John E. Hand & Sons Co. records
Held at: Independence Seaport Museum, J. Welles Henderson Archives and Library [Contact Us]Penn's Landing on the Delaware River, 211 South Columbus Blvd. and Walnut St., Philadelphia, PA, 19106
This is a finding aid. It is a description of archival material held at the Independence Seaport Museum, J. Welles Henderson Archives and Library. Unless otherwise noted, the materials described below are physically available in their reading room, and not digitally available through the web.
Overview and metadata sections
The John E. Hand & Sons Company was founded in Philadelphia in 1873, quickly gaining a reputation as competent manufacturers of nautical instruments and compass adjusters. In fact, John Enos Hand, the company founder, is recognized as “the first man in America to adjust a compass aboard an iron ship.” 1
The Hand Company built navigational equipment for all varieties of floating vessels, and operated a chain of retail outlets with “service stations” in numerous port cities, including Baltimore and New Orleans, until 1956. Service stations sold Hand instruments as well as other nautical paraphernalia and provided compass adjusting services. Additionally, John E. and his two sons, John L. and Bartram, were inventors, who patented design improvements for numerous instruments that were employed in the company’s work.
Commercial and private contracts dominated the firm’s business until the late 1930s when the United States military began preparations for World War II. Though the Hand Company never completely abandoned its involvement with private industry, after World War II, military contracts monopolized their business. The Company obtained contracts with the Navy, Coast Guard and Marines to develop new instruments, and to build military-engineered nautical equipment. Of note are the wrist compass, developed for the Navy beginning in the 1950s, and the Mark VII Model 5 Navy Standard Binnacle.
Though it moved numerous times, the Hand Company headquarters and factory remained in the Delaware Valley, occupying several buildings in Philadelphia and southern New Jersey. Maintaining its central office in Philadelphia well into the 1900s, the factory was moved to Atco, New Jersey around the turn of the twentieth century and subsequently to Haddonfield, New Jersey. It moved one last time in the 1960s to Cherry Hill, New Jersey.
In 1997, California-based Sunset Cliffs Merchandising Corporation purchased the Hand Company and all its assets for $100,000.
1 Caron Golden, “John E. Hand & Sons: A Story of an American Marine Instrument Manufacturer,” Nautical World (April, 1999), 42-49.
Department of the Navy, Bureau of Ships. Bureau of Ships Consolidated Index of Drawings, Materials and Services Related to Construction and Conversion. 1965.
Golden, Caron. “John E. Hand & Sons: A Story of an American Marine Instrument Manufacturer,” Nautical World (April, 1999): 42-49.
Navy Filing Manual. Available online: http://www.hnsa.org/doc/navyfile/agroup.htm
The collection documents the business activities of the John E. Hand & Sons Company from its institution in 1873 to 1997, when the company was sold. The collection boasts a wide breadth of material that includes legal documents, financial records, patents, correspondence, contracts, reports, catalogs and other ephemera, photographs, and engineering plans. Together, the records provide a thorough account of the firm’s operations.
With the exception of catalogs, photographs and measured drawings, materials dating from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries are primarily administrative in nature. Financial records and correspondence, for example, detail the day to day activities of the business of making nautical instruments. Later documentation, in contrast, is more technical in content, allowing for a greater understanding of the engineering work completed by the firm at the time.
Researchers should note that there is very little material regarding the personal lives of John E. Hand or his family, however, a few documents are present in the following series: II. John P. Mays Records, VI. Photographs and Negatives, and VIII. Hand Family Memorabilia.
Please review series descriptions and folder lists for further details.
The collection is divided into nine series.
The collection’s nine series are clustered into three general groups. The first group, comprised of series I to IV, houses textual records, such as correspondence, financial records and reports that document the company’s day to day operations over 100 years. The series are produced in chronological order, each representing a distinct period of time in the firm’s history and leadership. Due to changes in record keeping behaviors of company managers overtime, each series maintains its own unique arrangement scheme.
Series V to VII contain company catalogs and other ephemera, photographs and negatives, and measured drawings, respectively. These series, as with series I to IV, are based on original record groups created through the day to day work of the Hand Company. Researchers should note that while separate series are designated for record groups, such as photographs and measured drawings, these materials can also be found sporadically throughout the collection, augmenting textual documentation.
Rounding out the collection are series VIII and IX, which house miscellaneous materials that include personal items belonging to John E. Hand and reference materials on compass adjusting.
Donated by Michael Rivkin. ISM number: 2002.38
Processing of this collection was made possible by a generous grant from the Albert M. Greenfield Foundation.
The creation of the electronic guide for this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project.
Finding aid entered into the Archivists' Toolkit by Garrett Boos.
- Compasses (Mathematical instruments)
- Nautical instruments
- Navigation--Equipment and supplies
- World War II
- Independence Seaport Museum, J. Welles Henderson Archives and Library
- Finding Aid Author
- Finding aid prepared by Courtney Smerz with assistance from Judy Stevenson, 2007
- Finding Aid Date
- The creation of the electronic guide for this collection was made possible through generous funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, administered through the Council on Library and Information Resources’ “Cataloging Hidden Special Collections and Archives” Project. Finding aid entered into the Archivists' Toolkit by Garrett Boos.
- Access Restrictions
Access and use restrictions are placed on several files as noted on box and folder lists. Restrictions to be lifted in 2026.
- Use Restrictions
Copyright restrictions may apply. Please contact the Archives with requests for copying and for authorization to publish, quote or reproduce the material.
Brought together under the umbrella “Central File,” series I is comprised of two original file systems of the same nature, documenting the first eighty-three years of the company’s history. It is by far the most diverse series in the collection and includes legal, financial, patent, personnel and real estate records, newspaper clippings as well as company correspondence and subject files. The series is divided into nine subseries based on the above listed document categories. Collectively, the subseries offer a more thorough overview of business activities than subsequent series; however there is little technical information to specifically document the development or manufacture of nautical instruments.
The Legal; Financial; Patents; Personnel; and Newspaper clippings subseries are arranged chronologically. Real estate; Early correspondence and subject files; Correspondence, Contracts and orders; and Offshoot companies subseries are arranged alphabetically.
Please note that a number of the personnel records are restricted until the year 2026, due to the presence of employees’ social security numbers on the documents.
The researcher is advised to give attention to bulk dates. A number of later documents were included in the series due to their nature or subject matter, however, there is very little in the series dated beyond 1958.
I. Central file / f. Early Correspondence and Subject Files / f. Emergency Fleet Corp.
I. Central File / g. Correspondence, contracts & orders / f. “Ship yard price information,” 1934, undated.
I. Central File / g. Correspondence, contracts & orders / f. Newport News Shipbuilding, 1938-1948.
I. Central file / g. Correspondence, contracts & orders/ f. “Government form of bid,” 1935-1937, 1940, undated.
Central file / g. Correspondence, contracts & orders / Instruments. Lifeboat compass, 1943-1949, 1967, 1976, 1977, undated
I. Central file / g. Correspondence, contracts & orders / f. Instruments. Lifeboat compass, 1943-1949, 1967, 1976, 1977, undated
John P. Mays joined the Hand Company as an instrument maker in 1943. By 1956, he was promoted to the position of General Manager, where he served until his retirement in 1977. The records in this series document Mays’s tenure as General Manager. They are divided into two subseries.
Subseries a, Instrument Development and Manufacturing Files, evidences the actual work of the firm, providing a plethora of technical information about the nautical instruments the company produced in the mid-twentieth century. Generally, researchers will find development reports, product manuals, purchase orders, related correspondence and manufacturing contracts for a majority of the products represented. Files on the development and manufacture of a wrist compass for the United States Navy and the Mk VII Mod 5 Navy Standard Binnacle are particularly robust. Records are arranged alphabetically by instrument name. See multiple subseries in Series VII, Measured Drawings for associated engineering plans.
Subseries b, Correspondence and Subject Files, contains all files from Mays’s tenure that were not specifically affiliated with instrument records. In particular, there are numerous files pertaining to the firm’s history. Mays took a special interest in the Company’s early years as it approached its 1973 centennial anniversary. He compiled copies of historic photographs and documents in a scrapbook, which is housed in this subseries. Unrelated to the firm’s history, there is also significant correspondence with Electro Marine Corporation. Files are arranged alphabetically by subject and/or correspondent.
There are no personnel records for this time period.
II. John P. Mays Records / a. Instrument files / f. Binnacle. Mk VII Mod 5, contract # N00104-68-D-0015, 1967-1969, undated.
Irene Richeal, like John P. Mays, advanced her position within the company. She joined the staff as a secretary in the 1940s; by the late 1970s she was one third owner of the firm and serving as General Manager. The records in this series date circa 1978 to 1998. They also document the company’s 1998 sale to San Diego-based company, Deutche-Optik. The series is divided into two subseries.
Subseries a, Instruments, houses information for company produced nautical instruments. Like Mays’s records, files are arranged alphabetically by instrument name.
Subseries b, Correspondence and Subject Files, is almost exclusively devoted to records produced through the company sale and associated transfer of instruments, antiques and records in the late 1990s.
Series IV documents purchases of raw materials, parts and other supplies, and provides contact information for retailers that sold Hand Company products. It is divided into two subseries.
Subseries a. contains a Kardex® card file, which evidences the purchase of raw materials, parts and other supplies used in the manufacture of Hand instruments from 1947 to 1948. The information is organized in three ways. The first group is arranged numerically by parts’ identification numbers. Researchers should note that the identification numbers directly correlate to Series VII. Measured Drawings, subseries b. Engineering Plans, 1946-1948, which houses drawings for those parts. The second group is arranged alphabetically by the name of the relevant raw material. For example, all brass parts are filed together under the heading “brass.” The third group is arranged alphabetically by part name; all records for the purchase of bolts are filed together. Generally, in each of the three subgroups, researchers will be able to identify for which instrument the part or raw material was purchased, a product description, part identification number, purchase order number and date, quantity purchased and unit price. In addition, there is provided a vendor name with contact information.
Subseries b. houses an index card file that provides information on vendors and suppliers as well as distributors of Hand instruments for the period ca. 1950 to 1979. It, too, is divided into three alphabetically arranged groups. The first is alphabetized by the part or raw material name, providing the names, addresses and phone numbers for all suppliers of that particular product. Following are two alphabetically arranged groups of dealers and distributors that sold Hand instruments in their shops. The groups are dated ca. 1950 to 1960 and ca. 1960 to 1979, respectively. Each card lists the name and location of the company or individual and purchase dates.
Materials created by the Hand Company to market their products are housed in Series V. In addition there are competitor catalogs, federal specification pamphlets and other printed materials. There are no formal subseries.
Sales catalogs, dating from ca. 1909 to 1915, followed by four catalog-like volumes, dating ca. 1915 and 1956 to 1965, are first in the series. The last volumes are basically assembled brochures, ephemera and photographs. Next, researchers will find issues of “The Nautical Almanac” (published until 1920) and “The Hand Book” (published after 1926). Produced as comprehensive reference guides for seafarers these Hand Company publications included, among other things, tide charts, pertinent addresses, coastal and geodetic surveys, compass reading instructions, Morse code and the Beaufort scale of winds. Other printed materials include, advertising brochures, individual catalog pages, design layout materials and promotional calendars. Wrapping up the series are numerous competitors’ catalogs, federal specifications and other miscellaneous materials.
Please review folder listing for further details.
V. Catalogs, printed materials & other ephemera / f. Layout sheets. Hansphere, mounted photographs, undated
Series VI houses a majority of the collection’s photographic prints and negatives. It is divided into two subseries.
Subseries a, Portraits and Snapshots, gathers together images in which the subject matter is other than nautical instruments. Portraits of John E. Hand, his sons and grandsons as well as images of men working in the Atco factory at the turn of the twentieth century offer a glimpse into a more personal side of the business, which is otherwise absent from the collection. Researchers will also find images of nearly all company buildings in Philadelphia and New Jersey.
Subseries b, Instruments, contains a collection of black and white photographs of company manufactured nautical instruments that are presumed to date from the early decades of the twentieth-century. Other prints were added to the record group during processing, dating from the second half of the twentieth century. Photographs are arranged alphabetically by instrument name.
Filed at the end of each of the subseries are negatives of various formats including 2 x 3 in. and 35 mm. While many of the negatives match photographs in the series, there are numerous negatives for which there are no corresponding prints.
II. John P. Mays / b. Correspondence and subject files / f. Company history. Multiple files
This series houses engineering plans created or used by the Hand Company from 1912 to 1991. There are original pencil sketches and drawings, reproducibles, blueprints, sepia and diazo prints, photostats, photocopies and microfilm. It is divided into five subseries, which are based on the date of creation and/or maker. The first three subseries house plans created by the Hand Company. Following, are two subseries of engineering plans created by military agencies.
Subseries a, Engineering Plans Created Before 1946, retains drawings for a variety of nautical instruments designed and/or manufactured by the Hand Company from 1917 to 1946. A chronological arrangement was imposed during processing.
Subseries b, Engineering Plans Created from 1946 to 1948 was created by company engineers, providing for the construction of individual instrument parts and assembly. It is distinguished from other measured drawings subseries in the collection by its design and unique organizational scheme. All drawings within the group maintain the same format, which consists of a signature block in the lower right corner, and identification number and part name noted in the upper right corner. Identification numbers provide the basis for the numerical arrangement scheme.
Three categories of drawings are represented: instrument parts, part assembly diagrams and complete assembly diagrams. Instrument parts drawings are assigned eight digit identification numbers; the first four digits correspond to the general type of part, the last four correspond to the specific part. Please note, however, that folder titles reflect only the first four digits. Part assembly diagrams are identified by a four-digit number preceded by the letter “A,” and complete assembly diagram identification numbers are preceded by “CA.” A majority of parts plans are drawn to actual size, pictured on 8 ½ by 10 inch sheets of paper. Large format drawings also exist for a number of the plans.
Please note that there are two duplicate sets of drawings. The first houses “reproducible” pencil drawings, and the second consists of blueprint reproductions.
Researchers interested in materials or supplies used in the manufacture of these parts should also consult Series IV. Vendor / distributor Contacts and Purchase Orders, which contains a complimentary file; its organization mimics that of this subseries and it also dates to the mid 1940s.
Subseries c, Engineering Plans Created After 1948, contains drawings for company buildings as well as nautical instruments, dating from 1948 to 1991. A chronological arrangement was imposed during processing, with a group of unidentified drawings filed at the end.
Subseries d, Bureau of Ships (BuShips) and Other Military Issued Engineering Plans, gathers drawings associated with military contracts, identified by military identification numbers and agency names, from 1912 to 1972. The drawings are first grouped by agency; New York Navy Yard, Coast Guard, Bureau of Ships (BuShips), Ships Parts Control Center and the Naval Engineering Center, and then arranged chronologically. Folder titles take the following format: “Creating agency name. “Instrument name and/or title of drawing(s).” Drawing number(s).” Please review box and folder list for more details.
Subseries e, Filmed Engineering Plans (Aperture Cards), is the last subseries in Series VII. It consists of aperture cards, which are machine readable cards containing mounted microfilm. They were issued to the Hand Company by the Navy’s Bureau of Ships from 1974 to 1988. © 2007 Independence Seaport Museum, J. Welles Henderson Archives and Library
Cards are marked with government assigned drawing numbers that coordinate with numbers assigned to drawings housed in the previous subseries. Please review the folder list for more details.