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Lukens, Rebecca (1794–1854)

Lukens, Rebecca (1794–1854)

American industrialist and iron manufacturer . Name variations: Rebecca Pennock Lukens; Rebecca Webb Lukens. Born Rebecca Webb Pennock in Chester County, Pennsylvania, on January 6, 1794; died near Coatesville, Pennsylvania, on December 10, 1854; eldest surviving child of six daughters and three sons (an older sister having died in infancy) of Isaac Pennock (an ironmaster) and Martha (Webb) Pennock; attended the Hilles Boarding School for Young Ladies, Wilmington, Delaware; married Dr. Charles Lloyd Lukens (a physician who later became an ironmaster), in 1813 (died 1825); children: six, only three of whom, Martha, Isabella and Charlesanna, reached maturity.

The eldest surviving child of nine, Rebecca Lukens was born in 1794 in Chester County, Pennsylvania, where her father's Quaker family had lived for several generations. Her father Isaac Pennock had given up farming in 1792 to start the Federal Slitting Mill, an ironworks on Bucks Run in Chester County. In 1810, he expanded the business, buying the Brandywine Mill at Coatesville. Although burdened by household chores at an early age, Rebecca later recalled her childhood "as wild, happy and joyous as youth could make me." At the Hilles Boarding School for Young Ladies in Wilmington, the second of two schools she attended, she excelled in French and chemistry and was popular with her teachers and classmates.

During a visit to Philadelphia with her father, Rebecca met Dr. Charles Lukens, a fellow Quaker who had a medical practice in Abington, Pennsylvania. The two fell in love and married in 1813, after which Rebecca busied herself with child rearing. She had six children, of whom only three survived to adulthood. In the meantime, Charles gave up medicine to join Isaac Pennock's iron business. After several years, he moved his family to the Brandywine operation, leasing the ironworks from his father-in-law. With the arrival of steam power, the Brandywine Iron Works began producing rolled iron and steel, much of which went to steamboat manufacturers. In 1825, the mill received a large commission from York, Pennsylvania, for plates to build an iron-hulled steamboat, the Codorus. Charles died that year, and Rebecca, fulfilling her husband's last wish, took over the mill, which was now almost bankrupt from the expenses of expansion. Further complicating matters was the fact that Charles died intestate, and the will of Rebecca's father, who had died a year earlier, was ambiguous. Because of litigation and several lawsuits brought by the Pennock heirs, Rebecca would not become the legal owner of the Brandywine Iron Works until 1853.

Rising to the challenge, Rebecca went to work with a newborn baby on her hip, putting to use much of what she had learned by observing her father and husband. While her brother-in-law, Solomon Lukens, handled day-to-day operations, she controlled the management of the mill, which included obtaining raw material for production and securing new contracts. Although plagued by seemingly insurmountable problems, including the Panic of 1837 (during which time she was forced to pay her workers with produce from her farm), and the tariff reductions of the 1840s, Rebecca managed to make a success of the business.

Under her direction, the mill manufactured iron for the new steam locomotives, producing such high quality plate that it was shipped to Boston and New Orleans, and was even exported to England. By 1849, Lukens had settled all her husband's debts and was able to retire, turning the business over to her two sons-in-law, Abraham Gibbons, Jr. and Charles Huston. She died at her residence near Coatesville in 1854, leaving an estate of over $100,000. In 1859, the mill was renamed Lukens Iron Works in her memory, and in 1890 was incorporated as Lukens Steel, a company that still flourishes. Rebecca Lukens, a pioneering CEO and perhaps the first woman in the United States to engage in heavy industry, was inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame in 1994.

sources:

Gustaitis, Joseph. "Woman of Iron," in American History. April 1995.

James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1983.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

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