Anthony Margelis, Inventor of the Dowel Press
by Julian Hefferan, GR Montessori High School
published: May 23rd, 2007
"All my life there had been this strange machine in my house, and I never understood its purpose. I always thought it was some useless antique that my parents had purchased. It turned out that it was not useless, in fact, it was of great importance. So when asked what I wanted to spend the school year studying, one of the things I decided on was my great grandfather, Anthony Margelis, and his invention, 'The Margelis Dowel Press.' I first checked the internet for information, but found none there. Then I checked the Grand Rapids Public Library, but all I found were his obituaries. The last place I looked turned out to be the best—my own home. I learned an important lesson while doing my research: the internet does not know everything, and even a library doesn’t have everything. I found that the best information can be found in what are called primary sources.”
Anthony Margelis came to the United States from Lithuania (then Russian territory) in his early twenties sometime between 1895 and 1900. His 1942 employment application for the John Widdicomb Furniture Co. says 1895, the 1910 census records 1896, and the 1920 census lists 1900. He first appears in the Grand Rapids City Directories in 1899. We do know that from 1900-03 he was employed by the George Widdicomb Co. for $12/week, but left because he wanted a higher wage. The 1942 Widdicomb application (see the online archive) listed his past employment, but it is unknown where he had been employed prior to 1942 except he is always listed in city directories either as a cabinetmaker or working in a furniture factory.
He patented his first invention, furniture clamps, in 1923. Considering that Margelis had a fourth grade education that was quite an accomplishment. He filed the patent August 14, 1922, and it took only eight months until it was issued on April 17, 1923. The purpose of the furniture clamps can be read from lines 10-29 on page three of the patent. Search the online archive to view the entire patent.
Eleven years later, in 1934, the patent for the more complicated dowel press was issued. The second page of the document illustrates the schematics of the machine in six different views. It took a little longer to receive this patent which was filed with the patent office on April 14, 1932 and issued nineteen months later on November 20, 1934. Page three of the patent describes the advantages of the press: "dowel pins may be reduced to a desired diameter, longitudinally scored, and tapered to a desired degree." The full content of this patent is also in the online archive.
The picture of Julian Hefferan, great grandson of Anthony Margelis, with the Margelis Dowel Press gives perspective to the actual size of the machine. What inspired his ideas for his inventions, how he developed them into concrete plans, and who built the clamps and dowel press remains a mystery. Nor do we know how many were sold or to whom. Did the furniture factories use them?
Dowels that have been scored by the machine rest in the hopper that would usually hold blank dowels. The hand crank turns two rollers that impress the dowels with ridges. A portion of one of the two ridged rollers is visible beneath the dowel on the right. The ridges would have held glue better than a smooth dowel thus making a stronger join.
The handbill advertises the dowel press of the "Margelis Dowel Press & Clamp Company," but the name reflects both inventions. It explains how the machine will save time and money and describes the benefits. The address was his home on Myrtle NW. If Anthony was employed in the furniture industry at this time it is interesting that he was allowed to keep the patents as his own. Today, in almost all industries, the patents would belong to his employer even though invented on his own time.
The death certificate of Anthony Margelis gives us vital statistics about his place of birth, his occupation, and the cause of death etc. It does not, however, tell us about him as a husband, father, brother, his early life in Lithuania, and why he chose to come to Grand Rapids; nor how he acquired his skills as a cabinetmaker and inventor; nor his membership in SS Peter and Paul’s parish just a few doors from his home on Myrtle NW where he lived for fifty years. Anthony Margelis died in 1956 and is buried in SS Peter and Paul Cemetery.
Books available at the GR History and Special Collections, Grand Rapids Public Library
- Baxter, Albert. History of the City of Grand Rapids, Michigan. New York, Grand Rapids: Munsell & company, 1891.
- Goss, Dwight. History of Grand Rapids and its Industries. Chicago: C. F. Cooper, 1906.
- Ransom, Frank Edward. The City Built on Wood: A history of the Furniture Industry in Grand Rapids, Michigan 1850-1950. Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, Inc., 1955.
Books available at the GR Public Library
- Carron, Christian G. Grand Rapids Furniture: The Story of America’s Furniture City. Grand Rapids, MI: Public Museum of Grand Rapids, 1998.
- Samuelson, Linda, Schrier, Andrew et al. Heart & Soul: The Story of Grand Rapids Neighborhoods. Grand Rapids: Grand Rapids Area Council for the Humanities at the Grand Rapids Public Library, William B. Eerdmans, 2003.