Hipwell Manufacturing Co. of Pittsburgh

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.

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. Hipwell started making flashlights in the 1940s. It made products for other manufacturers; its own products often bore the Hipco brand.

This O/S scale house made by Hipwell dates to the late 1940s or early 1950s. It’s made of lithographed tin.

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.

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.

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