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1825 was a crap year for Rebecca Lukens.
In June, her husband suddenly died from fever, joining her father and two sons from the previous year. On his deathbed, her husband made her promise to continue running the family business, an iron working plant… which was heavily in debt and had a massive order to finish. Her mother, Martha, was so dead-set against Rebecca running the plant, she began leveraging ambiguities in Rebecca’s late father’s will to repossess the plant.
And Rebecca was pregnant. With her sixth child.
In that situation, what’s a woman to do? Well, if you’re Rebecca Lukens, you start kicking ass.
A Fairytale Ending
Born Rebecca Webb Pennock, the future Mrs. Lukens was from a well-to-do Quaker family in Pennsylvania. She had a pretty sweet childhood: riding horses, getting an education, and even enjoying a fairytale romance. She and her husband fell for each other *hard* (he proposed on the second date – bold move!), and her husband integrated himself into the family quickly, going into business with Rebecca’s father. The newlywed couple leased the old Brandywine Iron Works factory from Rebecca’s father and began rebuilding it to get in on the manufacturing boom. It was hard work and a lot of it, but they were happy.
Then, in her words, “in summer of 1825, I lost my dear and excellent husband, and I commenced my hard and weary struggle with life.”
Challenge number one was keeping the employees. According to family tradition, many of the workers were packing their things and ready to leave for good when she ran out the door and called them back, one by one. As Rebecca’s granddaughter later put it, Rebecca then took some time to brush up on her multiplication tables, and then formally took the reins1.
Hard and Weary Struggle
Rebecca not only got the business back on track, she made it boom. Her first order of business was to complete the aforementioned massive order: plates for the Codorus, the first iron-hulled ship in the United States. Over the next 22 years, she established Brandyworks iron as some of the highest quality on the market. When one of their suppliers provided inferior product, she was unafraid to bring them to court. She was not about to let someone walk all over her.
She overcame extremely difficult challenges throughout all this. A financial crisis in 1837 wiped out a number of iron working plants — but not Rebecca’s. Realizing the massive financial instability afoot, she temporarily shut down the plant and put her employees to work upgrading the facilities. When they ran out of work to do, she put them to work on her estate. Not only did her plant survive, but she even retained her workers.
But by far her biggest thorn in her side was her mother, Martha. Feeling that a woman running business was unfeminine, Martha did everything in her power to screw Rebecca over. Martha kept trying to give the plant to Rebecca’s brothers — despite Rebecca having rebuilt it herself, and having paid her late father money for the privilege. But due to her father’s will being poorly worded and her late husband’s being non-existent, Rebecca had to fight her mother Martha in court over the deed for twenty years — and when Martha died, Rebecca had to continue on fighting her brothers.
In the end, Rebecca was victorious, but she had to pay for the property two or three times over.
It Takes a Village
Rebecca’s true strength in all of this was realizing she could not go it alone, and reaching out for help. She folded her family life into her professional one — she brought on her brother-in-law to help manage the plant, and her daughter to serve as bookkeeper. Additionally, Rebecca relied on the religious community of Quakers for support, and continually referred to the religion’s Rules of Discipline in order to conduct business in a moral manner2.
After 22 years of hard work, Rebecca’s health began to decline, and in 1847, she withdrew from running the business. By the end of her life, she’d accumulated over $100,000 in personal property, a far cry from the $15,000 of debt she’d started with. She carefully earmarked much of it for her children — she was hellbent to not make the same mistakes with her will as had her late father and husband.
After her death, the Brandywine Iron Works was renamed the Lukens Iron Works and later Lukens Steel in her honor. It was a Fortune 500 company for quite some time, and managed for 125 years by her descendants. In 1994, Fortune Magazine recognized her as America’s first female industrialist leader, and inducted into the National Business Hall of Fame.
Much of the vibrance of her story is due to her being able to tell it in her own words. Her diary, found some 150 years after her death, reveals the personal struggles of a woman trying to move on from tragedy. Of the early days after her husband’s death, she wrote: “With some fear, but more courage, I began to struggle for a livelihood. I think at this period I must have possessed some energy of character, for now I look back and wonder at my daring. I had such strong, such powerful incentives for exertion that I felt I must succeed.”
“I must have possessed some energy of character, for now I look back and wonder at my daring.”
- Neither of these anecdotes are historically confirmed, and are likely a bit of hyperbole, but come on. Just go with it. ↩
- A practice this author oddly came to identify with the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, as this author is a strange human being and likes the idea of Space Quakers. To be clear: they’re in almost no way comparable whatsoever – but, Space Quakers! ↩
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- This is actually a decently accurate representation of the Brandywine Iron Works. Thankfully, a depiction of it on a bank note survives to current day, and serves as excellent reference.
- The furnace embers are a bit of artistic license. Of course they would not want embers floating around a wooden building, but they added a bit of wonder to the composition.
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