Case Studies

Riverside Avenue

by Don Sessions

J.H. Sessions started his business, J.H. Sessions and Son, by producing wooden escutcheons, beautifully carved wood pieces used for decorative purposes on furniture and steamer trunks. Eventually, Sessions recognized the need for durable exterior hardware, such as latches and handles for heavy trunks. The company advanced from wood items to cast metal (malleable iron) parts for hardware on trunks. The “ball” corners Calzone and Anvil (and pretty much every case company in the world) use on their cases today were developed in that mid 1800s period using cast metal. The final plant was built in 1904 on Riverside Avenue in Bristol, Connecticut. My great grandfather, John Henry Sessions, was a civil engineer and designed the factory to be built in a, then, rural part of Bristol, Connecticut, on the south side of town. The plant was a 4-story building made of brick and stone with solid 24” square chestnut beams in the basement level and heart pine 12” x 12” beams in the upper stories.

The plant was located on its own private railroad spur where the shipment of the metal hardware in wooden crates and kegs could be serviced by the local railroads. As it was isolated from the main part of town, the plant burned coal and generated its own steam, gas and electricity.

Two water driven elevators were also installed and are still operating today. They have a 4-story tall piston fitted into a collared shaft that was sunk into the earth in a hand dug pit. Water was pumped into the shaft, which forced the elevator to rise up to the 4th down, that same water was pumped up to a holding tank on the roof, where it would be gravity fed to the areas in the building needing process water. Metal stamping machinery was installed and designs for all manner of footlocker and other container hardware were produced. The factory employed several hundred people at various points in the following decades as production was ramped up for both World Wars. JHS supplied vast amounts of the hardware used to close, lift and protect the dozens of different trunk and container designs used by our armed forces around the world.

New To The Neighborhood

By Don Sessions

My family came to the United States from Great Britain in the early 1600’s and settled in the Bay Colony near Boston, MA. The following generations slowly gave up a farming based lifestyle in favor of industrial endeavors that were springing up along many of the waterways in New England. We ended up in the Connecticut River Valley in the midst of the industrial revolution with companies, large and small, being built along rivers and using water power to run machinery and shipping their goods up and down the waterways.

My great, great, great grandfather, John Humphrey Sessions, established J.H. Sessions and Son in the Bristol, Connecticut area, situated on a tributary of the Pequabuck River. As an example of the booming industries along the local riverways, in the next town over from the J.H. Sessions and Son factory, Terryville, CT, the inventor Seth Thomas had set up the first factory to mass produce clocks.

Sessions started his business by producing wooden escutcheons, beautifully carved wood pieces used for decorative purposes on furniture and steamer trunks. Eventually, J.H. Sessions recognized the need for durable exterior hardware, such as latches and handles for heavy trunks. The company advanced from wood items to cast metal (malleable iron) parts for hardware on trunks. The “ball” corners Calzone and Anvil (and pretty much every case company in the world) use on their cases today were developed in that mid 1800’s period using cast metal.

A large foundry was built in the center of Bristol to cast and forge the dozens of trunk hardware items being designed for the expanding trunk trade as well as other industrial and commercial items such as manhole covers, gas lamp fixtures and architectural elements to support and decorate the larger buildings of the day.

The foundry continued to operate and employ many people up into the 20th century, but the methods of manufacturing the main lines of J.H. Sessions’ trunk hardware had already begun to shift to metal stampings and assemblies. New manufacturing plants were built and expanded throughout the late 1800’s until the final plant on Riverside Avenue was built in 1904.

Prologue: J.H. Sessions and Son

Long before the invention of the wheel or fire, our cave-dwelling ancestors stored and preserved their food (the first precious cargo of man) in small, portable stone chests known as “abazars.” These primitive boxes allowed food to be kept fresh for longer periods of time. Carved out of stone, abazars had no handles and were transported from one cave to another. However, the first real lightweight boxes were constructed out of bamboo. Developed by the Chinese in 427 BC, these boxes were very tough and, when insulated, became weather resistant. Like the Romans and the Egyptians, the Chinese also used their bamboo boxes to store everything from valuable spices and silks to precious gemstones.

It was in 1854 that my great, great, great grandfather, John Humphrey Sessions, established J.H. Sessions and Son, seven years before the start of the American Civil War, in Bristol, Connecticut. During that time, people used steamer trunks to transport their personal items, such as clothes, shoes, toiletries, etc. Earning their name from the steam boats used for travel and transportation, the steamer trunk was essentially a large wardrobe case. Though aesthetically pleasing, with professional wood carving details, these trunks were made of heavy wood and would get destroyed when dropped during transit. Sessions recognized this issue and developed the idea for steel ball corners to reinforce the weak corner parts of the trunks. This development protected the trunks when dropped because the steel ball corners absorbed the shock upon impact. He also developed handles for the outside of the trunks to make it easier to lift and latches to hold the case closed and prevent it from breaking open and losing the trunk’s contents. These features are still used on cases today.

After the Civil War, leading into the Industrial Revolution, manufacturing in the United States matured and New England was at the heart of it. People quickly realized that the soil and harsh winters in New England made it difficult to solely rely on agriculture for income and thus migrated towards cities and the industrial culture. Streams of immigrants poured into New York during that time as well, providing an ample amount of able workers in the area, playing a large role in the fast growth of industries.  J.H. Sessions and Son was established during a pivotal time in American history, providing essential additions to an ages old method of transporting goods. They established functional, yet aesthetically pleasing hardware to adorn the standard trunks and cases of the day.

The New Kid On The Block

In the early 1970s, Joe Calzone was a professional drummer in the Northeast; like every musician out of their teens, he was ready to ‘make it’ in the music business. But it was  the keyboard player in his band, and specifically the purchase of the group’s first Anvil case that gave Joe the inspiration for a lifetime in the protection business. “We were on our way to becoming superstars,” Joe fondly recalls, “and I couldn’t afford any Anvil Cases for my drums ­ so I tried to make some. My dad and I built a few metal cases at a sheet metal shop ­ which I still have! There’s a metal trap case, and I figured out you had to put wheels on it, and a smaller one that was more manageable for the society gigs. We also made a cymbal case and a gong case … you have to have a good gong case.”

While this activity was spot on for the future of the case industry, it was perhaps a sign that Joe’s musical career would take a back seat. He says that like many bands, they had trouble keeping the band together and finding good gigs. “We were having great difficulties keeping our guitarists, and we lost interest in the club scene. With the music we had to play, we got a little disenchanted with the live music scene, and I saw an opportunity ­ based on a discussion I had with Dennis Berardi, who was one of the owners at Gracin’s Music on 48th street in New York.”

Dennis was also a drummer, and decided he was going to start a guitar company with a guy named Gary Kramer, and Pete LaPlaca who worked for Norlin Music at the time. Joe told them he was thinking of making some cases, and asked if they could do something together. Encougaging me to pursue it, Joe put a plan together to build cases for their basic guitars. His first two employees were his uncle and Robert Mackno, brother of keyboard player.

Joe explains, “Fortunately my uncle worked at a furniture manufacturing facility in Norwalk, and he let me use their Thomas Register ­ A to Z ­ and that’s where I sourced casters, hardware, rivets, etc. It was the only source at the time, and I was able to get ahold of a variety of suppliers. One day I was at the hardware store with my dad, and we were trying to figure out how to put these angles on the case. We saw the window frame section, and it had this interesting looking extrusion that the frames would slip into ­ that’s where we got the nemesis of the double angle construction.”

Kramer cases hit the scene in 1975. “We started talking in 1974,” says Joe. “That was the development stage while I was still playing music for a living. I didn’t make a paycheck for about five years, but that’s fairly normal. At the first NAMM show we piggybacked on Kramer’s booth in Anaheim ­ it was our introduction to the music industry. We showed six different cases ­ guitar in black, bass, acoustic guitar ­ which also served as a trap case when we put a divider in, cymbal, attache, and microphone ­ and we started to sell to music stores that carried Kramer. One of our most successful reps was in the San Jose area. We actually set up a warehouse in San Jose, and shipped quite a number of cases it was a hotbed of innovation and music.”

Not surprisingly, shipping cases into California put them on Anvil’s radar. “We ran into Wayne Thompson at the end of one of those first NAMM shows, as we were wheeling out our first workbox, which my dad helped make. Wayne saw us and came over. He said, ‘Hey I can take care of that for you, just leave it with me and I’ll ship it back to you from my shop’. We said ‘no thanks, we’ll take care of it … but thanks for the offer.”