Part Three: Mother of the 55 gallon steel drum
This post is part three of the Nellie Bly story. Catch up with parts one and two if you missed them before.
By the age of 30, in 1985, Bly had met and married Robert Seaman. At 70 years old he was two decades her senior, and a millionaire industrialist who owned a the Iron Clad Manufacturing Company, based in Brooklyn. At this time Bly retired from journalism, and began managing the factory. The company had already established itself as a kitchenware manufacturer and was currently producing milk cans and riveted boilers. Ten years into their marriage Seaman died, and Bly became president of the company. In 1901, at the Pan-American Exposition, Iron Clad Manufacturing was owned exclusively by Bly, and she was being promoted as “the only woman in the world personally managing industries of such a magnitude.”
After a trip to Europe in 1904, where she saw steel containers designed to hold glycerine, Bly was inspired to invent her own metal barrel. After many failed attempts including leaking barrels and defective solders, Bly attempted to braze the barrels, but that contaminated the liquid contents. She continued to work her designs until she had a barrel that she was proud to sell to the people. In only a year from her inspiring trip across the Atlantic, Bly had a design that was patented and ready for the American market.
Patent for Bly’s metal barrel
There was large demand for a container that could transport oil, gasoline, and other precious liquids, and at the time Bly and Iron Clad Manufacturing were the only American company who could meet those needs. At the peak of its performance, the company was producing 1,000 barrels a day and hiring around 1,500 employees. It is commonly believed that this design became the 55 gallon drum that is used today throughout the world.
Although the metal barrel was proving successful, legal issues were forming. Bly was owner and majority shareholder of both Iron Clad and its subsidiary, American Steel Barrel Company, and in a government affidavit she insisted that the same books were kept for the companies and it would be impossible to differentiate funds between one or the other; the companies were too dependent on each other to be separate entities. When she was asked to prove that all investments made into American Steel by Bly were for the best interest of Iron Clad and not herself, she was charged with fraud. Although there was no proof to convict her and she was innocent, creditors began calling and the business began to suffer.
Iron Clad Manufacturing eventually succumbed to debt and Bly returned to reporting just in time to cover the events of World War I. She died at the age of 57 due to pneumonia on January 27, 1922, and was laid to rest in her beloved New York City in the Bronx. Although, Bly is most remembered for her impressive reporting skills, contemporary members of the packaging industry know her better has the mother of the 55 gallon drum.
Thank you for following the story of Nellie Bly: Woman of Steel.