This Book Dives Into the Speakman Company History in Delaware

Wilmington-based author Kent Priestley pens a page-turner about the company's rich history in the First State.

The Speakman Company, founded by two brothers in 1869, may or may not be a household name, depending on the type of showerhead hanging in your bathroom. In Wilmington-based author Kent Priestley’s recent book, titled Nature’s Way Is the Shower: A Speakman Company History, he delves into the rich history that touches on not only fixtures and fittings but also how Speakman helped shape Wilmington’s development in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Speakman
Courtesy of Kent Priestley

Answers have been edited for length and clarity.

How did you become interested in the Speakman Company?

Through local business executive Rod Ward, who is a Speakman on his mother’s side and was CEO for a time. To learn that the company had been around for 150 years and made products ranging from emergency eyewashes to showerheads you would find in high-end hotels really piqued my curiosity.

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Can you share a couple fun facts?

Before World War I, showers were very uncommon in people’s houses. The idea of hot showers as a form of bathing was very new. But during the war, Speakman provided showerheads for the military training camps across the country. All of a sudden, you had hundreds of thousands of men experiencing hot showers for the first time. That’s when the company really took off.

Also—and this is an interesting contradiction—Speakman was founded by Quakers [pacifists]. But by World War II, they were making components for the wartime industries, including torpedoes, depth charges and fighter plane parts. Their showerheads were also used by celebrities. President Lyndon Johnson had a custom shower built at the White House. Speakman also presented Ronald Reagan with a Liberty Bell showerhead, which is still at his ranch.

What’s one way the company had a major impact on the city of Wilmington?

In the 19th century, downtown Wilmington was booming with all kinds of industries, from rail-car manufacturers to slaughterhouses. Pigs roamed the streets, and the city used to really smell because there was no way to dispose of sewage. Speakman co-founder Allen Speakman was instrumental in getting the sewer system built in Wilmington. When cholera and yellow fever ran rampant, he played a [pivotal] role in getting public health under control.

How did you research this book project?

I was fortunate, because the company had an extensive archive of materials that I could access—everything from correspondence to invoices to photos of employees and all sorts of catalogs and information sheets. I expected it to be a one-year project, but it kept getting bigger and bigger. It took nearly five years.

Why is this an important story to tell?

It’s a David versus Goliath story. Speakman was a very small company, and its competitors were the likes of Kohler and American Standard. The company was family-owned from 1869 until 2017, when it was sold to a private equity firm. Generations of local families worked there. [It] was really one of the last active manufacturers in Wilmington, one that had good blue-collar jobs in the city.

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Nature’s Way Is the Shower: A Speakman Company History is available in hardcover format at Huxley & Hiro Booksellers in Wilmington and as an e-book at barnesandnoble.com.

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