There’s No Plate Like Chrome
By Jim Linz
Chromium became so pervasive in the 1930s that a typical American might enter a room using a chromium-plated doorknob, turn on the water using a chromium-plated faucet, fix breakfast using a chromium-plated percolator and cookware, drive a car with chromium-plated trim, wear jewelry with chromium-plated settings, tell time with a chromium-plated clock or watch, and relax on furniture with a chromium-plated tubular steel frame.
Columbia University researchers invented the commercial process for electroplating a thin layer of chromium on other metals in 1924, but the discovery occurred too late to impact the 1925 Paris Exposition internationale des arts décoratifs et industriels modernes. Chrome plating exploded commercially beginning in 1926, becoming a defining element of the Art Deco era. Compared to nickel, chromium provides a harder surface that resists scratching and does not rust, tarnish, or oxidize. Another advantage of chromium plating is the pleasing blue-white appearance, compared to the yellowish tinge of nickel-plating.
Chromium quickly became the plating of choice for industrial design in automobile parts and accents, as well as household items, including giftware, cookware, kitchen appliances, barware, smoking accessories, clocks, and tubular metal furniture.
Development of Chromium Plating
Chromium (CR, Atomic Number 24) was discovered in 1797 by the French chemist Nicolas-Louis Vauquelin. Although plentiful in the earth’s crust, chromium always appears in deposits with other elements.
Initially, there were few commercial uses for chromium. Beginning in the 1820s and 30s, chromium compounds were used in textile dyes and in printing wallpaper. In the mid-1800s, metallurgists discovered that adding about five percent chromium to steel alloy produced corrosion-resistant properties. Today’s stainless cookware is about 18 percent chromium.
Electroplating refers to the process of coating an object, typically another metal, by using an electric current. Although electroplating of silver and many other metals dates to the 1840s, the process for commercially electroplating chromium was not developed until 1924. At that time Colin Fink and associates at Columbia University developed a process for producing protective chromium coatings and were awarded a patent in 1926 (P.N. 1,606,159). Rights to the patent were assigned to the Chemical Treatment Company of New York, New York.
Oldsmobile advertisement in The Saturday Evening Post, February 19, 1927, noting use of chromium plating
Oldsmobile became the first automaker to switch from nickel plate to chromium in March 1927 and had begun advertising the change several months earlier. Oldsmobile used chromium on such parts as radiator shells and caps, bumpers, door handles, and window cranks. Other General Motors units soon switched to chromium, as did other automobile and truck manufacturers. For example, Studebaker Motors announced in October 1927 that it would replace nickel with chromium in all future production.
Chromium plating began its meteoric increase in household use in 1927 and 1928, led in part by Manning-Bowman & Company of Meriden, Connecticut, and the Everedy Company of Frederick, Maryland. Initial growth in household use was in hardware and kitchen appliances like coffee pots, toasters, and waffle irons. By the mid-1930s, chromium touched almost every aspect of Americans’ day-to-day lives.
Founded as a manufacturer of tinware and other household goods, Manning-Bowman became a leader in the production of kitchen appliances, vacuumware to keep beverages hot or cold, and giftware. It experimented with chromium plating in 1927, leaving a chromium-plated percolator exposed on the factory roof during the winter. Although the body of the percolator was undamaged, the company had trouble with the plating on the soft solder used on the seams. While it worked to solve that problem, it proceeded to introduce a line of chromium-plated flatware in late 1927, supplying it first to a local restaurant and then to the public in early 1928.
In 1929 Manning-Bowman switched from nickel to chromium plating for most of its product lines, including percolators, toasters, and its Hotakold® vacuumware. Most prominent in the 1930 catalog were chromium-plated coffee and tea services and mixers, a service for post-Prohibition cocktails, with impressive Art Deco styling. Prices for the sets were up to $135. Introducing a high-end range of appliances and mixers within months of the stock market crash on October 29, 1929 proved to be a mistake, and the lines were discontinued in 1932.
Everedy’s product line, established in 1920 to produce home bottling equipment, soon expanded to include screen doors and other hardware. The company was an early advocate of chromium plating, quickly expanding from hardware use to plating auto parts for nearby manufacturers. In 1933 Everedy introduced its Speedy-Clean chromium-plated steel skillet. Long before Teflon® and other nonstick cookware, Everedy promoted the ease of cleanup of its chromium-plated surface and the ability to cook without grease. The skillet was so successful that Everedy quickly expanded into a full line of cookware.
While promoting its cookware, Everedy introduced a line of chromium-plated giftware under the Evercraft® name. The cookware line proved so successful that efforts to promote the giftware were reduced until the early 1930s.
Coinciding with Chicago’s A Century of Progress International Exposition in 1933–34, multiple companies added or expanded offerings of chromium-plated household appliances and giftware. These included Manning-Bowman’s new 1933 line of giftware and household appliances, many designed by Jay Ackerman and Bert Farr; Chase Brass and Copper Company’s first full catalog of giftware and hostess accessories introduced in 1933, including designs by Walter von Nessen, Russel Wright, and Lurelle Guild; Revere‘s 1935 catalog of Chromium-plated giftware with designs by Norman Bel Geddes; and Everedy’s Modern Gifts catalog.
Manning, Bowman Rocketship Coffee or Tea Service (K10570), Aranium (chromium) plate with Jade Catalin mounts and Catalin tray.
Array of Everedy Evercraft® Cocktail Shakers with the Gigilo and Gigolette cigarette boxes plated in Butler brushed chromium.
Telechron Modernique (Model 431B) with Chrome Enameled finish, designed by Paul Frankl.
Manning, Bowman Skyscraper clock (No. K 906) with polished chromium case accented by ivory Catalin, 1929
The late 1920s and 1930s was a time of fundamental change in clock making, including the development of electric timekeeping and the use of new materials such as Bakelite and chromium plating for both cases and trim. Manning-Bowman was again a leader.
In April 1930, Manning-Bowman introduced a line of 17 electric clocks. Although the line consisted primarily of traditional wood-cased models, it included four chromium-plated models of modernistic design. The movements for the models were produced by the Hammond Clock Company.
Manning-Bowman expected the new clock line to match or exceed the success of the company’s household appliance line. Introducing a high-end line of clocks just months after the stock market crash proved to be a serious mistake. With models that dwarfed the industry leader Telechron in both size and price, the entire line was discontinued in little more than a year, with discounts of 50 percent or more to clear inventory. Manning-Bowman President Reginald Tracy committed suicide in 1931, reportedly because of personal losses suffered in the stock market crash and the failure of the clock line.
Despite the failure of the Manning-Bowman clock line, chromium plating became commonplace on clocks produced by other manufacturers of both spring-wound and electric clocks, and for both cases and trim.
Developments in metal production in the 1920s had a major impact on furniture design. One of the most dramatic was the development of seamless steel tubing that offered light, strong, and reasonably inexpensive framing.
One of the highlights of the 1925 Paris Exposition was the tubular steel furniture by Marcel Breuer and Le Corbusier. The steel was likely an alloy containing chromium to add strength and resistance to corrosion. Breuer tried to nickel-plate his chair but was not satisfied with the results.
Four years after the Paris Exposition, the Howell Company of Lake Charles, Illinois, began producing seamless chromium-plated tubular steel frames trademarked Chromsteel. Howell’s Chromsteel furniture gained national attention at the Century of Progress Exposition. Howell hired Wolfgang Hoffmann as its principal designer.
Other companies quickly entered the market with their own designs for chromium-plated tubular furniture. Companies included Lloyd Manufacturing Company of Menominee, Michigan, with designs by KEM Weber, Alfons Bach, Lydia Larsen, Alfred Turner, and Elof Klar. Larsen was touted as “bringing that deft feminine touch so essential to objects for the home.” Additional companies included Royal Metal Manufacturing Company of Chicago, with designs by Donald Deskey, and Troy Sunshade Company of Troy, Ohio, with designs by Gilbert Rohde.
A wide variety of chromium-plated objects from the 1930s is still available to collectors today, many in excellent condition, thanks to the ingenuity of the inventors and designers of the Art Deco era.
Lloyd Chromium-plated furniture from a mid1930s catalog
About the Author:
Jim Linz is the author of five celebrated books on Art Deco including Art Deco Chrome. Linz is the President Emeritus of the Art Deco Society of Washington and editor/publisher of its quarterly magazine, Trans-Lux. As an antique dealer, Linz sells primarily at Modernism shows.
All Photos: From the collection of the author