Justus Roe & Sons: Makers of Steel Tape Measures since 1876
Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 57 no. 4, December 2004
by Louise Muse
In 1876, Justus Roe of Patchogue, New York, decided to go into the business of manufacturing steel tape measures. The company he founded is still in business in the small town where he had his first factory, and it still specializes in steel tape measures, making it possibly the oldest company in the world still producing them (Figure 1).
The first long steel tape measure with etched graduations was developed in 1842 by James Chesterman working in Sheffield, England. He riveted short steel strips using flat wire that he had developed for crinoline skirts. However, the main use for this wire was the fashion industry, and in 1853 Chesterman developed a process for heat-treating continuous lengths of wire, making them stronger and longer. The market for crinoline wire was exploding, and between 1854 and 1865 Sheffield foundries met this demand by producing over 200,000 pounds of this wire.
In 1860, crinoline skirts, which used sixty yards of wire, began to get slimmer, and by 1865 only two bottom hoops were being used. The Sheffield factories were still in full production when the market disappeared. The foundries found themselves with excess steel blades and were selling the wire for fencing or scrap.
James Chesterman was able to adapt his plant to use the surplus wire to make measuring tapes for engineers and surveyors, to replace the land chains that were currently being used, the land chains being heavy and awkward (Figure 2). He advertised his new measurement tool as a “Steel Band Measuring Chain” and claimed that “compared with a chain, it has equal strength, greater correctness, is easier to clean, and to coil and uncoil, and is very much lighter and more compact.” He exported tapes to the United States, which were sold through outlets such as W. & L.E. Gurley’s, Albany, New York, as early as 1871. But the Chesterman tapes, which sold for $17, were very expensive, forcing even Gurley to acknowledge that their great cost prevented general use. William Paine was also making award-winning steel measuring tapes in Brooklyn, New York, around the same time, but his tapes were only a few dollars cheaper than Chesterman’s.
Justus Roe was a surveyor by profession (Figure 3). He served as the chief civil engineer for the Long Is-land Rail Road during the period of its greatest expansion and was chosen by the state to mark the location of the Fire Island Lighthouse. As a surveyor who had used the land chain, he must have been aware of a market for the convenient new steel measuring tapes if they could be sold at a lower price.
With his son Howard, he established his business, Justus Roe and Son, in 1876. The business started on the second floor over a corner drug store on Main Street in Patchogue with the tapes being produced in Brooklyn and New York City. He discovered that he could sell his tapes for less than half the price charged by his competitors and still make a profit.
Justus Roe began to experiment with different types of reels (Figure 4). In 1888 he took a patent out for a reel that allowed the user to insert the fingers of one hand into the reel to both hold the tape and to keep it from springing back when it was wound. There is no evidence that this reel was ever marketed. It would appear that the tape could spring out of the reel if it were dropped (Figure 5). He was also interested in other measuring devices and took out a patent for a folding protractor, which he patented in 1890. It opened to an angle with a base of fourteen inches and folded into a compact seven inch rule (Figure 6).
But it was his patent for what he called “Roe’s Electric Reel” that proved to be his best seller. There was nothing electric in this reel, but it did sell as fast as an electric bolt because there was no steel measuring tape on the market as inexpensive as Roe’s. Instead of etching, measurements were marked by holes and rivets. His competitors were etching measurements onto the tapes at three times his price. A disadvantage of marking measurements with holes and rivets was that the rivets had a tendency to push the tape to one side against the bars of the frame. This patented reel prevented it (Figures 7, 8 and 9).
Justus Roe and Sons
By 1890, his sons Austin and Henry had joined the firm, and the name of the company was changed to Justus Roe and Sons. The youngest son, Nathaniel, left Patchogue to study tool and die making at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn and then went to work for Richard Hoe and Company, the famous manufacturer of printing presses. A few years later, Nathaniel returned to the family business, and using the knowledge he had acquired, designed a printing press that could etch the measurements into the steel. In 1895 steel tapes with etched measurements were sold by Roe & Sons for the first time. This was an important move for the company to stay competitive, because some companies were now selling steel tape measures with the etched measurements for only a dollar more than Roe & Sons’ tape chains. The etching process was a continual challenge for the company throughout the years. It had to be deep enough to prevent wear but not compromise strength and durability. One patent for a press had to be discarded when it was discovered that it weakened the tape (Figure 10).
They started to expand their product line to include metallic and linen tapes, pantographs, pocket protractors, and tapes cased in both leather and nickel-plated brass. The tapes were sent to hardware stores all over the country on consignment at a 43 percent discount to be paid when they were sold.
The First Factory
The steel tapes were selling so well that in 1900 a factory was built in Patchogue where orders could be handled from start to finish. The tapes needed to be checked on a flat surface because holding them in suspension would produce a catenary which would make it difficult to check the correctness of the measurement. This was done on a 100-foot board. The factory was built 103 feet long to accommodate the board needed to check 100-foot tapes. The long rectangular shape of the building can be noted in Figure 11.
Justus Roe did not live to guide his company into the twentieth century. He died in 1900 at the age of sixty-two, and his four sons took over the business (Figure 12).
Although the tape chain for surveyors continued to be a best seller, the leather-cased tape measures were also becoming popular. The leather cases had to be hand sewn and this work was done by women at home. In 1929, New York State passed strict labor laws to en-sure a safe working environment, and because work done at home could not be regulated, it was prohibited. The women would now have to be hired as employees with benefits, and space in the factory would have to be provided for these workers. To keep production costs down, a scheme was devised whereas the women bought the materials needed from Roe, sewed the tapes at home, and then sold the completed tape measures back to Roe making the women contractors, not employees.
The women continued to stitch the cases long after a method was devised to fasten the edges with a metal rim because of contracts the firm had with the United States Navy whose specifications included the stitching. (Examples of both kinds of leather tape cases, hand-stitched and metal rim, are illustrated on the back cover). During World War II, the company supplied both the United States Army and Navy with measuring tapes, and it is still the tape mea-sure supplier to the U.S. Government Supply A-ministration.
The Second Generation
Austin Roe died in 1943, and the others died or retired shortly after leaving the business to Nathaniel’s sons, Nathaniel, Alfred, and Justus. This new generation expanded the business internationally with overseas operations in Australia, England, Russia, Israel, and India.
In an effort to keep production costs down, a reel was designed that could be fabricated easily and inexpensively from a minimum of parts. This reel was patented in 1948 and became the standard for more than a decade (Figure 13). In 1963 another patent was taken out for a reel that was “sturdy and relatively inexpensive to manufacture” (Figure 14), and in 1963 a patent was given for a reel that could “accurately be assembled by unskilled workers.”
Back in 1904, Austin Roe had received a patent for an angle tape measure. This tape had lap joints with holes which would enable the user not only to create angles, but by placing nails into the holes, secure those angles (Figures 15 and 16). His nephew, Justus, received another patent for an improved version of this tape in 1957.
In 1960, the company moved to its present location on River Road bordering the Patchogue River (Figures 17 and 18).
At this time it, was apparent that a faster way to print the tapes was needed. The printing press they were using produced only 6,000 feet per man per day. They had been improving the press with creative innovations since the first one was installed, and by 1960 they had a press that could produce 200,000 feet per man per day, which was a bench mark press for the industry. Six of these presses were installed in the new plant and six others were sent to their overseas plants (Figure 19).
Justus Roe and Sons were now making tapes under special labels for other companies, such as Stanley, for whom they produced 1,500 short tape measures a day. The Johns Manville Company’s special promotion, which involved giving Roe tapes as a premium, generated additional business for Justus Roe and Sons. As production increased new products were added, such as tank gauging tapes. Cases for the tapes and packaging were restyled, adding a contemporary look (Figure 20).
Under New Ownership
The centennial year of the company, 1976, was marked by celebrations and a parade. The name of the company was changed to Roe International and reflected the direction the company was heading in its second century. However, only five years later, Nathaniel decided it was time to sell the company. The other partners disagreed, but Nathaniel persevered, and on April 23, 1981, Roe International was purchased by Irwin Tool Company, which renamed it Irwin Measuring Tool Company.
It was an interesting merger, for the Irwin Tool Company’s history also went back to the nineteenth century and both had founders who gave up professional careers to manufacture tools. Charles Irwin, a pharmacist in Ohio, bought a blacksmith’s patent rights for a solid center auger bit and formed Irwin Auger Bit Company in 1884.
Irwin Measuring Tool Company continued the Roe tradition of producing world-class tape measures under the leadership of its president, Carol Basset. On May 28, 1990, she bought the company and renamed it U.S. Tape. The company was reorganized to make it more efficient. Whereas before each worker’s job was specialized, now workers were assigned to cells working as teams. The result of this reorganization was a reduced labor force. It was difficult for those remaining to see co-workers lose their jobs, many who had worked there for more than thirty years.
U.S. Tape was sold again in 1998 to RAF Industries, the present owners. Keeping the name U.S. Tape, they expanded to include a forestry product line, added a private label program which has been successful, and continued to make tapes for the United State government. U.S. Tape remains one of the last companies manufacturing tape measures in the United States. By being able to offer more personal service and fill orders faster, they are able to compete with companies that are outsourcing.
The company Justus Roe founded in 1876 is still producing steel tape measures. One hundred and twenty-eight years of innovations and creative improvements on the steel tape measure is truly a remark-able achievement.
Louise Muse has sold antique tools since 1976 specializing in rules and measuring devices. She retired her business last year and is now spending more time re-searching tools and trades. The author wishes to ac-knowledge the following individuals who helped her in researching Justus Roe and Sons. Alfred Roe, grand-son of Justus Roe; Peter Rosenquist, president of U.S. Tape; Linda Crawford, office manager of U.S. Tape; Hans Henke, Village of Patchogue historian; Mark Rothenberg, librarian of the Local History Room at the Patchogue Public Library; Brian Salzano, her son-in-law and native of Patchogue.
James Chesterman & Co. (Catalog), Sole Manufacturer of Chesterman’s Patent Measuring Tapes, Land Chains, Band Chains, Steel Rules, Steel Straight Edges, T-Squares, Scales, Engineers’ Tools etc. (Sheffield, undated but noted in hand “July 23rd 1880”).
Hans Henke, Images of America Patchogue (Dover, N.H.: Arcadia, 1997).
“Improved Surveyor’s Measures and Tackle Case,” Scientific American 4 (1861):104.
Kolesch & Co., Illustrated Catalogue and Price List of Surveying Instruments and Accessories, Measuring Tapes, etc. (New York, 1900).
Justus Roe and Sons, Catalogue Steel Measuring Tapes (Patchogue, N.Y., 1898).
Justus Roe and Sons, Catalogue Steel Measuring Tapes (Patchogue, N.Y., undated but between 1905 and 1910).
The L.S. Starrett Company, Catalog No. 25 Fine Mechanical Tools (Athol, Mass., 1930).
“Steel Measuring Tapes,” Scientific American 21 (1869): 216. U.S. Patent Office, patent number 387,541 (Washington D.C., 1888).
U.S. Patent Office, patent number 431,484 (Washington D.C., 1890).
U.S. Patent Office, patent number 475,470 (Washington D.C., 1892).
U.S. Patent Office, patent number 759,313 (Washington D.C., 1904).
U.S. Patent Office, patent number 2,449,406 (Washington D.C., 1948).
U.S. Patent Office, patent number 2,797,489 (Washington D.C., 1957).
U.S. Patent Office, patent number 3,078,058 (Washington D.C., 1959).
U.S. Patent Office, patent number 3,084622 (Washington D.C., 1963).
U.S. Patent Office, patent number 3,186,657 (Washington D.C., 1963).
W. & L.E. Gurley, A Manual of American Engineers & Surveyors Instruments (Troy, N.Y.: W.& L.E Gurley, 1871).
W. & L.E. Gurley, A Manual of American Engineers & Surveyors Instruments (W.& L.E Gurley Twenty-First Edition 1874, reprint, Mendham, New Jersey: The Astrgal Press (1993).