworking craftsmanship and the proud tradition of true American heritage.
We realize that with our 114-year history of providing unsurpassed customer service and factory expertise, our well-earned reputation will help us continue to grow and prosper as we enter our second century of business.
Written by Kimberly Campbell Brown (Vice President of Sales & Marketing, daughter of John H. Campbell and great-granddaughter of Harry Gerstner)