Montgomery Competition Recap – National Cylinder Welding Goggles
By Elizabeth Humphrey, WPAMC Class of 2019
Last semester I shared a fun purchase found in a Napa antique store – my set square, which you can read about here. During that visit to The Annex of Antiques on Second, I also purchased the object that became my Montgomery Prize submission – a pair of mid-20th-century welding goggles. I want to share its story with you now to talk about its construction and history.
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While browsing the shelves and glass cases at The Annex on Second, I noticed a bright red “National Goggles” box nestled next to mourning pendants, hair-work jewelry, and velvet gloves. Molly, the store’s proprietor, mentioned that she had found the goggles in her grandfather’s workshop. When I peered out of the lenses, I could barely see anything…the tint was extremely dark. My initial impression? These goggles are cool.
Naturally, I wanted to identify the materials and techniques used to create the paperboard box and the goggles.
The outer surfaces are wrapped in red and white calendared paper, which was printed using halftone and lithographic techniques. The box also lists information about the manufacturer and product: National Cylinder Gas Company (or NCG), located on Wacker Drive in Chicago, and model no. 3 with Hardened lenses. The handwritten “180” on the side might be its original price. The welding goggle’s frame is made from Bakelite, also known as phenol formaldehyde. Patented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland, producing Bakelite is a multistep process. In its pressed powder form, you can mold objects using extremely high heat and pressure. Bakelite has a high resistance to heat, electricity, and sweat, making it the perfect material for welding goggles. The goggles contain some scratches on the sides and rims, suggesting signs of production or possible wear. Steel screens with crescent openings provide protection and air circulation. The screens were manufactured by Duraweld, an outside firm, but they fit seamlessly into the curved inset, suggesting that they might be original to the object’s production and assembly. Finally, the metal nose chain (wrapped in rubber) and elastic headband are adjustable. The goggle’s screw cap lenses allow welders to customize their protection by adding different lens filters. The dark green lenses were “recommended for all welding and cutting operations where absolute protection is required against injurious ultra-violet and infra-red rays” . Additional lenses were available in varying degrees of darkness and received individual product numbers based. However, the “Nw8,” etched into the lens surface, is not a product number. The meaning of this inscription is still a mystery.
I was able to stitch the manufacturer’s history together using decades of archived Chicago Tribune and Chicago Defender newspapers. National Cylinder Gas Company, established in 1934, was one of the leading industrial gas producers and sellers. They were based in Chicago but had offices in 46 cities nationwide and distributing warehouses in an additional 700 locations. NCG also produced and sold an assortment of welding equipment, apparatus, and supplies. Providing a variety of goggles, masks, lenses, tools, and protective clothing allowed welders to tailor protection to the specific functions of their professions. In 1958, NCG decided to rebrand by naming the company Chemetron Corporation. Then-President Charles J. Hines stated that the company had “diversified to such an extent that it outgrew the old name.” National Cylinder Gas and its operations became a division of Chemetron. In 1977, the steel company Allegheny-Ludlum acquired Chemetron and would later split, sell, and dissolve the company within a year’s time, seemingly removing NCG from public memory. Although the company no longer exists, there is material evidence that speaks to the company’s far reach in America. If not for a trip to Napa, I would not have discovered this facet of Chicago’s history and viewed industrialism in a new, and green lens, light.
 National Cylinder Gas Company, National Welding Accessories Catalog (Chicago: National Cylinder Gas Company, March 1945), 13.
This blog post evolved from my presentation at the 2018 Montgomery Prize Competition at Winterthur.