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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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GENERAL DRY BATTERIES. Herbert R. Palmer, an engineer and president of Cleveland Tensilite Company, filed for three patents between March 2, 1917 and February 8, 1918. These patents referred to a corrugated zinc anode, in what he called an "internal zinc" dry-cell battery that increased battery life. He left Cleveland Tensilite and founded Twin Dry Cell Battery Company (TDBC) which was incorporated on March 13, 1918. In 1919 Palmer hired Cyril P. "Cy" Deibel as a traveling salesman, the best decision he made that year. TDCB ended the year without any sales. (1)

In 1920 using his salesman skills, Deibel convinced his father, his financé's father, and a mutual friend to each invest $25,000 in the company. Samuel F. Ziliox, owner of a printing company, invested $12,500. Now owning 90% of the company, the men established a new board of directors and Deibel was elected president. (2)

Fueled with capital, the company found the business environment improving. A large market was created for TDBC batteries in crank-style telephones and home door bells. Another market for dry cell batteries was in railroad signals and some automobile traffic signals. Despite the fact that the company was growing, it was still losing money in 1923. In March 1922 the Ohio Securities Commissioner halted the sale of TDBC stock. Deibel's own father refused to invest more. Only his father-in-law continued to invest and by 1924 the company finished with a profit. (3)

Dry cell batteries even in 2018 have a limited shelf life and in the 1920s it was much shorter. TDBC sold its batteries directly to retail merchants rather than have the batteries sit in storage facilities. It also eliminated an additional cost and allowed the company to have a better profit margin. The business strategy was to manufacture the lowest-cost high-quality battery; sell only to a retailer, mass marketer or an original equipment manufacturer; promote private labeling to all high volume customers; and use no advertising. The corporation was renamed General Dry Batteries on October 15, 1926. All batteries not privately labeled were sold as "General," Kleartone," "Aristocrat," or "Red-Head." (4)

Markets changed and radio batteries became the largest market for dry batteries. In urban areas, floor radios were powered by house wiring, but portable and table radios were becoming popular. In rural areas where electrification was not available, the demand for battery-powered radios soared during the GREAT DEPRESSION. "Farmpacks" which included A, B, and C batteries were the major production through the 1930s. (5)

From 1937 through 1958 dry-cell batteries were manufactured in Dubuque at General Dry Batteries. In producing dry cells for fifty-eight private labels including Montgomery Ward, Western Auto, True Value, Sears Roebuck, Zenith, Goodyear and Firestone.

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

The announcement that the company would be coming to Dubuque from its home in Cleveland was made on April 23, 1937. DUBUQUE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE officials stated that the acquisition gave the city the largest industrial plant acquired in more than twenty-five years and the largest industrial plant to be opened within three or four years in the Middle West. The new firm would be known as the Upper Mississippi Valley plant of the company and would be the only one of its kind in the world with a complete zinc rolling mill. (6) At the mill, battery slugs would be produced for the Dubuque plant as well as those in Toronto and Cleveland. It was understood that the Dubuque operation would be the only battery company in the world rolling its own zinc. (7) The company would manufacture a complete line of dry batteries including practically all those used for improving hearing. (8)

The company with headquarters in Cleveland had branch offices in New York, Chicago, St. Louis, Minneapolis, Dallas, San Francisco and Portland. It opened its own manganese mine in Puerto Rico and had a subsidiary plant in Toronto, Canada. It manufactured much of its own machinery. Plans announced in April, 1937 indicated that the company planned to ship between 500 and 1,000 cars of finished product out of Dubuque annually. (9)

Owned by the Deibel family, General Dry Batteries opened at 3200 Jackson Street, now the site of FLEXSTEEL INDUSTRIES, INC. In December, 1937 C. P. Deibel, president of the company announced that the firm would move additional operations to Dubuque shortly after January 1, 1938, considerably more men would be employed after that date, and that a number of the larger customers would be invited to Dubuque sometime during the same month. (10) C. P. Deibel was also the vice-president of the DUBUQUE CORRUGATED BOX COMPANY which announced its opening in Dubuque the same week.

In 1937 workers received 36 cents per hour. Wages rose to 37.5 cents hourly in 1942. (11) In that year, 700 union employees signed payroll deduction cards averaging $8.12 monthly for the purchase of war savings bonds and stamps. Along with other major companies, this established a new pay deduction record in the city. (12)

1944 advertisement. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

The firm faced a significant problem in November, 1941. While national defense needs made it difficult to obtain copper wire, steel supplies and brass, the lack of ZINC created the potential of a shutdown within two weeks. Employees and employers worked together to design a program to establish a priority for the local business. Workers began circulating five hundred petitions throughout the city. Endorsed by the Chamber of Commerce, the petitions asked that zinc be provided so that the manufacture of batteries could be continued. Chosen to take the petitions to Washington, D. C. and plead the case for the workers/company were David Sigman, representing Battery Workers Federal Union, Local No. 22,516 and William Datisman, representing General Dry Batteries. The coordinated effort between labor and management was believed to be one of the first of its kind in the United States. (13)

General Dry Batteries was hailed for its hiring of the blind in 1944. Through the efforts of M. August McCollom, rehabilitation supervisor and placement director of the Iowa Blind Commission, two blind girls who were graduates of the Iowa School of Blind, produced as much as the average non-handicapped employee and did the work just as well. As a result the company hired two more with the indication that others would also soon be employed. (14)

The company in 1944 was already forecasting a bright future at the end of the war. General Manager Dudley S. Thomas commented that if all government contracts were cancelled, the battery cells then in production "would immediately be consigned to civilian purchasers." All the dry batteries used in the homes on farms were made of cells identical to those used by the signal corps. Protecting the farmer, the War Production Board permitted the production of dry cell radio batteries where power lines were not available and gave this production the same priority rating as the signal corps had for batteries in military service. While not expecting a great increase in employment, company officials stated "there is absolutely no chance of a cut-back." One of the largest post-war applications for dry batteries was expected to be portable radio sending and receiving equipment. "It will be possible for the farm housewife to be in constant communication with her husband 'Plowing in the back forty. Every major newspaper will be equipped with these units." (15)

General Dry Batteries reached its peak employment in Dubuque with 1,100 women and 500 men during WORLD WAR II. During the war, the government forced the Mallory Co. to license its mercury-cell process to General Dry Batteries; a nation at war couldn’t afford to rely on a lone source for anything. (16) Following the end of the war, on December 5, 1945, GDB acquired from PRM a non-exclusive license to manufacture, use and sell in the U. S. and Canada “GENERAL” branded mercury-cell batteries simultaneously with PRM under PRM’s patent licenses from Samuel Ruben. (17)

In 1943, 65% of the company's workforce were women ranging in age from 17 to 65. A critical need for women workers was announced in December, 1944 with positions available for 60 full-time and 19 part-time employees. Each shift worked fifty hours per week with time and one-half paid for all work over 40 hours. (18) Women began work by sweeping. This continued until one by one they were chosen for other work. Men, for example, were often given work with machines while women were assigned to assembly jobs. With the start of war, the company went on three shifts--twenty-four hours a day--with employees being encouraged to work seven days. INTERSTATE POWER COMPANY operated special bus lines for the employees and those who lived beyond the bus lines received extra ration stamps for gasoline. Women who did the same work as men found themselves earning less for the same work. When the war ended, however, many of the women remained in the workforce proving themselves to employers who relied on their abilities. (19)

The public marveled in April, 1946 at the 'handie talkie,' a radio weighing five pounds that could provide two-way communication more than mile. Constructed for use by the military, the device held great promise in post-war years. The batteries were all manufactured in Dubuque by General Dry Batteries. (20) In May, 1946 a freight rail embargo accompanying a national coal strike had severe effects on the company. In May officials announced that a gradual shutdown would be completed in a week. The lack of space to store its products and the inability to ship products due to the rail strike was expected to result in the total work force of 850 to be laid off. (21)

In 1955 the Dubuque branch of General Dry Batteries employed over 900 people and was the largest plant in the firm's national organization and one of the largest plants of its type in the nation. In December of that year the silver anniversary of General Dry Batteries, Inc. and Montgomery Ward was celebrated. General Dry Batteries furnished twenty-five styles of dry batteries, sold under the "Airline" trade name, to Wards ranging in size up to twenty-five pounds. (22)

Surprisingly it was not until April, 1955 that six out-of-the-city manufacturers, including General Dry Batteries, had contracts for protection with the FIRE DEPARTMENT. DUBUQUE CONTAINER COMPANY, NORTHOME FURNITURE COMPANY, General Dry Batteries Inc., Hubbard Walnut Log Company, and MELODY MILL were all located in the Brunswick Industrial Block. State law prohibited the fire department from providing any protection to any out-of-the-city properties unless they were put under contract for such a service. (23)

Merger discussions dated to 1943 when C. P. Deibel and the president of the National Battery Company began considering the possibility. The firm of Ford, Bacon & Davis of New York was hired to investigate the "business, operations and physical properties" of each company." The resulting report was met with great dissatisfaction by Deibel and no further merger talks were considered. (24) By March 1956 when General Dry Batteries was the third largest battery manufacturer, a merger with the P. R. Mallory Company (PRM) was well underway. PRM had introduced mercuric oxide batteries in late 1944 for military use. These batteries offered advantages in size, weight, shelf life, and service life. General Dry Batteries had been granted a non-exclusive license by PRM to manufacture, sell and use in the United States and Canada "GENERAL" branded mercury-cell batteries for civilian markets after WORLD WAR II. (25)

The development of the transistor in 1952 had serious implications for battery manufacturers. This was compounded by the end of the KOREAN CONFLICT in 1953 and the resulting drop in military sales. Mallory closed all the General plants except the one in Toronto, Canada after the merger and replaced them in Tarrytown, NY and the South. These plants were in lower labor cost locations and were probably non-union. (26)

In 1958 the Dubuque battery production was moved back to Cleveland and the plant was closed. (27) Of the 600-700 employees still working at the time of the closing, some moved out of town while others took advantage of the prosperous JOHN DEERE DUBUQUE WORKS to find employment.

In 1985 former employees like Doris SLATTERY held a reunion. A reunion committee was able to find less than two hundred. (28)



1. Deibel, William Thomas. Duro-Powr: The Convergent Origins of Duracell, A Business History from 1916-1979, Self-published, 2017, p. 4

2. Ibid., p. 6

3. Ibid., p. 8

4. Ibid., p. 9

5. Ibid., p. 11

6. "Cleveland Firm Largest to Come to Dubuque in 25 Years," Telegraph-Herald, April 23, 1937, p. 1

7. "Largest New Industry Opens," Telegraph-Herald, July 13, 1937, p. 1

8. "Cleveland Firm..."

9. Ibid.

10. "General Dry Batteries, Inc. to Expand Dubuque Factory," Telegraph-Herald, December 24, 1937, p. 1

11. Fryxell, David. "Remembering War Years at the Factory," Telegraph Herald, June 20, 1985, p. 2. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=HRhRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=QtoMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6270,2153609&dq=war+effort+world+war+i+dubuque&hl=en

12. "City Pledges of $1,608,615 Are Reported," Telegraph-Herald, June 4, 1942, p. 1

13. "Battery Firm Must Get Zinc," Telegraph Herald, November 9, 1941, p. 43

14. "Blind Win Place in Industry," Telegraph-Herald, August 6, 1944, p. 9

15. "Bright Future After War for Battery Plant," Telegraph-Herald, October 22, 1944, p. 12

16. Fryxell

17. William T. Deibel based on Mrs. Cyril P. Deibel's oral history

18. "Battery Firm Needs Workers," Telegraph-Herald, December 21, 1944, p. 12

19. Fryxell

20. " 'Handie Talkie' Uses Explained," Telegraph-Herald, April 22, 1945, p. 3

21. "341 Employees Already Laid Off in Crisis," Telegraph-Herald, May 9, 1946, p. 1

22. "General Dry, Ward Observe 25-Year Tie," Telegraph-Herald, December 14, 1955, p. 14

23. "6 Out-of-the-City Firms Get Local Fire Protection," Telegraph-Herald, April 1, 1956, p. 12

24. Deibel, p. 22

25. Ibid., p. 26

26. Deibel, William, e-mail, April 5, 2018

27. Fryxell

28. Ibid.