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Rockford Illustrating Company

Beginning as a one man shop, the Rockford Illustrating Company started when Knut Elof Knutsson bought the assets of the Rockford Engraving Company which was organized in 1874 by Austin Creavath. After the death of Mr. Creavath, a Mr. Judd took charge of the concern. When Judd retired in 1893 Knutsson purchased the company. At the time of his purchase there were three other engraving companies in the field, the Freeman Company, the Arnold Company and Forest City Engraving Company. The early companies had been makers of wood engravings but the Rockford Engraving Company speedily adopted the more modern method of photo-engraving which was just becoming an important factor in the industry at that time. The name of the company was changed to Rockford Illustrating Company in 1894. Gradually the other three companies dropped out of the business leaving the field to the Rockford Illustrating Company.

The Rockford Illustrating Company was originally housed in a small structure on Walnut Street at the Chicago & Northwestern tracks. Later this area would become part of the north addition to the old Rockford High School building. The company moved shortly afterward to 421 East State Street. In August 1899 the company moved again to 110 South First Street in the rear of the Third National Bank building where it occupied two floors. At that time the company employed eight people.

In May 1900 the Rockford Illustrating Company leased the second-floor the Trigg Building at 114 -116 South First Street to be used as a photograph room and to accommodate other rapidly expanding departments of the company. The Trigg Building was just across the alley from the Third National Bank building in which the illustrating company was located, and the new addition was connected with the old quarters by a second floor enclosed walkway. The fourth floor of the bank building which had been used by the photograph department for some time was abandoned when the new space was opened.

In June 1904 improvements were made at the plant of the Rockford Illustrating Company which made the establishment one of the most up-to-date of its kind in the state. A complete electrotype plant had been installed. About a dozen machines were necessary to the turning out of the electrotypes, the process being a complicated one. The company was in a position to take care of many jobs no matter how large they may have been. In 1906 the company was incorporated by K. E. Knutsson, R. H. Truesdale and W. H. Edwards. R. H. Truesdale and W. H. Edwards were engravers in the employee of the establishment.

An illustration made by the Rockford Illustrating Company of a fire on West State Street on March 10, 1910 done in freehand by H. W. Rose, an artist with the company, as the fire was at its height. Rose pulled out a pad of paper out of his coat and made a rough sketch of the scene and then he continued across the river to the company's offices filling in the details the way he remembered it. It was an excellent example of the illustrator's art. It was published the following day in the Rockford Morning Star.

In January 1912 the company opened in conjunction with their art and engraving business an advertising service department. The company offered a distinctive advertising service to manufactures who did not maintain a publicity department of their own for the handling of complete advertising campaigns, to the assisting of customers in putting together any business literature that they may need. The department was unlimited in its scope and enabled the firm to give a complete advertising service to any or all of the customers. The tremendous growth of the business of the Rockford Illustrating Company had necessitated the establishing of a Chicago branch in January of 1915. The new office was opened in the Republic building at 209 South State Street, Chicago. This location was chosen because of its being in the heart of Chicago's business district. The company was now more efficiently and able to take care of it's rapidly increasing business.

In 1912 the company would again move to the new Ralston Building at Market and North First Street occupying the entire second floor greatly expanding space for the prosperous growing concern. Knutsson also purchased the vacant lot in the rear of the Ralston Building looking forward to the time when it would erect a building of its own. In 1916 that dream would be realized with the erection of a building at 317 Market Street. This modern building was three stories tall and included a basement giving the growing concern 12,000 square feet of floor space. An abundance of light which was a necessity in producing fine engravings and with this in mind, the building was planned with perpetual light on three sides. The building is of mill construction, protected from fire on the inside by a sprinkler system and from the outside by fireproof steel windows and solid brick walls. The exterior was finished in vitrified art brick, trimmed with Bedford stone. And equipping the interior, the comfort of the employees as well as the patrons has been kept in mind.

A Bob Anderson photograph

The new building was designed to fit all requirements of the busy firm giving them unlimited space for all requirements, enabling them to obtain the proper materials from their own stock room for any job that was at hand. It was a place for eliminating lost time and lost motion in every operation, from purchasing the material to the delivery of the finished product. They were the official photographers of Camp Grant and Rockford Public Schools. They produced annuals for schools and colleges and catalogs for many different companies, such as the seed, furniture and knitting industries in Rockford just to name a few. At one time the company kept a photographer on call 24 hours a day for the then three Rockford newspapers - the Register-Gazette, Republic and Star.

A Bob Anderson photograph

 

Many of the artists and craftsmen were apprenticed right at the Rockford Illustrating Company plant and made good in exceptional ways. Some of them served the organization for more than 50 years. The firm grew large enough to serve customers in every section of the country. At its peak the firm had around 75 people working at the company.

Knut E. Knutsson was born in Stockholm, Swededn in 1872. He was educated in Swedish schools and came to Rockford when he was 21 years old. In 1895 he was married to Effie Lanagan. He founded both the Rockford Illustrating Company and the Illinois Cabinet Company. He was also associated with the National Mirror Works as a director and held an interest in the Rockford Drilling Machine Company. He was regarded as a local leading authority on Swedish history, was noted as a furniture designer, and was a charter member of the Sveas Soner society. He was also on the board of the Rockford School of Engineering. Mr. Knutsson died on June 1, 1935 at 63 years of age. His wife found him slumped over the steering wheel of his automobile, with the keys in the ignition turned to the on position in the couple’s garage.

John D. Sydow went to work as an errand boy in 1899.at the Rockford Illustrating Company when he was a boy of 15. After the company advertised for an errand boy, Sydow applied and Knutsson told him to go away and come back when he was older, because he looked younger than he actually was. Sydow persisted for weeks before Knutsson finally hired him. He worked his way up through the company and eventually became secretary and general manager of the firm for 61 years before he retired in 1960. He was named general manager in 1935 after Knutsson's death. During World War 2 the government put tight restrictions on critical metals such as copper. Sydow developed a process that was a life saver for the local firm and many other engraving plants. He found a way of making electrotype shells for half tone reproductions, with copper only about 10-thousandths of an inch thick. The process saved thousands of pounds of copper and was approved by the government for war time use. On July 1, 1972 Sydow passed away at the age of 88.

Roger Knutsson, Jr. who followed his father’s footsteps becoming president of the company in 1953. The Rockford Illustrating Company which was established in 1894 would close in September 1971 after Roger Knutsson, Jr. cited the lack of home owned industry and a poor general business climate in Rockford. The building was purchased by local artist Deborah Newton in 1985 and turned into artist’s lofts and the 317 Market Street Gallery.

Rockford Illustrating Company employees 1939

Today the building is owned by Urban Equity Partners and the following is from their website:  This mixed use development is the former home of the Rockford Illustrating Company.  Urban Equity Properties has its office in this historic building, which was one of the first loft conversions in Rockford in the 1980’s.  Art community events include a stop at 317 Market to tour the interior design business in the storefront commercial space, and view the artwork displayed in the second floor gallery.  The three story building (12,500 square feet) contains six market-rate live/work lofts and a rooftop garden with a great view of downtown Rockford and the Rock River.

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