Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–General Fireproofing

On February 13, 1972, one of the front page stories in the Youngstown Vindicator was titled “GF is Struggling in Financial Vise.” The “vise” was rising labor costs and price ceilings determined by growing competition. The story discusses measures the company was taking from strengthening its sales efforts to dispersing its plants in the hope of lowering labor costs. It mentioned that this was raising questions about the security of the 4200 factory jobs in Youngstown. Only one of eight new products had been assigned to Youngstown in recent years. This was a warning signal of what was to come. My father-in-law retired from GF about this time, perhaps seeing the handwriting on the wall. Many furniture lines were discontinued. By 1989 the company was bankrupt, purchased by TANG Industries of Gallatin, TN. They renamed it GF Office Furniture Ltd. That company was dissolved in 2008, bringing to an end an illustrious Youngstown-based manufacturer, once a world leader in office furniture.

The company began in 1902 by Herbert White. Initially, they manufactured fireproof construction materials, perhaps explaining the origins of the name. During the Panic of 1907, they pivoted to focusing on steel office furniture. They started with a four draw vertical file in 1910 followed by a fireproof safe in 1912. In 1923, they decided to implement an assembly line approach to manufacturing steel office desks. In 1925, they introduced their 1600 Series, that they continued to make with updates until the 1970’s. My wife still has one of these desks that her father bought her when she was in school.

The ALCOA Company introduced the first aluminum chair in 1925. By 1929 General Fireproofing began manufacturing aluminum office chairs that they call “Goodform.” They added the Comfort Master executive office chair line in 1937. By the end of World War II, Youngstown was the largest aluminum working district in the country with General Fireproofing as one of the anchors.

During the war, General Fireproofing, like many factories, was converted to war production, manufacturing aircraft parts. They quickly converted back to office furniture after the war, reaching pre-war sales levels by 1946. In 1948, they introduced their Mode-Maker line of office furniture, designed by noted industrial designer Raymond Loewy, featuring streamlined, flowing lines and curves rather than sharp corners. We also had one of these desks, pictured below, now residing at my son’s home.

GF Mode-Maker Desk, Photo by Robert Trube

In the 1950’s and 1960’s, General Fireproofing was the industry leader in office desks, shelving, file cabinets, and aluminum office chairs. They furnished railroad passenger cars and sailing ships in the heyday of these modes of transport.

Sadly, competitors making cheaper and inferior equipment challenged that industry dominance. By 1990, the once bustling industrial complex that comprised General Fireproofing was idled for good, and has sat unoccupied, slowly deteriorating ever since. This drone footage, shot in 2019 is both sad, and still suggests the once-great factories on these grounds.

The company is now defunct and their buildings decaying. But their furniture is virtually indestructible. It’s not contemporary, but it works. File drawers still open and close smoothly. Desk drawers close properly. Many have taken their furniture to auto paint shops and gotten them refinished. Our desk is still the original gun metal grey. We also have a like-new set of file drawers. They remind us of a time when design and quality workmanship mattered. They remind us of a once great company that shipped its products all over the world–from Youngstown.

To read other posts in the Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown series, just click “On Youngstown.” Enjoy!

12 thoughts on “Growing Up in Working Class Youngstown–General Fireproofing

  1. I formerly owned Truman’s Cleaners on Market Street in Youngstown. Around 1970 I bought two used GF metal desks for our offices. Later the desks were moved across the side street (17 Kenmore Avenue) for a new business that I started around 1972 (Tip Sandblast Equipment/Tip Tools). In 1982 this business was relocated to Canfield and the desks were moved to that location. They are both in use in our plant manager’s office and are still like new – drawers open and close smoothly and they look good too!

    At my home in Canfield I have a GF 2 door cabinet that measures 6’6″ high x 19″ deep x 36″ wide with a small brass label riveted to the top front of the cabinet. Label Description: “Winged GF Logo, General Fireproofing Co. Youngstown, Ohio – Made in U.S.A.” I am not sure the age of this cabinet, but I have never seen anything like it – each shelf was adjustable with small brass knobs facing out. I think the cabinet was originally gray, but we spray painted it a dark green about 40 years ago and it is still like new. I have a hunch that it was made before World War II, based on the construction. I am 90 years old and this cabinet and the two GF desks will remain in service for at least another 50 years. As they say, “They don’t make them like this anymore”.

    Our CPA for many years was William E. Bletso, who was the controller for GF until they closed operations. Bill had a few business accounts that he serviced on the side. Not only was he a great CPA, he was also a good friend. Sadly Bill died in 2014. However at Tip Tools we still have two highly skilled dedicated employees that formerly worked at GF. Debbie – Director of Administration and Joanne – Office Manager. A special thank you to GF for indirectly furnishing us these three former employees. One of my best friends was Frank Petrony, who was once Vice-President of GF. Frank also died in 2014.

    It saddens me to see the ruins of the former thriving plant – thanks Bob Trube for such a nice presentation.

    Fred Zwicker

    Liked by 1 person

  2. My stepdad worked at GF. He made any kind of part they needed to keep production going and never got compensated for it. When they closed he lost everything. His pension, his healthcare. After he passed away my mother struggled to stay afloat. They changed the name & kept on going making money but they took from their employees. I don’t think of them as a “great” Youngstown company.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I worked for GF 1973-76. I worked first in the Customer Service department and then in Sales in the Newark, New Jersey office. It was quite a formative experience for me. Though I left GF in ‘76 and moved west, I remained in the office furniture industry for the rest of my working career.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is quite possible the founders of Gasser made them. Before finally establishing themselves in the commercial seating industry, they built many different metal-fabricated products. There are complete kitchen dinette sets still out there and in use.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. It is quite possible the founders of Gasser made them. Before finally establishing themselves in the commercial seating industry, they built many different residential and commercial metal-fabricated products. There are complete kitchen dinette sets still out there and in use.

    Liked by 1 person

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