A HISTORY OF CONNECTICUT TEXTILES AND TEXTILE MILL TOWNS

This section of the website contains dozens of articles and other materials for researchers and readers who want to go beyond the Mill Museum’s exhibits and programs for more in-depth learning about the history of textiles, textile production, and textile mill communities in Connecticut, from the colonial era to the present. Scroll down for a Table of Contents with hyperlinks. Our History section is constantly growing, so please come back frequently and see what is new!

Introduction

Willimantic Linen Company trade card from the late 1800s. Trade cards — roughly the size of baseball cards — were used in the 19th and early 20th centuries to advertise products. This trade card uses an image of Jumbo, the famous elephant from the Barnum and Bailey Circus, to demonstrate the strength of WLC thread — so strong that even Jumbo couldn’t break it. The ad was, of course, hyperbole, but it was also successful. By 1890, the WLC manufactured about 90% of the cotton sewing machine thread sold in the United States. The trade card is from the Mill Museum’s collection.

In the mid-1980s, life in Willimantic, one of Connecticut’s many 19th-century mill communities, changed forever. The American Thread Company, the community’s signature industry, closed its last New England plant and consolidated operations in North Carolina. The closing was part of a larger trend: for decades, since the late 1800s, New England’s once ubiquitous textile mills — whose whirring spindles and thumping looms had for 150 years symbolized America’s Industrial Revolution — had been shutting down. Today, only one Connecticut textile mill — the American Woolen Company in Stafford Springs — remains of what were once dozens.

Yet, at the same time, something new was being born. Two of the eleven buildings of the old Willimantic Mills complex — the former company store and a 19th-century warehouse — became the Windham Textile and History Museum, also known as the Mill Museum.

The Willimantic Linen Company Store, shortly after it was built in 1877. By the 1870s, the WLC was the largest business in Willimantic, an industrial area located in the northwest part of the town of Windham, CT. Many of Connecticut’s larger textile mills had company stores, where workers could shop on credit. Signaling its economic and social leadership in Willimantic, the WLC’s company store was a large structure, the first department store in town. Its ornate Victorian stick-style architecture was ultra modern in 1877, as was the building’s poured concrete floor covered by linoleum, a recent invention. The store had gas lights, soon (1880s) to be replaced by electricity. Customers could purchase groceries on the first floor and dry goods on the second floor. The third floor was a library, open to the public, and a meeting hall. Some of the wagons in the photo were meat delivery wagons. A lawn with American elms marked the store as refined space. Photo from the Mill Museum’s collection.

The people Windham, CT and its former industrial borough of Willimantic founded the Museum for two reasons. First, the Museum was to be a place where Connecticutters and other New Englanders could preserve, remember, and honor their industrial past, to recall an era when Connecticut was a maker state, and New England was the cockpit of the American Industrial Revolution. While, in the 19th century, the western half of Connecticut had been dominated by the metals and precision-machine industries (making it the Silicon Valley of the 19th century), for 150 years eastern Connecticut had led the state in textile production. Indeed, combined with Rhode Island, eastern Massachusetts, southern New Hampshire, and southwestern Maine, Connecticut had formed the industrial heartland of the United States. By the 1880s the Willimantic Mills had become the largest thread factory, not just in Connecticut, but in the United States, producing roughly 90% of the country’s cotton sewing-machine thread. Nearby Manchester, CT, was a silk manufacturing center; Rockville and Stafford Springs produced woolens; and mammoth factories in Norwich, Baltic, and elsewhere manufactured uncounted yards of woven cloth. For more than a century, Willimantic had boomed as America’s Thread City. Its busy mills manufactured the thread in U. S. Army uniforms, NASA spacesuits, General Motors seat belts, and major league baseballs. Its sprawling Mill No. 2 was the first factory in the world to be electrified, and in the 1880s its grand showplace Mill No. 4 — the first factory in the world designed specifically for electricity — was the largest single-story factory in the world. As a pioneer in electricity, Willimantic was the home of the second shift and the coffee break. The story of the Industrial Revolution in eastern Connecticut was a history worth preserving, and worth telling.

A worker adjusts the feed on a ring spinning machine at the American Thread Company in Willimantic in the 1950s. ATCO purchased the Willimantic Mills from the Willimantic Linen Company in 1898 and vastly expanded its size and production. Workers came from many lands to work in the factory, and Willimantic became a culturally diverse community. Photo from the Mill Museum’s collection.

Second, the Museum was intended to become the cornerstone of a vibrant new Windham and Willimantic — a postindustrial community centered on arts, education, and culture. The hope was that, like a phoenix, a new Willimantic would rise from the ashes of the old.

At the same time, similar changes were occurring in the other former textile mill towns of eastern Connecticut: Norwich, Sprague, Plainfield, Killingly, Pomfret, Putnam, Mansfield, Willington, Vernon, Manchester, and others. The Industrial Revolution was passing into history. But it was a history that residents were determined not to forget.

Join us, then, for excursions into Connecticut textile history. Follow the hyperlinks below to read, see, hear, and discover the history of textiles, the textile industry, and textile communities.

Table of Contents / Menu

Part 1: Before the Industrial Revolution

Part 2: Swift Waters, Hot Steam, Electric Motors: The Coming of Industrialization

Part 3: The Din of Machines: Inside the Mills

Part 4: Captains of Industry: Mill Owners and Managers

Part 5: The Sweat of Their Brows: Mill Workers

Part 6: Unraveled Threads: The Decline of the Connecticut Textile Industry

Part 7: The Peoples of the Mill Towns: Individual Lives

Part 8: Mill Towns as Historical Places

Part 9: Timelines

Part 13: Links

Part 14: Primary Sources