Liquidation of the

J. Warren Jacobs Sons Company

Birdhouses Last Remnants of a Once Thriving Industry

The following newspaper article was published in 1949. The newspaper and exact date of issue are unknown, but it was from some-where in southwestern Pennsylvania.

 

Have you ever stopped to consider what a bank would have stored in its basement?

If your first thought is of glittering piles of coins you would be wrong particularly so in the case of the basement of the First Federal Savings and Loan Association in Waynesburg, PA. Stacked in a long row in the cellar of the Waynesburg institution are not minted pieces, but bird-houses — the last physical remains of what was once a thriving and unique industry. The birdhouses are the property of E. Bryan Jacobs of Waynesburg, who inherited them from his father, the late J. Warren Jacobs, world renowned ornithologist and zoologist.

During his career as a manufacturer of dwellings for Purple Martins, Wrens and Chickadees, a career which began shortly after the turn of the century and extended

until his death in 1947, the elder Mr. Jacobs turned out hundreds of precision-built dwellings. They ranged from single-room cottages, which sold for about $3, to the huge 104-room "Capitol," 7-feet high, weighing 1,085 pounds, and selling for $300. Thousands of bird-houses and feeding devices were distributed in all 48 states, Mexico, Canada, and overseas. One shipment went to what was then St. Petersburg, now Stalingrad, in Russia.

The houses that are stored in the Loan Association's basement were some of them built by Mr. Jacobs just before his death, while the rest were completed after his death by his son, E. Bryan Jacobs. They are still like new and are gradually being sold off. When all are

gone the last remains of an unusual business will have vanished.

The story really dates back to 1896 when the elder Mr. Jacobs, wishing to study a colony of Purple Martins, built his first multiple-room birdhouse. It was readily accepted by the birds and soon was filled to overflowing.

In order to relieve the acute housing shortage among his growing flock of birds, the ornithologist the following year constructed a second house of a different design. The birds were as enthusiastic about it as they had been about the first.

Soon there were four Martin houses on the grounds of Mr. Jacobs' home at 404 South Washington street, and for many seasons more than 100 pairs of birds nested in the homes and raised their broods there.

Neighbors found the "cottage type" houses attractive, as did visitors arriving in Waynesburg at the old Waynesburg & Washington railroad station, just across the street from Mr. Jacobs' home. Requests for houses "just like them" began to pour

in from all over.

Pleased by the requests, the birds' landlord attempted to fill as many orders as possible. As he found himself devoting more and more time to their construction, Mr. Jacobs conceived the idea of going into the business on a commercial scale. By 1908, the wagon-making and blacksmith shop where he had been associated in business with his father, Henry M. Jacobs, was converted into a fully-equipped plant and several persons were employed in the new industry.

Constructed of native white oak, poplar and white pine, each birdhouse was hand built. The "wares" of the plant included 12 different styles of colony houses for Purple Martins, ranging from

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Top: Taken in 1949 in the basement of the First Federal Savings and Loan Association in Waynesburg, Pennsylvania, this photo shows the surviving inventory of the J. Warren Jacobs Sons Company. On the far left are three "Capitols," in the middle several "Palmers" and "Every-body's," and on the right are feeding stations and single-unit nest boxes.

 

Middle: The last three, unsold "Capitols" and a "Cottage" that were being stored in the basement of the bank back in 1949.

 

Bottom: A closer look at the surviving inventory of "Palmers," foreground, and "Everybody's," background.

 

 

a 10-room house weighing about 80 pounds to the enormous "Capitol," designed to represent a typical government building.

Single room nest boxes were built for various other birds — Wrens, Chickadees and Bluebirds and the other 15 or so species which are "hole nesters." Various feeding devices were also made and a sparrow trap was added to the plant's products, since English Spar-rows are natural foes of the Purple Martin.

The business was operated during the last 27 years of its existence as the J. Warren Jacobs Sons Company, with E. Bryan Jacobs as his father's principal assistant.

Production was temporarily discontinued soon after the start of World War II, when material shortages made it impossible to continue manufacture of houses of a high standard of quality. After the elder Mr. Jacobs' death in 1947, all activities ceased until 1949, when his son revived it briefly to complete birdhouses which his father had begun.

The chief reason for the decline of the business in the later years, Mr. Jacobs points out, was the enormous rise in cost of production. As he remembers it, when his father first started the industry, lumber, cut and delivered, sold for about 12 cents a foot, turpentine brought eight cents a gallon, and a carpenter worked a 10-hour day for $2.50.

"Even after prices skyrocketed to 10 times that level, when a carpenter got $2.50 an hour instead of a day, my father refused to raise his prices, turning out the same product which meant doing so at a loss."

"For my father," he explained, "manufacturing birdhouses was not just a way of making a living. He was vitally interested in bird life and its preservation."

Mr. Jacobs has retained all designs, pat-terns and specifications in the event some future opportunity presents itself to use them, either in supplying plans for "hobby" builders or in permitting some other manufacturing concern to build the houses.

In any event, one more small, but useful, industry has gone the way of the carriage maker and book binder — a victim of mass production and "progress."

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The Houses He Built Were For the Birds

This article and these three photos were originally published in the September 25th, 1955, Roto section of the Pittsburgh Press newspaper.

Recently, Roto published "Courthouse For The Birds," an article dealing with Somerset's unusual birdhouse resembling the county courthouse. Somerset natives didn't know the identity of the birdhouse builder. Waynesburg natives did.

The ornate birdhouse was quickly recognized there as the work of J. Warren Jacobs, who until his death in 1947 was one of the town's most famous sons of science and a national authority on ornithology and oology (the study of bird eggs.)

Asa youth Mr. Jacobs was interested in birds and in 1896 he built a multiple-room house to study a colony of Purple Martins. The flock expanded and the following spring he had to construct another large house for his growing bird population. Within a few years he had built four birdhouses, and each was capable of housing 100 pairs of birds. The ornate birdhouses attracted people as well as birds, and Mr. Jacobs received many requests to supply birdhouses and feeding stations. That was the beginning of a unique business which extended until his death. He and employees of the J. Warren Jacobs Sons Co., of Waynesburg, built thousands of custom-made bird houses. Customers included Henry Ford who bought 15 large birdhouses and William Rockefeller who ordered six. Mr. Jacobs' birdhouses went to buyers in 48 states and to Mexico, Canada and Russia.

The sizes and costs of the various houses for wrens, chickadees, nuthatches, titmice, [and feeders for] cardinals and song sparrows ranged from S3 to $300 for the larger models. The houses for the Purple Martins, of course, were the largest and most expensive. The larger ones — which the bird lover named the Capitol, like the one at Somerset, and Independence Hall — weigh more than 500 pounds and are almost eight feet tall [only the Capitol was that tall.] But while he was building thousands of birdhouses, Mr. Jacobs did not neglect his study of birds. He spent untold hours and weeks in the field studying their habits. Occasionally for scientific study, he removed eggs from nests. These he catalogued, and any duplicates he used to trade with other oologists for those of birds not native to Western Pennsylvania. Among the collection of almost 13,000 bird eggs is one of the extinct carrier pigeon [Passenger Pigeon].

Mr. Jacobs was a member of a dozen scientific societies, and although he had never attended college, professors from prominent colleges and universities visited Waynesburg to profit from his experience and knowledge. The Waynesburg scientist's self-gained knowledge earned him a place on the Advisory Council on the World Congress on Birds at the Chicago World's Fair in 1893,and he earned the Highest Award Gold Medal at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904.

During the war, the production of birdhouses was discontinued, and following Mr. Jacobs' death the business was liquidated. But today his internationally-famous bird egg collection is still intact in the Museum Room of the Jacobs homestead. And there are still a few large birdhouses and small birdhouses for sale. Once these are sold no more Jacobs birdhouses will be available for Mr. Jacobs' sons have other interests.

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