F.G. has a H. Gerstner and Sons toolbox from the 1950s, which measures 16 x 9.5 x 25.5 inches. It was found in a Goleta garage.
Its origins go back to the founding of the Gerstner Co. in 1906. The box is in poor condition, and therefore, it is difficult for me to opine on its value. But I will tell you that Gerstner and Sons does offer restoration of antique boxes, and it costs a bunch.
The history of this box lies in the founder Harry Gerstner’s grit.
Gerstner, a newly graduated journeyman woodworker from Dayton, Ohio, made himself a tool chest of wood. In those days, to become a woodworker and pattern maker involved four years of apprenticeship, and the bonus for a successful graduation was $100.
Gerstner began his life as a journeyman with his handmade box, which was spotted by a colleague, who asked Gerstner to make HIM one. A light bulb went off over Harry’s head. Gerstner decided to take that $100 and make himself into a company, and he thought that a solid company name would be H. Gerstner and Sons.
No, he did not have children. He was single and unmarried, but “and Sons” sounded good, and by this move, we see Gerstner was a man who planned ahead. We also see grit exhibited when the interest of one fellow woodworker confirmed to Gerstner that he himself should form a company.
Gerstner stuck to what he knew, and that was precision tools and wood. So he made a box with many little drawers out of wood because the small drawers were perfect for precision tools, and wood prevents rust.
Again, we see his prescience. World War I was coming onto the horizon, and metal would be in short supply. So wood boxes did find a market. He canvased all his fellow graduates, and they all needed a box like Gerstner’s, and the rest was history back in Dayton.
Gerstner designed the chests so that a journeyman could walk into a job interview with one of his boxes and satisfactorily “show off” his tools.
Gerstner married Emma, and they had three daughters. But no sons.
The sons in the company’s title came to pass through sons-in- law. His first born married an English teacher from college, John Campbell, and Gerstner convinced him to enter the business in 1938. Because he was good with words, he contributed the art of the printed pamphlet to the company’s marketing.
Harriet, the youngest, married Harold, who became Gerstner and Sons president till 1976, until Harry’s grandson John bought the company from his uncle. John’s son, John, is now the president, holding down the family business today in a brick factory in Dayton.
The box dates from the 1950s, and we see that each small drawer of assorted sizes is lined with green felt, which we would have expected, as it shows off the tools well, but what we do not expect is a vanity mirror in the top lid of the box, which shows one’s face upon lifting he box top. It is a pretty little mirror.
Why would a toolbox contain a mirror?
It was not for lipstick application. So I searched for the answer from various hobbyists who love these boxes.
Ideas for what the mirror was originally used for include:
1. The mirror allows a guy to see the supervisor coming from behind.
2. Bathrooms on the job sites in the early 20th century did not have wall mirrors.
3. It may have been a “machinist’s safety mirror” in the days before safety goggles, so that an errant piece of metal could be fished out of the eye.
4. It is made for moral self- support. When faced with a difficult job, you look yourself in the eye and say, “Darn right I can do this” or, when the job was done, you could say, “Nice job, my friend.”
5. Finally, the Gerstner and Sons response to the “why a mirror” question is that Harry Gerstner thought of the mirror in the early 1900s because manufacturing and /or tool and die companies had no indoor plumbing, and men needed to look presentable for the journey back home.
Thus we see that these boxes today have a cult following. They are also used to hold art supplies, jewelry, collections of arrowheads, etc., and prices for the used ones of this vintage range from $200 to $800.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart’s “Ask the Gold Digger” column appears Mondays in the News-Press.
Written after her father’s COVID-19 diagnosis, Dr. Stewart’s book “My Darlin’ Quarantine: Intimate Connections Created in Chaos” is a humorous collection of five “what-if” short stories that end in personal triumphs over present-day constrictions. It’s available at Chaucer’s in Santa Barbara.