The Original Iron Lady
Rebecca Lukens was America’s first female industrialist.
Carefully preserved in the archives at the Hagley Museum & Library is a 14-page letter from a mother to her children. Handwritten in 1825, the paper is brittle and frail, but the ink hasn’t faded, the penmanship is excellent, and the words are easy to understand. The writer states that she will “pen a sketch of my life [that] might be interesting to my children when their mother should slumber in the grave.”
Rebecca Lukens’ letter is heartfelt and sad. Her husband had recently and unexpectedly died at the age of 39. At 30, Rebecca had four children and was expecting her fifth. She describes to them the first time she met her future husband: [He was] a tall and commanding figure with an interesting face. He had a highly cultivated mind. It was love at first sight.”
They were both Quakers and married when she was 19 years old. It was a good relationship; they loved each other until the end.
Rebecca also writes of her own childhood. She was her father’s favorite and rode horses through the woods of Chester County. Idyllic? Perhaps. “[But] mother and me have never had the enduring familiarity which ought to exist between parent and child.”
As her husband lay dying, Lukens promised to continue the family business.
At 12 years old, she went to a nearby boarding school in Wilmington where she excelled. At age 16, though, she came back home to help take care of six younger siblings. “I bid farewell to my scholastic pursuits, [and] for a long time, I felt lonely and isolated,” she writes.
Nowhere in this letter does this mother speak of money, work or business. As her husband lay dying, she promised to continue the family business—an iron mill called the Brandywine Iron Works. Although the company was deeply in debt, she kept her word. She’s been called our first female industrialist, and was the first American woman to own and operate an iron mill. This autobiographical letter from Rebecca to her children is incomplete, because the story of her life wasn’t ending—it was just beginning.
Throughout America’s colonial history and after it became an independent nation, the country was as hungry for iron as a caged lion is for raw meat. We needed iron and steel—which is just a higher refined grade of commercial iron—for axes, hoes, shovels, horseshoes, chains, stoves, Dutch ovens, nails, gun barrels, wagon-wheel rims and more.
Underappreciated by many is how important our area has been to the nation’s iron heritage. In the 18th and early 19th centuries, southeastern Pennsylvania was a major center of production, due to its rich iron ore deposits. The area was also rich in the other important ingredients necessary for production—namely limestone, trees to make charcoal to fire the furnaces (later, coal was used), and water for transportation and power.
The Lukens’ iron works was located on the west branch of the Brandywine, just outside Coatesville. It was a water-powered mill that evolved into a rolling mill, which takes semi-molten lumps of iron and turns them into long, thin sheets to be sized and cut. The process is accomplished via the motion of a pair of large rollers turning toward each other, pressing the hot, almost pasty metal and causing it to flow between the two of them, coming out the gap between in a thin sheet. The waterpower of the Brandywine powered the rollers. Sometimes, when the flow was low, workmen helped by jumping onto the mill wheel.
A few years before he died, Rebecca’s husband, Dr. Charles Lukens, had taken over sole ownership of the iron works from her father, Isaac Pennock. He invested heavily in new equipment, and in 1824, the Brandywine Iron Works rolled America’s first boilerplate. At the time, this was cutting-edge technology. We were just entering the Industrial Age, and iron and steel that could be rolled into thin plates was needed for boilers in steam engines, plating for ships and, on the near horizon, the first locomotive trains.
Rebecca took over ownership of the mill in 1825. Under her leadership, the Brandywine Iron Works continued its leading-edge stewardship, maintained its high standards of quality, and expanded its market. Fortunately for Rebecca, her husband’s brother, Solomon Lukens, helped to manage the mill. But Rebecca was no mere figurehead. She bought all materials and supplies, made all contracts, negotiated all sales, solved transportation problems, and dealt with customer relations.
In court, she fought for and kept water rights, and maintained solvency during business highs and lows. After nine years, she managed to pay off all debt. During the severe depression of 1837, instead of laying off workers, she invested heavily in infrastructure, completely rebuilding the mill, dam and furnaces. While most mills in this area lost workers in droves to jobs the Pittsburgh area, employees of the Brandywine Iron Works remained loyal and did not leave.
For an ironmaster and mill, reputation is everything. In those days, before the science of metallurgy and chemical analysis was highly developed, making quality iron was as much art as science. One bad batch could severely damage your reputation and possibly ruin your business. Good iron needs to have tensile strength and ductility—meaning it must be malleable and able to change form without breaking. Case in point: Before the railroad came to the area in the 1830s, iron mills in southeastern Pennsylvania used to ship iron bars out to Pittsburgh by bending them into a u-shape and then loading them onto the backs of mules.
Under Rebecca, the Brandywine Iron Works acquired and maintained a reputation as one of the best. Not only did they roll the first boilerplate in America, they also rolled the sheet iron for the Codorus, the first experimental iron-hulled steamboat, in 1825. Their boilerplate was highly sought after in New Orleans, used in the construction of Mississippi paddlewheel steamships, and also sold directly to locomotive builders in Philadelphia. The plate produced at the Brandywine Iron Works was shipped overseas to England and used by several shipbuilding factories there, which was probably the highest compliment of them all and an acknowledgement of its superior quality.
The life of Rebecca Lukens was an interesting and complete one. After one of her daughters died during childbirth, she completely retired from the iron business to raise her granddaughter. She had managed the Brandywine Iron Works for 22 years, from 1825 to 1847. A pioneer in every sense of the word, she blazed a new trail for all businesswomen who came after her. As she raised a family as a single parent, she grew and successfully led a tough, competitive business in an era almost 100 years before women had the right to vote.
In 1854, she died at the age of 60. To honor her, the name of the company was changed to Lukens Steel. It went on to become the oldest continuously operating steel mill in North America.