Although Theodor Kundtz was not the first person to construct sewing machine cabinets, cases and table for Cleveland’s White Sewing Machine Company, his firm was the best-known – eventually becoming so important to the success of the White Company that they purchased his business when he retired in 1915. Kundtz biographer, Christopher J. Eiben, surmising:
Although the name is unknown in today’s old car community, Kundtz had a second line of work - providing coachwork to Cleveland’s early automobile and truck manufacturers. That sideline became so popular that at the onset of World War I, Kundtz employed as many as 1,200 worked in his dedicated auto body factory.
Kundtz supplied the bulk of the White Motor Company’s factory coachwork from 1902-1920 and also supplied bodies to Murray, Peerless, Stearns, Winton and Worthington. Although they did not specialize in custom work the Murray-chassised Kundtz Cubist Touring car was one of the main attractions at the 1918 New York Auto Salon.
Theodor Josephus ‘Tori’ Kundtz was born on July 1, 1852 in Unter-Metzenseifen, Austria-Hungary (now Medzev, Slovakia) to Josephus (a roof framer) and Theresa (Kesselbauer) Kundtz. Theresa, a Lutheran, was not a native of Metzenseifen and is said to have been born in Bratislava (current capital of Slovakia).
Josephus died of tuberculosis in 1866 (aged 44), at which time 14-year-old Theodor took over his father’s woodworking and cabinetry business. Kundtz siblings included a younger brother Emike, and four sisters; Anna, Julia, Theresia and Mary.
At the age of 21 he decided to seek his fortune amongst the growing Hungarian community in Cleveland, Ohio. Thedor travelled to the Havre where he booked passage on a steamer headed to the United States, arriving on April 20, 1873, and within a few short weeks, his final destination, Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
He found employment with Whitworth & Hawkins, a manufacturer of sewing machine tables and cases owned by John Whitworth and Edgar E. Hawkins and located at 9 Frankfort and 31 St. Clair. A similarly named firm engaged in the same line of work (sewing machine cover and case mfg.) was Whitworth & Stewart (William Whitworth and John N. Stewart) whose plant was located at Carter cor. Scranton Ave.
Hawkins withdrew from business the business shortly thereafter and he was replaced by Sheldon Sickles, the firm’s listing in the 1874 Cleveland Directory being:
Whitworth & Sickles withdrew from business in 1875 and the firm’s assets were acquired by four former employees (G. Gebhard; T. Kundtz; C. Simon and E. Genee) who reorganized it as the Cleveland Cabinet Company. Kundtz’ later used ‘Established 1875’ on his letterhead, which refers to the creation of Cleveland Cabinet Co., not the Theodor Kundtz Co. Cleveland Cabinet’s listing in the 1876 Cleveland Directory follows:
On January 30, 1879 the Cleveland Cabinet Works’ St. Clair St. manufactory was destroyed by fire:
Kundtz took his share of the insurance and set up his own business at 122 Elm Street. Prior to 1879 a number of firms supplied White with cases, cabinets and tables, but according to Kundtz biographer, Christopher J. Eiben:
One history of the firm states that in 1876 Thomas White, founder of Cleveland’s White Sewing Machine Co., presented a sewing machine to Kundtz’ wife Agnes in appreciation for her service as laundress to the White family. Theodor constructed a cabinet to house the machine for his wife, and a lifelong business partnership resulted.
Theodor married Agnes Ballasch (born May 18, 1853 in Unter-Metzenseifen, Austria-Hungary to George and Anna Maria [Mullner] Ballasch) on 8 Oct 1874 in Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio.
Although the couple enjoyed several years of wedded bliss, it soon became apparent that Agnes was incapable of producing offspring, which produced a rift in the marriage as Theodor was determined to have children. Theodore selected his wife’s niece as a more suitable mate and shortly after she graduated from finishing school in 1884, he divorced Agnes and married her niece, Maria T. Ballasch (born on November 21, 1867 in Cleveland, Cuyahoga County, Ohio to Matthias and Anna [Stroempl] Ballasch).
To the blessed union were born ten children: Joseph Peter (b.1887-d.1889); Theodore S. (aka Theodor Kuntz jr. – b.1889-d.1964); Merie Cacelia (m. Tubman, b.1896-d.1981); William Joseph (b.1898-d.1965); Ewald Edmond (b.1901-d.1992); Joseph Erno (b.1902-d.1930 in a plane crash); Irene Mignon (m. Weizer, b.1904-d.1996); Angela Theodora (m. Hueffed, b.1906-d.2000); Leopold Raymond (b.1907-d.1973); and Dorothy Marguer (m. O'Neill, b.1910-d.1998)Kundtz.
As White Sewing Machine Co.’s business improved so did Kundtz’s and in 1880 he brought most of his immediate family to Cleveland from Unter-Metzenseifen.
The 1882 Cleveland directory lists him under Sewing Mach. Cabinet Ware:
He moved to larger facilities one block away in 1883, his entry in the 1884 Cleveland directory under Sewing Machine Cabinets lists two distinct manufactories:
During the next decade sales of sewing machines increased exponentially as did Kuntz business which by 1894 encompassed three separate factories, all within 1 block of one other. His Listing in the 1894 Cleveland directory under Sewing Machine Cabinets stating:
Kundtz employed Hungarian immigrants almost exclusively, many of which were from his home town. As Cleveland’s best-known Metzenseifer resident, Kundtz served a central role in Cleveland’s Metzenseifer and Hungarian community. In 1890 he spearheaded the construction of Clark Ave.’s Hungaria Hall and helped found the Hungarian Savings and Loan Association, which was an outgrowth of his serving as the unofficial Metzenseifer mortgage co.
He was known as ‘Fota’ (father) Kundtz among Cleveland’s Hungarian immigrants, and he and his wife were godparents to numerous children. A White sewing machine would often be presented as a wedding gift if ‘Fota Kundtz’ was amongst the invited.
As his business expanded Kundtz introduced additional product lines, which included bicycle and carriage wheels and institutional furniture, the latter being much sought-after by regional communities constructing new schools and churches.
The firm’s church furniture factory was located on Hird Street (now Hird Ave.) in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood. The firm, popularly known as 'Kundtz Craftsmen', was a reorganization of the Faulhaber Church Furniture Co. which was founded by George Faulhaber, a fellow parishioner of Kundtz’ at the St. Rose Catholic Church.
By 1910 the new lines had become just as important as their sewing machine cabinetry, as evidenced by their listing in the 1910 Cleveland Directory:
One of Kundtz factories specialized in the production of wooden automobile parts and accessories, their listing in the 1910 Motor Cycle Motor Boat & Automobile Trade Directory:
In fact Kundt’s first automobile bodies had been constructed almost one decade earlier, the first mention of the firm’s coachwork appeared in an article highlighting the construction of the prototype Worthington Mfg. Co. cycle car. Although series production is doubted, according to the June 14, 1902 issue of The Automobile, Kundtz constructed the body for the initial run of prototypes:
Although it’s unknown if Kundtz constructed the coachwork found on the earliest White Steamers, he supplied the firm with wood and cast-iron components, and eventually complete automobile bodies, first of wood, then later on sheathed in metal.
The July 1, 1913 issue of Power Wagon included a 2-page article, ‘A Special Power Wagon for Rough Logging Works,’ describing Kundtz’ use of White trucks in their logging operations at Brecksville, Ohio.
By that time Kundtz had installed sheet metal stamping equipment and was supplying all of White’s factory coachwork. White offered a taxicab in its Model GA automobile and GB ¾ -ton light truck chassis and a number of Manhattan taxicab operators owned large fleets of White taxicabs.
Up to February, 1915, Theodor Kundtz conducted his business, extensive as it was, as sole proprietor. On April 1st of that year the Theodor Kundtz Company was incorporated, the ‘Recent Incorporations’ column of the April 1, 1915 issue of St. Louis Lumberman reporting:
The April 1915 issue of the Accessory and Garage Journal included a similar notice although many of the surnames were spelled differently:
1898 Kundtz commenced constructing his Lakewood dream home which is
seen in color to the right. Modeled after the beautiful castles he
child the Kundtz Mansion was constructed over a four-year period
and boasted hand-painted ceilings, stained glass windows,
hand-carved furniture, elaborate fireplaces and even a bowling alley.
About the same time that Kundtz moved into his Lakewood mansion relations between Kundtz and the Metzenseifer community soured. Kundtz was involved in a number of businesses and spent much of his time away from the factory. Non-Metsenseifer managers had been brought in when the firm incoproate and by the end of the year the Metzenseifershad had enough and went out on strike, theOctober 28, 1915 issue of the Elyria Evening Telegram reporting:
The stirke continued with the November 4, 1915 issue of the Automobile reporting 3,000 employuees were now out of work:
The November 6, 1915 issue of the Boston Daily Globe reported that some of the strikers had turned to dynamiting the Kundtz Works:
One month into the strike Kundtz management brought in strike breakers and the Associated Press reported on a November 26, 1915 skirmish:
Three weeks later the same news agency annoucned the end of the strike:
the 1914 resignation of Rollin White
to found the
Cleveland Tractor Co. (Cletrac) the remaining White brothers hired the
designer Leon Rubay to head their automotive operations, which had been
spun off as the White Motor Company. Although Kundtz continued to
construct White standard coachwork , Rubay
established a third party firm - the
Rubay Company - to construct bespoke custom bodies for White and other
chassis in 1916.
The Kundtz Works were awarded a number of contracts for the construction of truck bodies for use by the US allies in the European theater, the first was announced in the August 1917 issue of the Hub:
The September-December 1917 issue of the Standard Corporation Service, Daily Revised, announced the acquisition of the Kundtz works by its oldest and largest customer:
fact it was the recently White Sewing
Machine Corporation that acquired the firm. The Corporation served as
the holding company for the firm's numerous enterprises which at that
time included the White Sewing Machine Company,
Kundtz Company, and the Domestic Sewing
Machine Company. The White Motor Co. was still operated as a separate
entity alough it shared many shareholders and officers with the White
Sewing Machine Corporation.
By the time of White’s acquisition of the Kuntz Works its five manufactories occupied thirty acres of land in Lakewood, the northernmost suburb of Cleveland that inhabited the southern shore of Lake Erie.
Although they did not specialize in custom work the Murray-chassised Kundtz Cubist Touring Car was one of the main attractions at the 1918 New York Auto Salon. It was wrongly attributed to the Rubay Co. in the January 1918 issue of the Hub, which published the following retraction in its March 1918 issue:
In addition to bodies constructed for US Allies, Kundtz was a known body supplier for the Model B Liberty trucks, the March 21, 1918 edition of The Automobile (Automotive Industries) reporting that they were awarded a contract for 550 Truck Bodies, Type A.
An ad featuring the Cubist coachwork appeared in the trades during 1918, the following transcription is taken from a representative advertisement found in the October 1918 Automobile Trade Directory:
Elroy McKendree Avery’s ‘ Cleveland And Its Environs, The Heart of New Connecticut’, pub in 1918, provides the following detailed account of Kundtz’ operations at the time:
Kundtz continued to supply the White Motor Company with passenger car bodies into 1920 when the firm withdrew from the passenger car business. Throughout the 1920s Kundtz’ Body Works supplied White with truck cabs and bodies, although the operations were greatly curtailed when White started subcontracting their bodywork to various third parties which included Cleveland-based Bender Body, Brown Body and Kuhlman Kar. Theodor Kundtz jr. owned shares in a number of the firms and served as secretary of Bender Body for a number of years.
A short strike closed down the Kuntz Works in early April of 1919, the Associated Press reporting:
When White Motor Company embarked upon the manufacture of motor coaches in the mid-Twenties, the work was farmed out to specialist builders such as Brown Body, Kulhman Car, and Bender Body Co. - the latter firm having a direct connection to the Kundtz family as Theodore Kundtz, Jr. served as treasurer of Bender for a number of years.By that time much of the former Kundtz Body Works had been repurposed for sewing machine manufacture. White remaining in the former Kundtz factories until 1949 when the entire operation moved into a modern factory located 5 miles away at 11770 Berea Rd.
With more than fifty years of business success, Theodor Kundtz retired at the age of seventy-two to his Lakewood estate which was located at 13826 Lake Avenue, passing away on September 14, 1937 at the age of 85.
© 2013 Mark Theobald for Coachbuilt.com