Historical Markers
Jeremiah Sweinhart and Successors Historical Marker
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Jeremiah Sweinhart and Successors

Hershey/Gettysburg/Dutch Country Region


Marker Location:
3rd. and Walnut Sts., Boyertown

Behind the Marker

Photographic print on stereo card, stereograph of cars on an assembly line.
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Row of completed "Tin Lizzies" or Model T's come off the Ford assembly line,...
By 1915 the automobile revolution, brought about by Henry Ford's rugged Model T and his application of assembly-line production that made cars affordable, threatened the existence of America's venerable horse-drawn carriage and wagon industry. Carriage makers had been aware of automobiles since the early 1890s–some had even produced true horseless carriages by installing electric motors powered by batteries on their standard designs–but they assumed that automobiles would long remain temperamental and expensive toys for the rich.

No one foresaw that Ford would increase his output from under fourteen thousand in 1909 to nearly 400,000 in 1915, causing Americans to abandon horses with alacrity. What was particularly unsettling to the carriage makers was that farmers, who still needed horses for farm work, proved to be enthusiastic about the Model T. By the mid-1920s, when Ford alone was turning out over one million cars per year, the carriage industry was in ruins. In two decades the number of firms had declined from nearly 5,000 to less than 200, and the value of their output had declined by 80 percent.
Sepia photograph of two large buildings with many windows.
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Boyertown Carriage Works Repository Building, Boyertown, PA, 1890.
Photograph of a milk wagon. The sign reads Clover Leaf Dairy, Grade A pasteurized milk and the display sign reads, Boyertown Auto Body Works, Boyertown, Pa.
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Drop-bottom milk wagon, Boyertown, PA, 1926.

If there was a silver lining in the automobile cloud, it was that automobile bodies, in this era, were constructed using methods and skills similar to carriages. Many carriage makers took advantage of this opportunity and began to supply bodies for automobiles and trucks. The car manufacturers also sold vehicles without bodies to other firms that specialized in body construction. Only one firm, Studebaker, made the complete transition from wagons to cars.
Interior photgraph of the carpentry shop and six make workers posing for the photo.
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Carpentry Shop, Boyertown Carriage Works, c. 1913.

An excellent example of the survival of a carriage maker in the automobile age is that of the firm founded by Jeremiah Sweinhart in Boyertown, in 1872, which lasted until 1990 by constantly adapting to changes in technology and markets. Originally, Sweinhart hired local Pennsylvania German craftsman who had the requisite skills in woodworking and blacksmithing. 
Black and white photograph of a Merchandiser truck, used by the Salvation Army as their canteen vehicle.
A Merchandiser body mobile canteen, fabricated by the Boyertown Auto Body Works,...

In his factory, Sweinhart made carriages, buggies, wagons, and sleighs. He sold the business in 1884 and a few years later it became the property of Frank Hartman, who would ran the company successfully for the next fifteen years. But in 1911, perhaps fearing the automobile, Hartman sold out to four employees who were determined to become part of this industry.

Within a few years the company began to make bodies for commercial delivery trucks with metal-reinforced wooden frames and wooden panels. In the 1920s, automobile manufacturers shifted to the "closed car" that had all-metal bodies that were stamped from sheet metal. Responding to this change the former Boyertown Carriage Works was re-named the Boyertown Auto Body works and began to specialize in all-metal truck bodies made from new stronger, lighter, and corrosion-resistant steels.

In the 1930s the streamlined Boyertown Merchandizer became a very popular delivery truck. Having found its market niche, the company thrived for decades, even installing an automated truck body assembly line in 1961. In a truck industry dominated by larger companies, including Pennsylvania's markerMack Truck and Autocar, Boyertown Auto Body demonstrated how a small firm, by developing special capabilities, could thrive.
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