Gerard Swope (1872-1957) was an engineer who became president of General Electric during a period of exponential growth. He was also a public servant who was influential in the early New Deal.
Gerard Swope was born in St. Louis, Missouri, on December 1, 1872, the son of Isaac and Ida (Cohn) Swope. Isaac Swope was a Jewish immigrant to the New World in 1857 who lived for a time in Cincinnati before settling in St. Louis to open a watch-assembly factory. He returned to Germany in 1865 to marry Ida Cohn, the daughter of the chief rabbi in Thuringia, and to bring her to the United States. Two of their sons became famous, Gerard as an industrialist and Herbert Bayard as a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for the New York World.
Gerard, who was the older brother, became interested in how things operated at an early age and decided, even before going to Central High School in St. Louis, to become an engineer. His parents sent him to Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), from which he graduated in 1895 with a B.S. in electrical engineering.
His first job, however, was in the summer of his sophomore year in college (1893). He had gone to Chicago to the World's Fair and had managed to find a job with General Electric. When he graduated, he went to work for Western Electric, a General Electric subsidiary in Chicago. He was hired not because of his engineering skill, but because of a letter from an old friend of his father.
While in Chicago, Swope became involved in the settlement house movement, which kindled an interest in social reform that lasted all his life. He lived at Hull House for several years and taught algebra and electricity to workers in the night school. He also met his future wife, May Dayton Hill, there. She had come to Chicago to study with John Dewey.
Swope returned to St. Louis in 1899 to help open a subsidiary of Western Electric, Mercantile Electric. By this time he had shown great talent for sales and had moved out of engineering. In two years he had become the manager of the branch. At that time he also married May Hill. The marriage was a happy one, and the Swopes had five children—Henrietta H., Isaac G., Gerard, David, and John.
The Swopes became involved in charitable activities in St. Louis. Although there was no settlement house, Gerard became a founding member of the first playground committee in the city in 1901 and chairman of the first public bath committee in 1903. His energy was not diverted from his business efforts, however, and in 1906 Western Electric called him back to Chicago to become assistant supervisor of all branch houses and sales manager. Two years later he was promoted to general sales manager and moved to New York City. By 1913, when he was 41, he had become vice-president and director of the company.
When World War I involved the United States, Swope entered public service as assistant director of purchase, storage, and traffic for the army, a position which won him the Distinguished Service Medal. He also associated with two men—Bernard Baruch and Hugh S. Johnson—who were to become public servants again a few years later.
In 1919 Swope became president of International General Electric, a new division which Swope organized. His work, which entailed much travel to Japan and England, was highly successful. As a result, he became president of General Electric in 1922, a position he held until his retirement in 1939. He presided over the tremendous growth of the electric company in the 1920s.
Swope continued his interest in public affairs, serving as chairman of the Eighth American Red Cross Roll Call in 1924. As a result of the Depression, Swope wrote the book Stabilization of Industry (1931), in which he proposed that industry control itself by associations and suggested an expanded pension plan. Because of the "Swope Plan, " as it was called, Franklin D. Roosevelt called upon Swope to serve in a variety of roles in the New Deal: member, Industrial Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration (NRA) (1933), an agency run by Hugh Johnson; member, Bureau of Advertising and Planning of the Department of Commerce (1933); chairman, Coal Arbitration Board (1933); member, National Labor Board (1933); member, President's Advisory Council on Economic Security (1934); and member, Advisory Council on Social Security (1937-1938). His service did not end with his retirement from General Electric: he continued to be honorary president of the company from 1940 to 1942 and president from 1942 to 1944, as well as serving in the government's war effort. He was an assistant to the secretary of the treasury in 1942. At the same time he was chairman of the Committee to Study Budgets of Relief Appeals for Foreign Countries, a service which won him the 1942 Hoover Medal.
Before he died on November 10, 1957, Swope had won many honors. He was a chevalier of the Legion of Honor (France) and a member of the Order of the Rising Sun (Japan). He had honorary doctorates from Rutgers (1923), Union (1924), Colgate (1927), Stevens Institute of Technology (1929), and Washington University in St. Louis (1932). He had also influenced American society by both his business and his public service.
Further Reading on Gerard Swope
The only biography of Swope is David Goldsmith Loth's Swope of G.E.: The Story of Gerard Swope and G.E. in American Business (1955). The biography is popularly written and focuses on Swope's later career. Ely Jacques Kahn's biography of Herbert Bayard Swope, The World of Swope (1965), sheds more light on Gerard's personal life, particularly his relationship with his brother.
Additional Biography Sources
Loth, David Goldsmith, Swope of G.E., New York: Arno Press, 1976, 1958.