10 American Industries Still Hanging On

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Bloodied, battered, but not yet down for the count, there are still pockets of US manufacturing scrappy enough to keep the lights on in the face of overseas competition.

For most of the last century, the United States dominated global manufacturing – no country could compete with America’s output.

In recent years, however, the news about domestic manufacturing has been discouraging, if not devastating. Industry surveys have shown a decline in most sectors as the US continues to lose its factories to cheaper labor markets overseas, and especially to China.

In 2010, the last remaining American flatware factory shut its doors. So did the nation’s last sardine cannery. Recent years have seen the shuttering of America’s last coat hanger factory, last button down shirt factory, and the entire sheetrock-producing town of Empire, Nevada – which fell victim to the desiccated US housing market.

Surprisingly, however, there remains a handful of heroic holdouts. Bloodied, battered, but not yet down for the count, there are still pockets of US manufacturing scrappy enough to keep the lights on in the face of overseas competition. Here’s a look at 10 survivors worth celebrating.

BOWLING BALLS

Modern bowling took off in the 1950s, kicked into a boom by the invention of the fully automatic pin-setter. By the mid-60s, there were around 12,000 bowling alleys across the U.S., mostly in working-class urban centers. But that was the industry’s peak. Dogged by that blue-collar image, and dependent for much of their income on dwindling league play (see Robert D. Putnam’s classic treatise Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community for the wider ramifications of this), bowling collapsed in the 1970s and ’80s. By the late ’90s there were less than 7,000 “bowling centers,” (as the biz likes to call them now) in the country, and the decline has continued despite attempts to move the sport upmarket. Current estimates put the number of centers at less than 5,800.

Still, though league play continues to disappear and centers dwindle, there’s some good news. The industry has managed to refocus itself as a family-recreation and special-event past-time, and seen the median incomes of bowlers increase. And while big players like Brunswick Corp. have moved most of their bowling equipment manufacturing overseas, plucky Ebonite International, located in Hopkinsville, Kentucky, is keeping it local. Along with its own Ebonite brand of balls and equipment, the company sells under several different names, including Hammer and, since a successful 2007 expansion, the Columbia 300, Track and Dynothane brands.

SPARKLERS

Few products say summer in America like the sparkler. But without Diamond Sparkler of Youngstown, Ohio, it would be a cold winter for domestic sparkler production. Diamond has been in Youngstown since 1985, when Phantom Fireworks operator B.J. Alan bought Chicago’s Acme sparkler manufacturer and brought its operations to Ohio. At that point, cheaper Chinese sparklers had snuffed out all but three US producers. By 1999, Diamond would be the lone holdout that hadn’t shifted to imports. Not because it found a way to profits, however. Besides a brief tariff-related windfall, Diamond Sparkler never been a moneymaker for its parent firm, whose owner said he bought the division because he couldn’t “envision something as American as sparklers, with its association with the (Fourth) of July, not being made in this country.”

Youngstown, a onetime steel center whose population has dropped to barely 40 percent of its peak as that industry melted away, can claim only 20 year-round jobs at Diamond’s factory. (Another 40 are hired for the peak season.) But city leaders are grateful, saying those jobs provide a much-needed light in a corner of America where business has mostly gone dark. “Phantom Fireworks is a small big business to us,” Thomas Humphries, local Chamber of Commerce chief, told American Way magazine. “They always seem to find a way to hold on to a great core of people.”

COMPACT DISCS

The physical is dead, long live the download. That’s what entertainment observers have been saying since the turn of the century and they’re not wrong. Last year CD sales fell by 20% from 2009, marking the fourth year in a row of increasingly brutal decline. But despite this, Sony DADC this spring announced a $72 million expansion of its existing Terre Haute, Indiana, manufacturing plant, in which it makes compact discs, Blu-ray equipment, video games and other electronics, while employing some 1,312 people (the planned expansion will add another 100 jobs). Why? Well, partly, it’s just consolidation. With the closing of its Pittman, New Jersey compact disc plant, Sony DADC is merely shifting operations east (and shedding 200 jobs – the Pittman plant employed 300 people). And partly, it’s a question of demographics. You, future-embracing consumer that you are, may be eager to embrace the world of on-demand downloads or dodgy torrents, but Aunt Gertrude in Duluth is going to be hanging on to those newfangled CDs until the day she dies. And there are a heck of a lot of Aunt Gertrudes out there, with a good decade or so left in them.

PIANOS

A Steinway grand, consisting of over 12,000 parts, is handmade, constructed by 450 individuals over the course of a year. Small wonder then, that in the decades between 1870 and 1930 the most expensive item an American owned other than his house was generally his piano. Since the 1930s and the advent of electronic home entertainment, of course, the piano, once the must-have of any genteel parlor, has gone with the wind. The great US piano manufacturers – Chickering and Sons, Davis & Co., J.C. Fischer, Mason & Hamlin, and Baldwin, to name only a few – are all ghosts, swept away by changes in taste and more affordable Asian-made brands.

Only a few, tiny boutique piano-makers such as Mason & Hamlin, based in Massachusetts, and grand old Steinway, based in Queens, New York, and purveyor of high-end state of the art models that retail between $50,000 to $120,000 as well as budget, overseas-built Boston and Essex brands, are left. They cater to the very rich looking for status symbols, and an ever-dwindling market of performers – over 98% of all concert pianists play Steinways – and musical institutions.

SOCKS

To get an idea of what’s happened to the American sock industry, take a look at Fort Payne, Alabama. Until a few years ago, the town of about 14,000 billed itself as the “Sock Capital of the World.” They weren’t spinning a yarn, either: As late as 2007, according to the Hosiery Association, if an American put on a pair of socks, the odds were about 1 in 8 they’d be rolling a product of Fort Payne/DeKalb County onto their hooves. Most of the area’s workforce was employed in its sock mills, which then numbered 125 to 150. Today only 20 remain, providing roughly 600 jobs, down from 8,000 just a decade ago.

The “Sock Capital” sign that greeted visitors off Interstate 59? Gone. There’s a new sign, on the front door of the oldest hosiery mill in town, that hints at the industry’s unraveling: “We are not hiring at this time. Thank you for coming.”

What started pulling out the thread was – you guessed it – globalization. An influx of cheaper hosiery, imported from the likes of China, Pakistan, and Honduras, started around the turn of the 2000s. It flipped the American sock industry on its head faster than argyle came back and again went out of style. Domestically made socks went from three-quarters of US sales to one-quarter between 1999 and 2006.

Thanks to a quirk of national politics, Fort Payne caught a break in 2005, when then-President Bush needed to swing a single vote in Congress to get his Central American Free Trade Agreement out of deadlock. The city’s congressman, Robert Aderholt, was a holdout against the deal, and he took the opportunity to hold the bill hostage with a single demand: Restore the tariffs, which had been lifted in 1984, against socks seamed in Honduras. The White House complied, and the duty returned at the end of 2007. The move had little effect in the long run, and sock factories are still fleeing Fort Payne for Honduras.

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