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A view of the Arnold Print works, c. 1900. Sprague Electric took over this location in 1942 and it's now the home of MASS MoCA. 

 

The Sprague Log:
Preserving a Company Newsletter

A Hardman Library Grant Project

 

     The Sprague Electric Company moved to North Adams in 1930 and for a time was the largest single employer in the city. At its peak, Sprague Electric employed over 12,000 people worldwide, including over 4,000 at its North Adams facilities. With a population of just under 20,000, North Adams became a "company town,"  and, for many years, the company promoted the idea of a Sprague family of workers through the sponsorship of a variety of social activities.  In 1938 the company began publishing a company newsletter, the Sprague Log. Items in the Sprague Log fell into two major categories: those that lauded loyalty to the company and pride in a job well done, and those that promoted the happy Sprague family through wedding and birth announcements, features on the various Sprague athletic teams and countless family photographs. When the company moved its headquarters out of North Adams in 1985, the Sprague Log ceased publication. From 1938 to 1985, over 466 issues of the Log were published. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, the North Adams Historical Society and the North Adams Public Library have pooled their Log holdings to make a nearly complete run of the Sprague Log available on the internet. Digitizing and microfilming the Logs was made possible with funding from MCLA's Hardman Library Grant.

 

 

Click here to access Sprague Logs

 

History of the Sprague Electric Company

     The history of the Sprague Electric Company began in Quincy , Massachusetts in 1926, when Robert C. Sprague founded the Sprague Specialties Company. The company manufactured electrical components used in radios; in particular, a radio 'tone control'. At first, the company was operated from the basement of Sprague's home and he and his wife were the only two (unpaid) employees. Within three years, due to the growth of the electrical industry and the success of Sprague's "midget" condenser (or capacitor), the company employed 300 workers and had moved into larger quarters. As the need for additional space grew, Mr. Sprague looked to North Adams , where his father Franklin, noted inventor and colleague of Thomas Edison, had grown up and where Robert had spent part of his childhood. Local businessmen offered to raise $200,000 through stock purchases and local banks offered extensive credit to encourage Sprague to move the company to North Adams .  It was an offer he couldn't refuse and the Beaver Street factory, a renovated textile mill on the northeast side of town, opened in 1930. It employed 400 area residents, many of whom were young women just out of high school.

     Over the next few years, the company's sales continued to climb dramatically, but expenditures tied to the growth of the plant outstripped profits, and Sprague faced a growing number of competitors. By 1933, the company was $800,000 in debt despite record sales. Fortunately, an early commitment to research and development allowed Sprague to remain in the forefront of the electronics market with the regular issue of new products. As the product line expanded, the company again needed additional production space. The Brown Street plant opened in 1937.  By 1940, the company employed more than 1,300 men and women in North Adams and claimed to be the number one producer of condensers in the country. Between 1936 and 1944, sales grew seven-fold and employment almost four-fold, due, in large part, to sales of components to the U.S.  military and its suppliers. World War II and the buildup in arms prior to the war provided an opportunity for tremendous growth for Sprague. By 1944, Sprague produced 9,675 different electrical components which were used in tank ignition systems, transceivers, radar and radios used by all sections of the military.  The Variable Timing (V-T) Proximity Fuze was used by both the Navy and the Army in critical military operations in Japan and the Battle of the Bulge. Sprague also designed and built the capacitors which triggered the atom bomb dropped on Nagasaki . This increased war production enabled the company to purchase the Marshall Street plant in 1942.

     After the war, production continued to increase and Sprague provided components to all the major producers of electrical products in the United States, including General Electric, RCA, Zenith, Sunbeam, Ford and Westinghouse. Sprague also supplied components to a number of government agencies, including NASA. Sprague components were part of Explorer 1, the first US satellite, and the space shuttle Columbia .  Sprague also made outstanding contributions to the development of semiconductors. Employment and production peaked in the mid-1960s and Sprague opened plants in Scotland, France, Italy and Japan. Ultimately, Sprague employed 12,000 workers worldwide and over 4,000 in North Adams alone. In a town of almost 20,000, many families saw at least one member join the Sprague workforce and many other local businesses were financially impacted by the company.  When Sprague finally closed its doors in North Adams in 1985, having gradually reduced the size of its plant and the number of people it employed, the population of North Adams had dropped to under 16,000 and unemployment had soared to over 14%.

The Sprague Log

     In 1936 and 1937, the company experienced its first two brief labor actions and, in 1937, the company authorized its first employee union. When the Wagner Act (1935) made company unions illegal, the company helped the Sprague Company Union transition into the Independent Condenser Workers Union. In 1938, just about the time the workers took a ten percent pay cut, the first Sprague Log made its appearance and it  has been suggested that it was launched to reinforce the paternal employee relations the company was to use for many years to counter potentially disruptive union activity, particularly from outside agitators. (Sprague workers were indeed the target of attempts by the national United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America and other unions to organize within the company.) 

    The Sprague Company sponsored a wide variety of social activities over the years, both in and out of the plant. Company parties and picnics were commonplace. Baseball, bowling, golfing, fishing and gun sports were all popular employee activities endorsed by the company.  Sprague even sponsored an orchestra. Articles on all these activities filled the pages of the Log. Family was all important in the Log, although the first issue likened the company "to a ship, on a modern business voyage, with captain, officers and crew."  "Clean-cut stories, pictures and news of athletic, plant and social activities will be published,..."  "It is our wish to make this little paper of lasting value and constructive interest, not only to you, but to your families as well." 

     The first issue contained a mix of items that set the pattern for years of Logs to come. Biographies of long-term employees share the page with a request for vacation photographs and a picture of workers in the dry rolling department. Each worker in a photograph was always identified, making the Log that much more a family document. Page three listed new babies, engagements and marriages, with, of course, family photographs. The majority of articles were written by Sprague employees. Birthday announcements and incidental family notices (vacations, hospital stays, etc.) are finally followed by business news.  Upbeat comments ("Did you know...That we have fifteen graduate engineers on our engineering and research staffs?") were interspersed with those of a less optimistic nature, perhaps to help the employees accept the recent pay cut: "(O)ur business for the first half of 1938 was 56% less than our business for the first of '37".) The 1938 Logs made no direct reference to recent labor unrest and rarely ever did so until the 1970's, by which time the newsletter had lost much of its family gloss and was more business oriented in tone. Issues from the war years, when the Log was renamed the Sprague Victory Log, emphasized the need to work harder and the contribution Sprague products were making to the military effort. The quote at the top of the masthead was "Working Together for Victory". News and letters from former employees then in the services were published, along with the usual social notes. When the company expanded to other areas in the country, the Log, although still published from North Adams, included stories from these new plants. For a few years during the sixties, the Log often consisted of an 8-page national newsletter, with an 8-page supplement unique to each of the major plants. 

     In March 1970, Sprague Electric was hit by a major labor strike, which lasted ten weeks. That year, only two issues of the Log were published, and it would not resurface until 1978.  By then, the company had been purchased by General Cable/GK TechnoLogies and an average of three Logs a year was being published, compared to an average of twelve issues in earlier years. In 1985, the North Adams plants were closed when the then owner of Sprague Electric, Penn Central Corporation (now Great American Financial Resources, Inc.), moved the headquarters. The Log ceased publication.

    For many years, the Log's target audience was almost exclusively its employees and its purpose, according to the minutes of the Sprague Board of Directors meeting in December 1938, was to provide "a means to develop an improved relationship" with the workers; hence, the generally cheerful emphasis on family and success. (The board authorized up to $300 to produce each issue, a not inconsiderable sum when the hourly wage for many of Sprague's workers was 40 cents and they were just about to take a ten percent cut in their pay.) Not only were the workers part of the Sprague 'family', but their families were also part of the larger company family. Recreation and social events were celebrated along side of the business successes of the company and its employees. Sprinkled among all the positive family news were the occasional article or cartoon which emphasized the need for loyalty to the company and hard work. The Logs give the modern reader a unique view of the company, and while that view may not always have been an accurate reflection of what was happening on all fronts at Sprague Electric (interviews with former employees through the Shifting Gears oral history project out of University of Massachusetts at Lowell (1988-1989) indicate that the happy family view was exaggerated in the Log), it speaks to a time in American industry when companies attempted to exercise what has been described as a "moral economy".  

 

Bibliography

Bahlman, D.R. "R. C. Sprague is dead at 91." Berkshire Eagle, September 28, 1991: A1, B5.
Burchard, Linda. "A Dynamic Force for the City." Berkshire Eagle, September 28, 1991: A1, B5.
Burns, Stewart. "Capacitors and Community: Women Workers at Sprague Electric, 1930-1980." Public Historian 11, no. 4 (Autumn 1989): 61-81.
Cuyler, Lewis C. "Robert C. Sprague: The Energy Behind Sprague Electric." Berkshires Week (Supplement to the Berkshire Eagle), June 12-18, 1988: 7-11.
Gabrielsky, Robert Paul. "The Evolution of the Marshalll Street Complex in North Adams." Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 1991: 24-42.
Hoberman, Michael. "High Crimes and Fallen Factories: Nostalgic Utopianism in an Eclipsed New England Industrial Town." Oral History Review, Winter/Spring 2001: 17-40.
Seider, Maynard. "The CIO in Rural Massachusetts: Sprague Electric and North Adams, 1937-1944." Historical Journal of Massachusetts, Winter 1994: 51-73.
Sprague Log.1938-1985.
"The History of the "Log"." Sprague Log, September 1978: 2. 

This project was completed with the support of the North Adams Historical Society, the North Adams Public Library and the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts Computer Support Services. Funding was provided from the Hardman Library Grant.