Last Updated on October 22, 2022 by Dave Farquhar
The Hipwell Manufacturing Co. of Pittsburgh was the inventor of the single-cell battery and a venerable producer of flashlights. As recently as 2002, Hipwell produced 2 million flashlights in the United States.
The Hipwell (Hipco) single cell battery
Hipwell built a factory at 831 W North Ave., on Pittsburgh’s north side, around 1900. Founded in 1887, Hipwell originally produced lamp wicks and other lamp parts. As oil lamps became novelties rather than necessities due to electricity, Hipwell added batteries and metal stampings for automobiles to its repertoire.
The single-cell battery made batteries more reliable, and Hipwell touted the advantages right on the battery shell itself. Hipwell also touted its battery on the outer walls of its factory. The ghost sign remained visible long after batteries were Hipwell’s major line of business, and even after Hipwell went out of business in 2005. The faded battery image was still visible on Google Street View in August 2021. And the major signage on the building itself said both batteries and flashlights, along with the company name.
But in spite of Hipwell’s pioneering work in the field of batteries, in the end, Hipwell became more of a flashlight company.
Hipwell Manufacturing Co started making flashlights in the 1940s. It made products for other manufacturers; its own products often bore the Hipco brand. They produced flashlights aimed both at household use and as toys for kids. The flashlights for kids featured colorful lithographed designs with popular themes of the time like outer space and westward expansion. The more utilitarian flashlights marketed for household use still had thoughtful industrial design that matched trends of the day. They tended to be chrome plated, with an accent color that matched what was popular that decade, and changing between streamlined and ribbed designs on the body of the light depending on what was popular.
Hipwell (H&H) electric train accessories
Hipwell also briefly produced accessories for electric trains. In 1980, Harry H Hipwell Jr. recalled his father going to buy him some light posts for his Lionel train. The price offended him, and he decided to make better lights for his son. Hipwell recalled this happening in 1943, and the company selling its line of accessories until 1948. The problem with this recollection is that in 1943, nobody was making toys due to World War II. So it’s likely this fateful trip to the store happened later. Furthermore, ads in Playthings magazine suggest Hipwell released the accessories in 1950.
At any rate, for a time in the early postwar era, Hipwell sold lightposts, signs, and tinplate houses for use with Lionel and American Flyer electric trains. Hipwell produced 400,000 diecast lights and 100,000 miniature houses, which they sold under the H&H brand name.
Hipwell wasn’t the only company to catch the electric train wave in the early postwar era, then shift to another line of business. Colber is another example of a long running company that made train accessories just for a brief time.
Perhaps surprisingly, Hipwell was late to succumb to overseas competition. For example, St. Louis-based Crunden-Martin barely survived the 1980s.
Even in the early 2000s, Chinese makers were selling flashlights for below Hipwell’s cost, but Hipwell survived by providing fast turnaround and fulfilling orders too small for the Chinese to bother with. The Hipwell family sold the company in 2002 to a group of investors including George Parks. Noting the company never advertised, Parks hoped the company had some growth potential.
Unfortunately for Hipwell and its 30 employees, by 2005 making flashlights in Pittsburgh was no longer cost effective. Hipwell closed that year, ending a 118-year legacy. In some recent photos of the complex, signs are still visible, including an ad for an old-school No. 6 battery.
David Farquhar is a computer security professional, entrepreneur, and author. He started his career as a part-time computer technician in 1994, worked his way up to system administrator by 1997, and has specialized in vulnerability management since 2013. He invests in real estate on the side and his hobbies include O gauge trains, baseball cards, and retro computers and video games. A University of Missouri graduate, he holds CISSP and Security+ certifications. He lives in St. Louis with his family.