by Allison Hester
From eClean Issue 16/July 2013
Editor’s Note: This past February, I had the pleasure of sharing a table with Diane Smahlik, Chairman of Ettore Products Company, at the International Window Cleaning Association’s Women’s Luncheon. During the event, she told the story of how her father invented the modernday window cleaning squeegee. It’s a story I’ve been wanting to share, and since this issue is focused on historic restoration, it seemed like the perfect opportunity. So the following information was gathered in a recent interview with Diane. Enjoy!
In 1922, after the end of World War I, Ettore Steccone traveled from Italy to America, where his brother had settled down in Oakland, California.
Ettore started out working with his brother in the produce industry, but quickly realized it was too confining and not enjoyable. He returned to Italy where he married, then came back to the U.S. with his bride and the newlyweds started a window cleaning business in 1932.
Ettore became known for traveling around town on his Indian motorcycle, ladder on his shoulders and a bucket dangling from the end. He reveled in the newfound freedom his window cleaning business presented, but was unhappy with the available window cleaning tools of the day.
At that time, the tool of the trade was the Chicago Squeegee, which was made of steel and very heavy and bulky. The Chicago Squeegee used two heavy red rubber blades, and changing them out required loosening 12 separate screws. Ettore felt there had to be a better option, and so he began “tinkering” with ideas in the garage behind his home.
Eventually he created the modern T-type squeegee that is still used today. It was made from brass, and used a single precision rubber blade. “He really researched the best choice of rubber, which is key to the squeegee’s success,” Diane explained. In 1936, he patented his squeegee as “the New Deal.”
Ettore knew he had something big, and he knew that if other window cleaners had access to his squeegee, it would become their tool of choice as well. However, convincing the window cleaning world of this was no so easy.
After approaching – and being turned down by several window cleaning supply companies, Ettore headed to New York City to see the biggest supplier of them all – George Racenstein of the J. Racenstein Company. Racenstein had been selling window cleaning products since 1909. Like the others, George Racenstein was not convinced there was a need to change. The New Deal was too small. Too light. But Ettore had a plan. He offered a proposal that Racenstein could not pass up.
Ettore bet “the finest hat in New York” that George Racenstein would call Ettore within 30 days, asking to put the new squeegee in his catalog. Racenstein took the bet. Ettore, however, had a secret strategy. He determined that the only way to get people to try his new squeegee was to actually give them away. So he shared them with his window cleaning friends, but only if they would call George Racenstein and ask him to put the new squeegees in his catalog.
Did it work? Let’s just say the “finest hat in New York” still graces the foyer of the Ettore plant today.
A True American Success Story
Ettore Steccone won in the long run, but that’s not to say he didn’t face numerous trials along the way. For one, he went into business with a building owner who “helped” him get the Steccone squeegee copyrighted. In truth, his partner actually stole the Steccone name. He also lost his patent after it was challenged in Chicago court. That’s when he changed the company name to Ettore, which, of course, is now one of the world’s leading window cleaning equipment manufacturers. The logo – a set of wings – represented the idea of the Ettore squeegee “flying across glass.”
Another challenge came along during WWII, when brass availability became limited and the government planned to prohibit Ettore from using the metal in his business. Fortunately, one of Ettore’s customers had some pull, and was able to get Ettore an exemption for the use of brass.
In the 1950s, Ettore and his employees moved from his home’s garage to an actual factory. That’s where his wife, and eventually his daughter Diane, helped in the nuts and bolts of the business. Diane, who is now Chairman of the company, grew up putting squeegees together and getting paid 10 cents per box of completed products. “That was until I negotiated my way up to a quarter a box,” she added.
Ettore Steccone died in 1984 at the age of 87. Ettore is remembered for his hard work and his dry wit. He was often seen leaving his desk as company president to sweep the floors outside. Unsuspecting visitors would stop and ask him if Ettore was available. “What do you want him for?” he’d ask. If it was someone he was interested in talking with, he’d let him know his little secret. Otherwise, he’d tell them Ettore could not be reached.
Ettore Steccone is a true example of someone living out the American Dream, and a real game changer for the window cleaning industry.