The large machine in front of you is an industrial carding machine. It was manufactured around 1890 by the Saco-Lowell Company, which had plants in Maine and Massachusetts. Carding machines replaced hand cards – hand-held steel brushes with wooden handles once used to comb raw cotton or wool to get all the fibers aligned, a prerequisite for spinning. At one end of the machine, a combination of rollers and gears known as a “licker-in” feeds in a sheet of raw, uncombed cotton or wool called “lap.” At the other end, a steel roller called a “doffer” pulls out the finished product, a long strand of cotton or wool known as “sliver,” about as big around as a person’s finger. Carding machines were much faster than carding by hand, but they were also more dangerous. The center of the carding machine is a massive, rotating steel drum set with steel bristles, against which also rotated a belt of steel “flats,” which also had bristles. Frequently, carders – the workers who operated carding machines – got fingers, hands, or arms crushed by the heavy drums, or severed by the powerful gears. Carders were paid by the amount of sliver that they produced, so they often felt pressured to “speed up,” thereby increasing the chances of accidents. Here in Willimantic, until World War II, carders were all men, as the job was considered too dangerous for women. Beginning during World War II, though, women also became carders. Carding machines were powered by big leather belts, stretching up to heavy drive-and-pulley systems mounted on the ceiling, which in turn were powered either by central waterwheels (before the 1870s) or steam engines (after the 1870s). In the 20th century, electric motors slowly replaced steam as the main source of power. Carding machines are massive. This one is so big and heavy, that the Museum had to reinforce the floor to keep it from sagging, and we had to temporarily enlarge the door just to get the machine into the building.

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This audible exhibit is made possible through the generosity of Connecticut Humanities, the Willimantic Lions Club, the Rose and Leo Pageau Trust, and and CRIS Access of CRIS Radio.