How Thomas Edison’s Cement Contributed to Donora’s Storied History

How Thomas Edison’s Cement Contributed to Donora’s Storied History

On a quiet, tree-lined street in artsy Montclair Township in northern New Jersey sits a squarish, greenish-gray house with a blue-and-white striped awning over the front door. A walkway of tessellating bricks leads from the sidewalk to a set of brick-faced stairs with thick, concrete treads. The two-story structure sits tightly between two newer, larger, multi-gabled, three-story homes, each with a stylish octagonal turret gracing its exterior.

One of Thomas Edison’s cement houses in Montclair, New Jersey

The dramatic presentation of the more modern homes makes the squarish structure in the middle seem even more distinctive than it otherwise might be. Passersby might think that the house, though pleasing, looks odd, out of place, antiquated. They could be forgiven for not realizing that the structure is not only unusual but also historic. It is, in fact, one of the first poured concrete homes ever built by one Thomas A. Edison.

Edison, famously known as the Wizard of Menlo Park, was born on Feb. 11, 1847, in Milan, Ohio, a village just few miles south of Lake Erie. The year Edison was born Milan exported more wheat than any other city in the world, save only Odessa, Russia. Edison was an excitable child and was so easily distracted that he drove his teachers to their own distraction.

After just twelve weeks of school, Edison’s mother, Nancy Matthews Edison, pulled him out and tutored him at home. He was seven years old. “My mother was the making of me,” Edison wrote. “She was so true, so sure of me; and I felt I had something to live for, someone I must not disappoint.” 

Thomas Edison stands by his model of a concrete house, circa 1911.

His mother’s tutoring proved eminently successful. Young Thomas grew up to become arguably America’s greatest innovator, having invented the phonograph, an improved telegraph system, the motion picture camera, alkaline storage batteries, the first commercially-successful light bulb, wax paper, electric pens, talking dolls, and mail-order subscription. In all Edison received nearly 1,100 patents, including several for concrete products.

King of Concrete … For a Time

Edison had been experimenting with concrete for several years before constructing the Montclair dwelling in 1912. He started the Edison Portland Cement Company in 1899, a company that eventually failed but not before providing concrete for Yankee Stadium in 1922. Edison believed that homes for the masses could be built out of concrete simply, quickly, and inexpensively, and if they were built with Edison cement so much the better.

Concrete homes would be more durable than wooden homes and, more important, he believed, they would be fireproof. “The object of my invention,” Edison wrote in his 1908 patent application, No. 1219272, “is to construct a building of a cement mixture by a single molding operation — all its parts, including the sides, roofs, partitions, bath tubs, floors, etc., being formed of an integral mass of a cement mixture.”

One of Edison’s schematics from his original patent application

Edison wanted working-class families to have access to affordable, comfortable, and stylish homes, believing that workers and their families deserved those things as much as did their wealthier employers. “I am going to live to see the day,” he famously said, “when a working man’s house can be built of concrete in a week. If I succeed, it will take from the city slums everybody who is worth taking.” 

Edison calculated that the shell for a “decent house of six rooms” could be built with “only three hundred dollars.” Not just any shell, but an appealing one. “We will give the workingman and his family ornamentation,” he said. “They deserve it; and besides, it costs no more, after the pattern is made, to give decorative effects.”

The concept of poured-concrete houses failed to take the housing industry by storm, and indeed faded into obscurity before the end of the First World War. However, the homes built by Edison and his colleagues in Montclair and a few other spots prompted the construction of a much-needed neighborhood in Donora.

Housing Crisis Prompts Need

Donora had been created nearly wholesale out of woods and farmland between 1899 and 1901, and grew by leaps and bounds duriong the early 1900s. By the mid-1910s Donora was facing a extreme housing crisis. There were simply not enough homes for all of the employees of the new zinc mill, completed in 1915. Something had to be done.

Officials of the American Steel & Wire Company heard about Edison’s concrete homes and decided to use his designs to build enough concrete dwellings to house its managers and foremen. A total of sixty single-family houses and twenty duplexes were built in 1916–1917 on the southern-Donora hillside, a development large enough to accommodate 100 families.

Cement City,” the development came to be called. The houses still stand today, are filled with families, and continue to serve as a testament to Edison’s intense desire to improve the life of everyday Americans.

For more information on Cement City, read Brian Charlton’s exceptional article, “Cement City: Thomas Edison’s Experiment with Worker’s Housing in Donora.

One response to “How Thomas Edison’s Cement Contributed to Donora’s Storied History”

  1. Marcy Scott Avatar
    Marcy Scott

    I remember Cement City! I lived just a few blocks away and loved to sell my Girl Scout cookies there. It was also a great neighborhood for trick or treating!!!

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