One of the men whose name has appeared on millions of Sherwin-Williams paint cans since the 1800s had a rather painful early encounter with paint. Young Edward Porter Williams’ father had arranged for the family home in Cleveland to be painted in what was then a ubiquitous white. The boy and his neighborhood friends found the freshly painted surfaces irresistible and drew all over them with pencils and rusty nails.
When young Edward’s father discovered the drawings, he summoned the boy and his brother to the barn. Before Mr. Williams had finished, “the boys were dancing around in lively fashion, smarting after the punishment inflicted upon them.”
Born in 1843, Williams graduated from Western Reserve University in 1864, and after serving in the Civil War became a partner in a small glass company in Kent, Ohio. He returned to Cleveland and invested $15,000 in a partnership with his friend Henry Sherwin to establish Sherwin, Williams & Co. The venture paid off, with sales in the first year topping $420,000.
The relationship between Sherwin and Williams formed the basis for the company’s early success. As company president Walter Cottingham remarked in 1899, “It’s good to think they have been so long spared to work side by side so harmoniously, so unselfishly and so forcibly. Should our business live a thousand years, it could not repay all it owes to their long, united, unrivaled service.” Williams remained with the firm until his death in 1903.
Williams was jovial and confident, a born salesman who delighted in making friends. His sympathetic nature encouraged employees to approach him with their problems—even problems of a personal or financial nature. He knew the names of every workman in the Cleveland factory, in large part because he appeared on the factory floor almost as much as he did in the office. He frequently donned overalls and headed into the mixing and grinding rooms to help “with hand and head to establish the high standard of quality which he always fought hard to maintain.”
One of Williams’ most enduring efforts was to spearhead the firm’s timely move into producing finishes for the railways in the 1880s, as the railroad became America’s first billion-dollar industry. His personal interest led him to attend many meetings of the Railway Master Car Builders and other industry organizations, and he followed closely the development of passenger car colors, freight car paint and other specialty products.
When Sherwin-Williams celebrated its 30th anniversary in the 1890s, Williams noted that “it is not often that a manufacturing concern can look back upon an unbroken career of thirty years.” The co-founder’s explanation for this success still rings true today: “In short, perfect organization, perfect goods and perfect and honest representation, when persistently adhered to, must and will bring success to any business.”