Rebecca Lukens (1794–1854) inherited her family's Pennsylvania ironworks and turned it into one of the American Industrial Revolution's most successful enterprises. The Lukens Iron Works, which later became Lukens Steel, sat on the banks of Pennsylvania's Brandywine River and churned out boilerplates and track for the growing American railroad network during much of the nineteenth century. Lukens is believed to be the first woman ever to head an industrial company in the United States.
Venerable Pennsylvania Roots
Lukens came from a Pennsylvania family whose roots in the area stretched back to the 1680s, what was then one of the 13 original American colonies founded by William Penn. Penn was a member of a Protestant offshoot sect known as the Religious Society of Friends. Also called "Quakers," the Friends were committed to pacifism and rejected the Puritans' literal interpretations of biblical scripture. In Pennsylvania, Friends families made up the first wave of settlers to the area, and their fairness in dealing with the Native American population already living there was said to have maintained the peace for many generations.
Lukens's paternal ancestors, the Pennocks, were among that first wave of Quaker settlers. She was born Rebecca Webb Pennock on January 6, 1794, in Marlboro Township in Chester County. Her father, Isaac, was the son of a landowner and farmer, and showed little interest in taking over the family farm as he neared adulthood. Instead Isaac was fascinated by emerging technologies, particularly the new ways of casting a form of strong but malleable iron for various consumer and industrial products.
Around 1793, on part of the 300 acres his father had deeded over to him, Isaac established the Federal Slitting Mill, an iron mill on the Bucks Run tributary of the Brandywine River, located about four miles from present–day Coatesville. "Slitting" refers to a process by which Isaac bought iron from other blacksmiths, reheated the rods, and turned out thin strips that were used to make wheel rims and barrel hoops. The elder Pennock objected strongly to his son's career as an ironworker, but Isaac knew there was tremendous demand for consumer and industrial goods in the newly sovereign American nation. It was a rapidly expanding country, and was no longer required to buy a certain amount of goods—or ship its wares at a loss—to England.
Teen Years Spent at Boarding School
Lukens was the first of seven Pennock children, and often accompanied her father on his daily business rounds. As a result, she learned to ride at an early age, and also grew up with a firsthand knowledge of business strategies and financial management. Back at home, she was an avid reader, and was encouraged to pursue somewhat more of an education than was common for young woman of her era, who generally were schooled at home, if at all. Her father supported her in this, as did a set of slightly older cousins who lived nearby at whose home she spent many hours during her youth. She recalled her childhood years as idyllic. "With my young friends I have bounded over hill and dell as wild, happy and joyous as youth could make me, when I neither knew nor feared misfortune," she wrote in her autobiography.
Lukens went away to a boarding school for young women between the ages of 12 and 16, and did well in her studies. When she returned home, however, she was dejected by long days spent helping her mother take care of her younger siblings. "For a long time I felt lonely and isolated. I had no companions to mingle my thoughts with," she wrote. She pleaded with her father to allow her to return to school, and he agreed to send her to an academy in Wilmington, Delaware. There she learned adequate French and found she had a talent for chemistry.
Lukens's husband, Dr. Charles Lukens, played an integral role in her later career as America's first female steel magnate. She met the Quaker physician while on a visit to Philadelphia when an old friend of her mother's arrived to see her. The woman had been driven into the city by a physician friend, and Lukens recalled her first meeting with her future husband. "I ran hastily into the room with an exclamation of pleasure," she wrote about rushing to meet her mother's friend, but "I started back, for she was not alone, and felt my face glow. . . . He bowed with a peculiar grace, and for a moment my eyes rested on his interesting face and his tall and commanding figure," she recalled, noting that "next I bent them with confusion to the ground."
Husband Joined Father's Firm
The Lukens were married in 1813, when she was 19 and her husband was 27 years old. They moved into her parents' home for a time, and Charles gave up his practice in Abington, Pennsylvania, to join his new father–in–law in the ironworks business. By then Isaac Pennock had acquired an interest in a second ironworks operation, a converted saw mill that was operating in Coatesville under the name Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory. Pennock made Lukens's husband a partner in his original business, the Federal Slitting Mill, which was then renamed "Pennock and Lukens." It did an excellent business meeting consumer demand for household and transportation goods in the rapidly expanding American economy, which had been boosted immensely by the opening of new settlements west of Pennsylvania's Allegheny Mountain range.
During these first years, Lukens—a new mother—was not directly involved in the business. But around 1817, her father bought out his original partner in the Brandywine Iron Works enterprise, and then leased it to her husband, who was proving a skilled executive. Charles Lukens was intrigued by a new kind of iron, known as "charcoal iron," that could withstand the high pressures created inside steam boilers. The American Northeast was entering the Age of Steam, made possible by innovations by James Watt and other inventors. Steam–powered engines were emerging as a new, reliable, and efficient source of energy, but their boilers needed to be able to withstand the high temperatures—from furnaces fueled by wood or coal—and the pressure that built up within them.
The Brandywine Iron works rolled the first iron boilerplate in America in 1818. Charles Lukens planned to refit the Brandywine mill so that it could produce only these kinds of boilerplates, which were used in ship construction and also in the new locomotive industry. In March of 1825 the company received a large order for the iron plates that would be needed to build the first American metal–hull ship, a steamship called the Codorus owned by John Elgar of York, Pennsylvania. Charles Lukens never saw its successful launch, however, due to a sudden setback in his health. He died later that year, when Lukens was expecting her third child.
Proved of Sound Business Mind
Compounding the tragedy, the family businesses were in a financially precarious position. Lukens's father had died the previous year, and left an ambiguously worded will. He had told her, however, that she would inherit the Brandywine plant. As her husband lay dying, he urged her to take over the business. The surviving family members seemed to object to this idea, but Lukens went ahead anyway. She put her late husband's brother Solomon in charge of plant operations, while she concentrated on its financial well–being.
The company was carrying a large debt, and had not yet fully converted to charcoal iron making. She foresaw the market for charcoal iron boilerplates with the coming of the steam railroad in North America, and the company began making locomotive–grade iron. It later began making the rails themselves. It did not emerge as a profitable business for several more years, however. Lukens managed it shrewdly through various crises, including a financial panic of 1837. "All is paralyzed—business is at a stand," she wrote to a friend, according to Philadelphia Business Journal writer Deni Kasrel. "I have as yet lost nothing but am in constant fear, and have forbidden my agents to sell, not knowing who would be safe to trust." The "panic" actually touched off a depression that lasted five years, and at one point Lukens was forced to shut down manufacturing operations. She refused to lay off workers, however, and instead had them make repairs inside the plant or help out at the nearby farm she maintained. When she could not meet payroll, she paid them in produce.
Lukens operated under a sense of fairness and compassion instilled by her Quaker upbringing. For this, her workers remained loyal to her through the years, but she dealt with others on a different playing field altogether. It had never been entirely clear whether she had actually inherited the business, and the death of her mother in 1844 set off a legal challenge. Two of her brothers had taken over the former Federal Slitting Mill property after their father's death, and there may have been some competition or even sibling animosity. A court ordered her to make onerous payments to her father's estate, and when these were paid in full, in 1853, she was given full title to the Brandywine Iron Works. She also battled a nearby landowner over water rights for a number of years; river levels affected the operation of her mill, which relied on water power. When the levels were too low, she was forced to shut down the plant operations. In the end, the court ordered her to lower the dam that her plant used.
Company Prospered for Decades
The plates produced by Lukens's Brandywine mill were known for their high quality and durability. She found an excellent source of revenue in the New Orleans shipbuilding industry, and her firm's plates were used on numerous Mississippi River steamboats. The mill continued making such plates well into the 1930s, when it then switched over to custom steel plate production. But Lukens's health began to fail her when she neared the age of 50, and she made Abraham Gibbons, the husband of her daughter Martha, a partner in the business in 1842. Seven years later, her daughter Isabella's husband, Charles Huston, also joined the firm.
Lukens died on December 10, 1854. Five years later, the Brandywine Iron Works was renamed Lukens Iron Works. The descendants of Charles and Isabella Huston retained control of the firm for many years. It became Lukens Iron and Steel in 1890, and built an ever–larger succession of furnaces and mills. The company's principals were still Society of Friends adherents, and until 1916 they did not sell the iron or steel to businesses that made arms, cannons, or other instruments of war.
The company became Lukens, Inc. in 1982, when General Steel Industries bought it, and 12 years later, when Lukens was inducted into Fortune magazine's National Business Hall of Fame, the company was No. 395 on the Fortune 500 Industrial List and the oldest American steel mill in continuous operation. It struggled along, like the rest of American steel industry, until Bethlehem Steel acquired it in early 1998. That company was later forced to file for bankruptcy because of heavy losses related to the Lukens purchase. Looking back on her career, Lukens recognized the perils of the business. "I had built a very superior mill, though a plain one," she wrote in her memoir, entitled the Autobiography of Rebecca Webb Pennock Lukens, "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."
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Rebecca Lukens (1794–1854) became a pioneer in U.S. industry largely against her will. With the sudden death of her father and her husband, only a year apart, Lukens inherited one of the first iron manufacturing firms in the United States. She became a successful businesswoman in the iron industry in a time when few women worked outside the home, let alone in industrial manufacturing. Her legacy is her firm, which was renamed Lukens Iron Works (and later Lukens Steel) in 1859, honoring her pioneering life and her industry.
Rebecca Webb Pennock Lukens was born in 1794 in West Marlboro Township, Chester County, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of iron manufacturer Isaac Pennock. She enjoyed a happy childhood and grew up in a Quaker household that emphasized discipline and learning. She attended two private academies, where she received a good education. Her favorite subjects were French and chemistry. In later years she described her own childhood as "wild, happy, and joyous."
While Rebecca was at school, her father Isaac started an iron mill in Chester County known as the Federal Slitting Mill. He extended his interests by purchasing the Brandywine Mill in Coatsville, Pennsylvania. Her father was quite successful at operating both mills.
In 1813 at age 19 Rebecca married 27-year-old Quaker doctor Charles Lukens, and they returned to live at her parents' home. Charles Lukens abandoned medicine to become a partner with his wife's father in the Federal Slitting Mill under the new name of Pennock and Lukens.
Rebecca Lukens and her husband moved their growing family to the Brandywine area and leased the Brandywine ironworks from Pennock. Lukens foresaw the wide use of steam power and was aware of the superior quality of "charcoal iron" for withstanding the high pressures of steam boilers. He undertook to adapt the Brandywine mill for the rolling of charcoal iron boilerplates to be used in ships and wood burning locomotives. This was a new departure for the iron industry in the United States. The mill's first big order was for iron plates to gird the first metal hull ship in the United States, the steamship Codorus, launched in 1825. But it was also during this year that Lukens' husband suddenly died.
While her husband had requested that his wife carry on the mill, Rebecca Lukens was almost bankrupt from the expenses incurred in expanding the mill for the making of charcoal iron. In addition, her husband died without leaving a clear will and the inheritance of the Brandywine ironworks was legally ambiguous. Compounding her difficult situation, Lukens' father had died the year before and she was without his advice.
Facing these difficulties while she took care of a newborn child, Lukens assumed total responsibility for the ironworks. Through her father and husband she had learned much about the techniques employed in iron manufacturing. While her brother-in-law Solomon took charge of operating the mill Lukens managed and controlled the commercial end. She bought supplies, set prices, made contracts, and studied legislation that might affect her business. She faced all the problems of building a major industrial supply business and supporting a family.
Transportation of the finished iron was difficult. Rough roads and teeming rivers were always a problem. Water was often a difficulty, since the mill was run by waterpower—when the water ran low the mill had to be shut down. Lukens also faced serious litigation related to her ownership of the Brandywine mill at her mother's death in 1844. After several difficult but successful lawsuits there was a final decree that Lukens make heavy payments to the estate. In return she was granted total legal ownership of the Brandywine Iron Works in 1853.
Despite continuing problems and increased competition Rebecca Lukens made a success of her business. The opening of railroads near her mill solved her transportation problems and allowed her to expand her market. Additionally, her iron plates became known throughout the United States because of their high quality and consistency.
By the age of 59 Rebecca Lukens had a net worth of $60,000. She settled her husband's debts, paid the balance due to the Pennock estate, and rebuilt her mill. Three years later she made her son-in-law a partner in the business and went into semi-retirement because of failing health.
The Brandywine Iron Works continued to flourish. After Rebecca's death in 1854 the Iron Works was renamed the Lukens Iron Works in her honor. She was a pioneer of the industry and built the firm nearly from its infancy. The renamed Lukens Iron Works produced steel for over a century. In 1957, 600,000 tons of steel plates were manufactured by Lukens at the same mill site as the one fought for and saved by Rebecca Lukens.
Notable American Women, 1607–1950: A Biographical Dictionary. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974, s.v. "Lukens, Rebecca Webb Pennock."
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Stubbles, J. R. The Original Steelmakers. Warrendale PA: Iron and Steel Society, 1984.