In the beginning
The building at 128 Chandler Street, Worcester, was constructed in 1883 by J. R. Torrey Razor Co. The business was begun in a very small way in 1858, by Joseph R. Torrey, with eight employees. Initially, just razor strops and dressing cases were made, under the name J.R. Torrey & Co. In 1880, J. R. Torrey partnered with Joseph Turner, a practical razor maker from Sheffield, England, and incorporated J. R. Torrey Razor Co. in order to begin producing straight razors. The main building was erected and, after several years of prosperous growth, a large addition was added, in 1905. The company introduced many razor improvements, including the vulcanized rubber handle, as well as improvements to the processes and machinery used in their manufacture.
By World War I, the company was thriving and in 1919, it had grown enough that the razor strop factory building was constructed adjacent to the razor factory. At the peak of popularity, the company employed 325 people and shipped all over the country. It was noted in the book, Industrial Worcester by Charles G. Washburn, that in 1917 they were the only factory exclusively dedicated to the manufacture of straight razors in the United States (Washburn, 1917).
By the 1920s, the introduction of safety razors (and eventually the electric razor) resulted in a drop in popularity of straight razors. The impact of this was that the Torrey Company reduced their scale of production and combined all of their departments into the building at 128 Chandler Street. In 1945, the Torrey Company sold the main factory building (128 Chandler Street) to the Bigelow Electric Company; however, the Torrey Company continued leasing space in the factory. Sales continued to slow and in 1952 the Torrey Company closed (Crotty, 1962).
Excerp from Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs (Crane, 1907):
"Joseph Rice Torrey was born August 23, 1828, at New Salem, Massachusetts. When but two years of age his father died and his mother moved to Barre, Massachusetts, where he attended the common schools and subsequently his his own efforts the Wesleyan Academy at Wilbraham, Massachusetts, and also took a course at the Leicester Academy, where he early showed in a marked degree the physical strength and power of endurance of an athlete which has served him so well in the hard and constant work of later years.
At the age of seventeen he taught school, teaching for two years in Barre and Leicester, and then became an ap prentice to the trade of stone-cutting, at which he worked for about four years. Being considered an expert penman he took up the teaching of penmanship at Leicester and Westminster academics and other places in Worcester county, finally locating in the city of Worcester in 1852, where he engaged as bookkeeper with Will iam H. Dexter, then in the flour and grain busi ness. While occupying this position he originated a system of accounts which was approved by Mr. Dexter, and adopted by several large dealers in the same line of business.
We next find him in the grocery trade, conducting a large retail business under the firm name of Eddy & Torrey; this part nership was dissolved in 1858. Feeling that he had not yet discovered his favorite calling he decided, after carefully following out a line of investiga tion in which he had been much interested for some time, to engage in the manufacture of razor strops. His grocery business not having proved financially successful owing to the great trade depression cujminating in the disastrous year of 1857, he began his new venture without capital depending solely upon his own labor for the support of his family, but by untiring industry nights as well as days he soon established a reputation for making goods superior to any other in this his newly chosen line.
Year by year he continued to expand this business and enlarge his territory for trade. Commencing in a small way in 1858, by 1880 he owned the largest industry of the kind in existence. During the year 1880 he added the manufacture of razors and organized with Joseph Turner, a skilled expert in that line of cutlery, the J. R. Torrey Razor Com pany, with Mr. Turner as president and himself as treasurer. They were as conservative in this venture as Mr. Torrey had been in the strop busi ness, but with the passing years of steady growth, the razor business has increased until now this firm is by far the largest exclusive manufacturers of razors in this country, if not in the world, and wherever men shave their faces the "Torrey" brand is known and appreciated for its exceedingly fine temper and keen cutting qualities.
There had been several previous attempts to manufacture razors in the United States. Some of them on quite an extensive scale, bringing from England experienced workmen, and in one instance barrels of water were imported in which to harden the blades, under the singular delusion that the water in this country was not suitable for that purpose. But all these attempts proved failures, and it remained for the J. R. Torrey Razor Com pany to establish the first successful manufactory for that article in America."
Excerp from Why Wealth Disappears (Chesler, 2011):
"The J.R. Torrey Razor company manufactured straight razors from about 1850 to the end of World War I. It initially imported high-carbon steel razors from Sweden, but by the 1870s, Worcester, Mass., where the company was based, had become a steel manufacturing center, and J.R. Torrey Razor was one of its most prominent firms. The company’s success made the Torrey family one of the wealthiest in Worcester. They were the first to own an automobile and one of the first to have a telephone—though they soon removed it because the only other person in town with a phone was the butcher. After the war, however, America’s love affair with straight razors began to wane as many people switched to safety razors. Joseph Torrey, the second generation of Torrey’s to lead the firm, couldn’t transform the company to make cheap disposable blades. He was also too preoccupied with flying—he held the fifth private flying license ever issued in the U.S.—speculating in the stock market and other escapades to manage the company. By the time he died in the early 1960s, his sister, Marion, had to rent out rooms in her house to students to make ends meet."
- Ellery Crane: Historic Homes and Institutions and Genealogical and Personal Memoirs, Lewis Publishing, 1907
- Charles Washburn: Industrial Worcester, The Davis Press, 1917
- Frank Crotty: He belongs to Early Birds of Aviation, Worcester Sunday Telegram, September 9, 1962
- Caren Chesler: Why Wealth Disappears, Private Wealth Magazine, May 18, 2011
- Robert Waits: Before Gillette: The Quest for a Safe Razor, lulu.com, 2012
When purchased in 2019, the building had been vacant and neglected for over 10 years. After careful restoration, it now hosts 47 loft-style apartments, featuring modern amenities such as luxury kitchens, with granite counter tops and stainless steel appliances, central A/C, integrated security system, internet and cable TVs.
The development has been awarded state and federal tax credits for its attention to preseving the historic architectural elements and character of the building and it is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
A permanent exhibition was created to commemorate the factory and its achievements. The online version of it can be found here.