Tarr & Wonson Safe Contents

In April 2021 we were preparing to have the concrete floors of the Copper Mill building polished by Reliance Concrete Polishing. We were excited for the work to be done and were busy designing the whale art that was to go on the floor. However, there was one thing we needed to tackle before Reliance Concrete came in—we needed to move the antique safes that were in the buildings. The safes were originally in our main office building when we purchased the site; we moved them when we renovated the office building. The safes had been moved a few times (and even fell part-way through the floor in our upstairs office space) but they had never been opened.

We didn’t know what was inside, if anything, but were hoping to find historical documents from when the Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory was in operation. Since we had to move the safes, now seemed like the time to get them opened. We hired Earl’s Lock Shop of Gloucester to help us.

A day after we called, Thad of Earl’s Lock Shop was onsite, working to get the safes opened. After about an hour of drilling and fiddling, the first safe popped open. We were amazed to find the interiors just as Tarr & Wonson left them. There were 10 locked stockholder boxes that each stored financial documents and paint testing sheets. It turns out that safe wasn’t even locked, the lock was just jammed. The second safe took just about as long, and when we opened the doors stacks of old financial records came pouring out!


We reached out to Cape Ann Museum to get some guidance on preserving these materials and they provided us with a guide to follow.

Meanwhile we were looking for the right person to review the safe contents and organize them so we could share unique pieces with the public. Our volunteer, Maggie, stepped up to the plate and took on the daunting task of going through each piece of paper and organizing it into storage so that it would be easy to understand what we had and where it was.

Once everything was organized into folders and binders, Maggie started to look for themes or trends and comparative data.  This was difficult, as the types of information saved was not consistent through the decades.  It appears that whoever was the treasurer/accountant decided what should be saved, be it tax filings, export sales, or monthly bank statements.

Some facts and questions about the contents of the safes:

  • Export sales in 1902 included ten countries – England, Scotland, Austria, Holland, Spain, Norway, Gibraltar, Turkey, Egypt and France.  It gives you a sense of how revolutionary and needed this product was.
  • International sales in 1902 consisted of 27 sales in 10 countries.  In 1927 they had 263 sales in 29 countries.  This tells us that in those 25 years there was a large increase in transactions (an increase of almost 10 times) and in countries (locations tripled).  But then if you look at export sales in 1936, you see that they were down to just 94 transactions. There are so many unknowns—who was their competition, how did they advertise their product, what was their market share…? What if you look at total value of sales and how it changed between 1902 and 1927. Were they receiving larger orders as well as more orders?  Was the average value of a sale growing?  Since the sale prices are listed in Pounds Sterling, and the value of money changes over time, it is difficult to a develop a meaningful calculation.
  • They received several awards for their revolutionary paint, as noted on their 1891 letterhead.

We’re very thankful for Maggie’s help sorting all of these documents and for volunteering for us. Because of her efforts, anyone can review the documents, and preserving them will be a much easier job. Maggie was also one of the dedicated volunteers who helped us paint the interiors of the recently renovated Copper Mill building.

Contents of the Safes:

  • February 13, 1891- Correspondence concerning an account receivable (for CL Taylor & Co., San Francisco, CA)
  • Between January 31, 1899 and June 29, 1901 – A book with partial Trial Balance records
  • January 1890 – March 1932 – Equipment Inspection Reports
  • December 16, 1901 to July 21, 1903 — “Special Drafts in Duplicate, Order of Kidder, Peabody & Co.” The book contains records of their international sales. Sales were made to Turkey, Spain, Holland, France, Gibraltar, England, Scotland, Austria, Norway, Egypt and Australia.
  • 1913 through 1919 – Financial data and notes, as of April 1 each year. Perhaps for preparing for tax filings. This includes things such as list of assets, inventory values, sales, letters requesting the value of the unexpired insurance policies, bills payable, etc.
  • For some years between 1913 and 1924 – Check stubs recording invoices paid and use of that item in what particular product
  • 1927-1936 Annual records of export sales, payroll, inventory values and other financial related data.
  • 1928-1939- Copies of tax filings, with some back up
  • 1936 to 1946 – Insurance policies
  • January 1941 through December 1944 – monthly statements from First National Bank of Boston
  • January 1941 through December 1944- monthly statements from Cape Ann National Bank
  • Monthly canceled checks for years 1946, 1947, 1950, 1951
  • 1948-1965: Reports from Sub-Tropical Testing Service – Miami, Florida.  In years 1948-1954 these reports were sent to Henderson & Johnson at 121 Duncan Street in Gloucester.  From 1955-1965 they were sent to Tarr & Wonson at 129 Duncan Street in Gloucester.
  • For some years between 1955 and 1974: Atmospheric Panel Ratings (test data).
  • Box # 4 contains a large amount of raw data from studies in the 1950’s through the 1970’s. The data is from different sources but most of it is titled “Anti-Corrosive Rating” or “Duration of Exposure”.  In some cases, there are also reports from Miami Marine Research, Inc (Miami, FL) or US Testing Company, Inc. (Dallas, Texas).
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