A History of Whittemore-Durgin
We have been inspired by comments received over the years from our customers, friends, acquaintances, well-wishers, certain aggrieved parties and others questioning whether we really exist, and if so, in what form. It seems that certain folk, like Virginia, question whether there is a Santa Claus, and also whether there really is a Whittemore-Durgin, an Early A. Consternation, a Bernie, and a rabbit-warren of a building containing such peculiar and bizarre articles for sale to the general public.
It is thus, in response to this gnawing doubt that we embark upon this history.
Many of the earliest activities of the company are lost to history. Whittemore-Durgin was a minor factor in the glass industry in New England. At the time of this part of the story, The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company was the major factor in the wholesale distribution chain. The Boston Plate and Window Glass Company, Karas and Karas, and other smaller companies vied for the business then available.
We have on file in our offices a partnership agreement dated April 1, 1931 (lest you doubt this date, it is there in black and white, inscribed with a Royal typewriter by some forgotten soul who toiled in the law offices of one William F. Holbrook, 33 Broad Street, Boston.) The agreement reads, in part:
"WHEREAS, IRA M. WHITTEMORE and CHESTER E. DURGIN both of said Quincy, did by instrument dated the 31st day of August, 1926, enter into a partnership and since which time the parties have conducted the business known as the "Whittemore-Durgin Glass Company"; and
"WHEREAS, it is the desire of the parties hereto to substitute the within agreement for and in place of the agreement of August 31, 1926, as modified and amended.
"NOW THEREFORE the parties hereto agree to continue as partners in the business of buying, selling and otherwise dealing in all kinds of glass; constructing, placing and installing glass, windows, metal frames, store fronts, and the maintaining and operating of store or stores for the sales of glass, windows, frames and all articles appurtenant thereto; and to do and perform all things incident to or necessary in the promotion of any of the foregoing purposes."
Having now established that the company did indeed have its genesis in a partnership between Ira Whittemore and Chester Durgin, we move on to...
The Formative Years
Things were grim right from the beginning. Starting a new partnership on the brink of the Great Depression was purely accidental of course, but the partners had both been salesmen for The Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, and had a loyal following of customers who they immediately brought on board Even that didn't make things a bed of roses. It was a grueling time of it, but they did survive through the 1930's and into the '40's. Here is an artifact of that era, a packing crate label:
Note the 4-digit telephone numbers. The company possessed two of the 9,999 numbers available in the Granite exchange. (They would now be 472-6790 and 472-4388).
In the late 1940s, Mr. Whittemore passed away, and Mr. Durgin took Old Mr. Wheeler of The Boston Plate and Window Glass Company into partnership. Mr. Wheeler undoubtedly had a first name, but we never heard it. This partnership lasted for many years. Mr. Wheeler spent his declining years in a nursing home on Miller Stile Road, in Quincy. The Hepburns first met him there during a subsequent reorganization of the company. The Hepburns eventually bought the company, and continued to operate it from its Quincy location.
One of the most important assets of the company from the outset was Tom Walsh, who came to work for Whittemore-Durgin in 1926, at the age of 17, and remained with the company until 1969. We occupied a brick warehouse at 147 Water Street in Quincy that had been built in 1926 by the Faxon Trust. The last time we checked, that building housed a grocery store, but for many years there were stained glass windows in the front of it as a reminder of its former occupant.
Whittemore-Durgin had two trucks. One was a small Dodge pickup truck fitted with a glass rack, and a GMC 2-ton rack truck for carrying large sheets of glass. The customers consisted mainly of hardware stores, building supply stores, lumber yards, and a smattering of other outlets, strung out along the south shore as far as the end of Cape Cod.
Whittemore-Durgin also had a good business with the local school departments, and furnished replacement glass for the maintenance departments of six of the local towns. The company also engaged in installations of store fronts, mirrors, aluminum windows and other work for general contractors. The building in Quincy was outfitted by Mr. Faxon, the landlord, with special features to facilitate this kind of work. Here is a view of the rear of the building sometime in the winter of 1948-49, which was one of record snowfall. That is why the picture was taken, but it does have the additional value of showing us some of the things that were built into architecture.
The transom area above the open door is on hinges, so that if a particularly large sheet of glass had to be rolled out of the main cutting room, the transom could be swung open to allow it to pass through. The large dark panel to the left of the open door, which appears to be a blank panel is in reality an enormous door, 15 feet in height. At the top of it is a steel I-Beam, which was equipped with a rolling chain-fall capable of supporting 3,000 pounds. When a crate of plate glass was to be brought into the shop for unpacking and putting away into the storage racks, the delivery truck would back under this chain-fall, steel cable slings would be hooked around the upper corners of the crate, and it would be pulled into the shop, and lowered onto the floor and leaned against the wall. This was an exciting exercise, and always was looked forward to with fear and trembling.
One of the other features of the building was that it had an unused cellar, whose access was a trap door just inside the rear wall which shows in the picture. This cellar was an ideal dump. All of the scrap glass which was produced by the thousands of plates of glass which were cut and processed over the years was dumped through the trap-door, until it reached the ceiling. Then the company had to get a dumpster.
During this period one of the major customers was The Howard Johnson company, whose headquarters was in North Quincy, where Mr. Johnson opened his first ice cream emporium. Whittemore-Durgin designed and furnished the first mirrors for the back-bars for the ice cream department featuring "Simple Simon" and the list of flavors, which we sandblasted into the back of the peach colored mirrors. Irving McClair of our company designed the piece, and we cut the glass to the proper size, masked it, and cut out the lettering and the logo on the masking tape. We then took it to the Emanuel Settimelli Company in West Quincy, a monument and tombstone company, who sandblasted the design into the glass.
Whittemore-Durgin did similar work for banks, when it was necessary to do the lettering on the tellers' windows. One of the tellers remarked to Mr. Durgin one time, "After looking at this thing backwards for so many years, I have almost come to regard myself as a 'rellet' ".
One day in 1965, a student from Massachusetts College of Art requested some pieces of glass for an art project. Mr. Hepburn immediately packaged up some glass from Mr. McClair's scrap glass bucket that had been destined for the trash bin, sold it to the student as "stained glass remnants" -- and the rest, as they say, is history.
The Hepburns placed a one-inch ad in Yankee Magazine, and enlisted their siblings, children, nieces, nephews, and friends to wrap glass in newspaper, coil up lead and solder, add some instructions, and package it all up into shipping boxes. Whittemore-Durgin Stained Glass Supplies was born! More ads were placed, price lists were assembled (an ideal job for the younger family members and friends) and requests for supplies came in from far and wide. To this day you can see the envelopes on display in our front foyer with stamps from all over the world.
Because these supplies had only been available to professional stained glass craftspeople, the pent-up demand caused Whittemore-Durgin to grow very quickly. The business spilled over into the basement of the Hepburn home, then to a small building in Hanover. In 1971 we moved to our current 13,000 square foot location in Rockland.
Since that fateful day in 1965, hundreds of thousands of stained glass hobbyists, from the beginner to the master craftsman, have bought their stained glass and supplies from Whittemore-Durgin, many of them returning year after year. Nearly every day we get a phone call, e-mail, or visit in our store in Rockland from someone who says, "I got my start back in the 70's with Whittemore-Durgin," or, "I used to buy stained glass from you 30 years ago. I'm so glad to know you're still here!"
With such a history, and a large inventory, you might think we're a huge company but we're not, really. If you call us, you'll most likely talk to Theresa or Patty. Your order will be carefully packed by Kathrene. The owners, Kevin and Kathy, often answer the phone, and sometimes pack orders when things get busy.
Roger cuts the glass and does stained glass repair and custom work in our studio. Dick, John and Theresa all teach classes. And Mr. Early A. Consternation, Manager of Externals, still responds to your kind letters from time to time.
Our store in Rockland hasn't changed much since 1971. It's much like an old-fashioned hardware store, where you ask the person at the front counter for an obscure item -- a style of glass, or a certain tool, or a pattern or book -- and more often than not, we have it. We hope you'll drop by if you're ever in the neighborhood and say, "Hello" -- and take a step back in time.