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A Family History in Steam
Pressure gauges from an ancestor’s company are now popular components in steampunk art
Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Over the past few years of eBay searching, I’ve noticed that many steampunk items — lamps and the like — feature vintage steam gauges. Many of the gauges were made by The Ashton Valve Co., a business started by my great-great-grandfather, Henry G. Ashton.
Two years ago, I knew next to nothing about Ashton Valve. My father had mentioned the name, but he knew little about the company. But a conversation with my parents about family history prompted me to learn more.
It wasn’t long before I had photographs of long-deceased relatives. My scrapbooks filled with hundreds of old advertisements and articles I had downloaded from turn-of-the-century trade journals. My book shelves started to fill with old gauges and other artifacts purchased on eBay. Here’s some of what I learned.
A Short History
The Ashton Valve Co. was founded from Henry G. Ashton’s desire to make boiler rooms safer places to work. Early boilers — the vessels that supplied steam to steam engines — were susceptible to explosion, and in the mid to late 1800s, people were dying at an alarming rate.
Born in Norfolk, England in 1846, Ashton moved to Boston in 1869 with his wife Emma and 2-year-old son Albert. In 1871, while working at the Eagle Sugar Refinery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he invented a lock up pop safety relief valve for steam engines. Shortly thereafter, he opened shop at 138 Pearl Street with three other employees under the name Ashton’s Lock Safety Valve Co.
The early years were challenging. In 1872, he was burned out by the Great Boston Fire, which destroyed 767 buildings covering 67 acres. Another fire in 1878 forced a move to 271 Franklin St. But demand for safety valves was strong. The company had grown rapidly, and in its new location, it was running 10 hours a day in a building that occupied four floors.
In 1892, the company purchased the assets of the Boston Steam Gage Co., including the plant and patents. Gauges were a natural complement to Ashton’s other products.
Henry Ashton passed away in 1895, and his son Albert — trained at MIT — assumed most of his responsibilities. Between 1895 and 1922, the company produced 440,828 pressure gauges, the peak years being between 1915 and 1920. At that point, the company employed about 300 people and occupied a four-story, 45,820-square-foot building in what is now Kendall Square.
The building, at 161 First St. in Cambridge, stands today with the Ashton Valve name clearly visible on the granite lintel above the front entrance.
The company never ventured far from its steam-related products, and business slowed in the 1940s as diesel, gasoline and electricity became the main sources of power. In 1948, Ashton Valve merged with the Crosby Steam and Gage Company, which was later acquired by Tyco Valves & Controls.
Today, Ashton is remembered mostly for its gauges. They are works of art and quite popular with collectors and steampunk enthusiasts. On eBay, they can sell for substantial sums (one was recently listed for $1700). You can find others here.
I found about 90 percent of the advertisements and other historical information online. Google Books was especially useful. There, I found obscure references that led me to copies of documents from libraries and private archives. I also obtained a lot of info by searching Google Images. Clicking on pictures led me to many sites to check out.
The Antique American Steam Gauge by Barry Lee David is considered the “bible” when it comes to steam gauges. It includes histories of the old gauge-making companies as well as a section on how to clean and restore old gauges. It’s available from Amazon and other booksellers.
You can see historical documents and photos of gauges in the gallery below.
Rick Ashton is a steampunk enthusiast in Massachusetts. He’s presented lectures on the history of Ashton Valve Co. at three local museums. This article is adapted from those presentations. He continues to research the history of the company founded by his ancestor.