Heroines of History: Rebecca Lukens – An Ironclad Matriarch

Heroines of History: These are American women, and their actions were not motivated by fortune or fame.  There was no glory, and in many cases very little recognition for their activities.  They simply did what needed to be done, and they did so in an extraordinary way.  They roared without making a sound and it is time that they were given a voice. Rebecca Lukens we hear you.

On January 6, 1794, Rebecca Webb Pennock was born into a family of Quakers, whose ancestry dated back to the first settlers of Pennsylvania.  However, much to the consternation of his father, Rebecca’s father Isaac had forsaken the family trade of farming and instead founded the Federal Slitting Mill near Coatesville, Pennsylvania.  As the eldest, of what would eventually be seven siblings, Rebecca would often accompany her father on his rounds or into the mill where they would slit sheets of metal into small bands to make wheel rims, barrel hoops and nails.  Rebecca soaked up as much information from these trips as she could and when she wasn’t helping her mother with her younger siblings, was an avid reader.  She had a great desire to learn and with the support of both her father and some nearby cousins, Rebecca was able to receive much more schooling than most girls of the era.  She attended a boarding school in Wilmington, DE where she was able to study higher math, French, chemistry, botany and static electricity.

However, her plans for the future were very much in line with those of the girls in her era, and in 1813 she met, fell in love with and married Dr. Charles Lukens.  Leaving his medical practice the newly wed Lukens moved in with the Pennocks and Charles went to work for Isaac.  Isaac had recently acquired an interest in a second mill called the Brandywine Iron Works, named after the Brandywine Creek, which supplied the water that generated all of the power for the mill.  Rebecca had little to do with the mills as she had quickly become a new mother, but Charles was adept and a quick learner. Isaac made him a partner in his original venture and renamed the first mill Pennock and Lukens.  They continued in this arrangement until 1817 when Isaac bought out his partner in the Brandywine mill and then leased Brandywine to Charles and Rebecca.

The mill was in bad shape, but Charles invested some of his own money into it, and after experimenting with new technologies Rebecca and Charles agreed that big iron plates – and the big contracts that went with them – were the future of iron, so they set about refitting the mill to produce boilerplates.  Business was precarious, but looking up when Isaac died in 1824.  Despite his reassurance that he was going to leave the Brandywine mill to Rebecca, his will was ambiguously worded.  However, with Charles running the mill – that was on the verge of bankruptcy – the family left it in the hands of the Lukens, while two of Rebecca’s brothers took over the slitting mill.  It wasn’t until the following year that Brandywine’s prospects looked up.

On March 31, 1825 the Brandywine mill received an order for enough iron plate to outfit the first ironclad steamship, named Codorus.  This was just the type of business that Rebecca and Charles had foreseen would be the future of their mill.  However, Charles would not live to see the order completed.  He suddenly fell ill, and on his deathbed, he made Rebecca promise that she would keep the mill alive.  So in her sixth pregnancy – only three of their previous five children had survived infancy – and against the wishes of her mother and family, Rebecca stepped into a near-bankrupt mill, convinced the workers to stay and kept her promise to her husband.

Appointing her brother-in-law, Solomon Lukens, as head of plant operations, Rebecca set her attentions onto the financial well being of the company.  She negotiated with the bank, learned how and where to secure raw materials, how to price their final products in order to turn a profit, and what needed to be done in order to finish the refitting of the mill.  All while taking care of her family at home and delivering one of the mills biggest orders to date so that the Codorus could be built and launched by November 22, 1825.

Her auspicious start was just the beginning.  Rebecca was able to build the company up into one of the major players in the iron business, winning commissions for sea-going vessels and contracts for locomotives and Mississippi steamboats.  She even diversified and started making iron rails for the railroads before switching to the manufacture of custom steel plates.  They were known for their superior quality, because Rebecca refused to accept anything less.  She was known for turning away inferior materials and refusing to pay for them, even standing her ground when taken to court over such matters.  When a nearby landowner pushed for more water rights, Rebecca refused to budge.  Her mill needed the water to operate, and she was going to do what was best for her mill.  Rebecca was a savvy businesswoman and also invested in ventures separate from the mill including a warehouse, store, saddler’s shop and 10 dwellings.  In part, it was this diversification that allowed her to weather the rough spots.

While she was tough as nails to anyone going up against her, her employees loved her dearly.  Rebecca built employee housing, provided better working conditions than were common in the era and even offered bonuses whenever the mill exceeded their output goals.  During the financial panic of 1837, when unemployment was as high as 25% in some places, Rebecca refused to lay off workers.  When she could no longer afford to keep the mill running she invested back into her company and had her workers stay on to do repairs and improvements on the plant.  She had other employees work on a nearby farm that she managed.  When she could no longer afford her payroll, she paid her employees in produce from the farm.  When the economy had finally recovered in the early 1840’s the mill was opened once more and her employees went back to work making boilerplates.

Rebecca’s health started to falter in 1842, so she named her daughter Martha’s husband Abraham Gibbons as a partner in the business to ease some of her load.  However, that load once again became heavy when her mother died in 1844.  Rebecca and her mother were not close.  A staunch Quaker and opposed to Rebecca running the mill from the beginning, she took every opportunity she had to remind Rebecca that, “Thou art out of line!”  On top of this, Rebecca’s mother and brothers had dubious feelings as to Rebecca’s right to the Brandywine mill and this had been a matter of contention for years.  Her father’s will had been ambiguous and Rebecca’s husband hadn’t left a will at all.  So when their mother died, Rebecca’s brothers filed a lawsuit disputing the inheritance.  The court’s ruling favored the brothers’ suit and Rebecca was ordered to make onerous payments to her father’s estate.  Only after she had made her last payment in 1853, did the court grant her the full title to Brandywine.

Rebecca ran the mill until 1847 when she retired.  Two years later, her daughter Isabella’s husband, Charles Huston, joined Abraham in the family business.  Rebecca Lukens died on December 10, 1854. To secure the future of the company that she had built, it was stated very clearly in her will that the business was left to her daughters Martha and Isabella, with their husbands as executors.  In 1859, they renamed the mill Lukens Iron Works, later Lukens Steel Company, in Rebecca’s honor.  Abraham eventually left the business, leaving Isabella and Charles Huston as the sole controllers.  The descendants of Isabella and Charles Huston retained ownership until 1982 when General Steel Industries, Inc bought the company and renamed it Lukens, Inc. The company remained independent until 1997 and was considered the oldest continuously operated steel mill in the United States.  Rebecca’s mill was purchased one last time in 1998 by Bethlehem Steel, who was forced to declare bankruptcy shortly thereafter due in part to the money they had lost on the “Lukens Deal.”

In 1944 the US Navy honored Rebecca by naming a Liberty Ship the SS Rebecca Lukens, and in 1994 Fortune Magazine dubbed Rebecca “America’s first female CEO of an industrial company.  Fortune’s board of editors also named her to the National Business Hall of Fame.  In her retirement Rebecca wrote an autobiography for her grandchildren in which she stated, “I had built a very superior mill, though a plain one, and our character for making boiler iron stood first in the market, hence we had as much business as we could do . . . There was difficulty and danger on every side.  Now I look back and wonder at my daring.”  That daring lives on and is honored every March by the National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum in Coatesville, PA when they award the Rebecca Lukens Award to a woman that exhibits the qualities of Rebecca – resilience, leadership, courage, and strategic outlook.

Rebecca Lukens this is in your honor.  Thank you for all that you did.

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