Why do we write company profiles? To showcase interesting businesses you may never have heard of. Like a company that has manufactured in the US since 1839 and has produced lubricants in the US longer than any other company. This is the history of Schaeffer Oil:
In 1839, Nicholas Schaeffer founded Schaeffer Manufacturing Co., which has manufactured lubricants in America longer than any other company.
As a young man, Schaeffer traveled from Germany to America, first to Baltimore, then to St. Louis, where the company he founded there still is located.
Lubricants were not Schaeffer’s primary line of business at first. Production of axle grease grew out of soap and candle making. But by the mid-1800s, the wagons wheels of many travelers to the California gold fields were greased with Schaeffer’s product. Eventually, the company became a full-fledged lubricant manufacturer and marketer.
Childhood and Early Travels
Born in 1814 in Germany, where he worked for a soap and candle maker, Schaeffer emigrated to America with his mother and three brothers. They arrived in Baltimore in 1832 and headed westward. Not far into their journey, their horse was stolen and he and his brothers had to cross the Allegheny Mountains on foot. He settled for a few years in Cincinnati doing various jobs, then moved on to St. Louis, where he established his business in 1839.
St. Louis was founded just 75 years earlier, in 1764. By the mid 19th Century, it had become an important Mississippi River port. Steamboats brought goods here from all over the world. They hauled mid-America’s agricultural bounty from here to far-away markets, sailing to and from Pittsburgh and other river ports, connecting with ocean-going trade at places like New Orleans. Steam engines and steam cylinders demanded lubricants.
In 1849, a big fire destroyed 33 river craft and 430 buildings in St. Louis. Within a year steam boating recovered, going on to pass the tonnage handled at every American port except New York. By 1860, St. Louis was the nation’s eighth largest city and an arising market for lubricants.
Food processing became a big industry here. Brewing and distilling became important, followed by soap and candle making, estimated at about $1.59-million a year at the time. Development of heavy industry came next. By 1870, St. Louis had surpassed all American communities, except New York and Philadelphia, in the number and value of its manufacturing plants. Industrial lubricant demand rose rapidly.
The City’s First Millionaire
Nicholas Schaeffer saw the opportunity St. Louis offered. He became its first millionaire. One of his contemporaries in the city was Eberhard Anheuser, founder of the Anheuser-Busch brewing empire.
Some old handwritten ledgers from the mid-1800s show that two young soap brokers in Cincinnati named Procter and Gamble were Schaeffer soap customers, as was a gentleman from Kansas City by the name of Peet of Colgate, Palmolive, Peet fame.
Schaeffer was a business leader and civic leader. He served on the board that drew up the original plans for the St. Louis Cathedral and was an esteemed member and director of the Merchants Exchange. Despite his wealth, he lived very simply and was literally generous to a fault.
Merchants of St. Louis faced bad economic times as well as good. During the economic panic of 1875, Schaeffer, who had generously co-signed notes for his German friends whose mortgages collapsed, was financially ruined.
However, he held on to Schaeffer Manufacturing, as did his sons later-on. Oldest son Jacob became president in 1880, upon Nicholas’ death. The company that Nicholas started became the largest soap and candle maker west of the Mississippi. Boss was the company brand name adopted for its laundry bar soaps and Star for its candles.
Schaeffer Manufacturing closed down its soap and candle making operation in 1950 to concentrate on lubricant manufacturing. Schaeffer’s original line of lubricants was a by-product of animal fats, sold under the trade name Red Engine Oil. It was used by steamboats that plied the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers. Schaeffer also made grease, called Black Beauty, that lubricated the wheels of buggies and wagon trains
The Legend of Black Beauty
Stories are told of how miners in Alaska in the 1850s used Black Beauty grease on their faces to protect themselves from wintry weather where temperatures reached down to 60 below zero. Because the grease was made of animal fats, it was said that miners even used it to fry their eggs making Black Beauty one of the earliest multi-purpose greases.
After 1859, the company turned to petroleum as the base of its lubricating products which improved its performance in transport and industrial applications but precluded its use in food preparation. Pioneer lubricant marketers faced some unusual challenges.
“We have an old salesman journal, now called a call report, circa 1870,” says John Schaeffer Shields, who is chairman of the board of Schaeffer Manufacturing Co. “He had written ‘Can’t make calls today. Bridge is out due to high water and town is closed down today due to a hanging.'”
The 20th Century
When Jacob died in 1917, William Shields, who was married to Jacob’s only daughter, Marie, became president. William remained president until his oldest son, Tom, succeeded him. World War I, the Roaring ’20s, the Great Depression and World War II impacted the St. Louis area much as they did other parts of America. “During the depression year, it was very, very slow and we were just holding on,” says John Shields, who credits his brother Tom Shields with breathing new life into the company. “The business had a rebirth in 1947, when my brother Tom came back from the war and instituted new products,” recalls John. Tom was a glider pilot during World War II. “We went aggressively into direct selling,” he remembers. According to John, Tom also initiated grease products that contained “moly” (molybdenum disulfide). Another brother, Gwynne Shields, was in charge of production. Mike Ryterski was master grease maker.
Impressive Sales Force
When Gwynne died, Ryterski became vice president of production. John Shields became actively involved with the company after Tom’s death in 1982.
The company has 10 warehouse facilities throughout the country, and 15 division sales managers supervising over 500 salesmen. Most of its lubricants — 58 percent — go to heavy farm equipment, followed by industrial equipment, mining and commercial trucks.
Advises current chairman John Schaeffer Shields: “Don’t let our 176 years fool you.
We are a very progressive company. Among our other products, we have a line of semi-synthetic oils that give our customers the benefits of a synthetic at a price just slightly above conventional petroleum based products. We provide soy-based fuel additives, oil analysis, in-house seminars, and we don’t just sell products, but go in partnership with our customers to provide total preventive maintenance.”
Credit: Peter S Adam
Pretty impressive to not only stay in business but stay family-oriented and with a unified goal. I have been running their products in the 4WAAM vehicles for several years now. Like any great oil, I don’t think about it after I put it in. Their Neutra fuel stabilizer additive is wonderful for keeping your vehicle running smoothly and it can be added to your engine oil to prevent carbon build-up.
Stay tuned as we test their degreaser and penetrating spray head to head against the most popular brands to see how it stacks up.