A History of Textiles and Textile Mill Towns in Connecticut

     This section of the website contains dozens of articles and other materials for researchers and visitors who want to go beyond the Mill Museum’s exhibits and programs and learn more 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, with new content added throughout each year. 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 cities, towns, and villages, changed forever. The American Thread Company, the community’s signature industry, closed its Willimantic Mills plant and consolidated operations in North Carolina. The closing was part of a larger trend: for decades, since the late 1800s, Connecticut’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.

     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 could preserve, remember, and honor their industrial past, to recall an era when Connecticut was a maker state, 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 machinery 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, eastern 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 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 fabled 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.

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.

     Follow the hyperlinks below to read, see, hear, and discover the history of textiles, the textile industry, and textile communities in eastern Connecticut.

Table of Contents / Menu

Part 1: Preindustrial Textile Production

     *Making Textiles in Colonial Connecticut

     *Preindustrial Mills in New England and New York

     *Preindustrial Mills: Exploring the Relics

     *America’s Best-Known Textile: The Star-Spangled Banner

Part 2: Swift Waters: The Industrial Environment

     *Introduction

     *“Swift Waters” or “Cedar Swamp”: The Meaning of “Willimantic”

     *The Scene From Blake Mountain: An Early Industrial Ecosystem

     *Down Sodom: An Early Industrial Community

     *Transportation: Railroads and Textile Mills, a History of Railroads in Willimantic, and Highways

     *Population Growth … and Fires and Elm Trees

Part 3: The Din of Machines: Inside the Factories

Part 4: Captains of Industry: Mill Owners, Mill Managers, and Other Entrepreneurs

     *William Eliot Barrows: A 19th-Century Mill Manager

     *The Jillsons: 19th-century Mill Owners

     *Sewing Revolution: Mechanics, Entrepreneurs, and the Machine That Changed America

Part 5: The Sweat of Their Brows: The Lives of Mill Workers

     *Mills and Migrants

     *Yankee Mill Workers: the Decline of Agriculture

     *Yankee Mill Workers: Rural Communities

     *Life in the Boarding House

     *The Willimanytic Textile Strike of 1925

     *The Irish in Connecticut

     *The Puerto Rican Experience in Willimantic

     *Latino Migration to Willimantic

Part 6: Unraveled Threads: The Decline of Industry and the Postindustrial Transition

Part 7: Peoples of the Mill Towns: Individual Lives

     *People of Color

     *Abolitionists

     *Immigrants

Part 8: Historical Atlas of Windham, CT

Part 9: Murals of a Mill Town: Willimantic, CT Recreates Its History in Public Art

Part 10: Connecticut’s Cotton Connection: Mill Towns, Cotton Plantations, Slavery, and the Civil War

Part 11: Built to Last: The Buildings of the Mill Towns

     *Windham Town Hall

     *The Invasion of the Chain Stores

     *Capitol Theater

     *The South Park Street Plant

     *Preserving the Past: Repurposing Buildings from the Industrial Era

     *Endnotes

Part 12: Timelines

Part 13: Links

Part 14: Documents and Other Primary Sources

     *Voices of the Mills: Oral History Interviews with Mill Workers, Mill Managers, and Other Residents

     *Loom and Spindle by Harriet Hanson Robinson, A Lowell Mill Girl

     *A Builder’s Tale: Willimantic in 1850 by Lloyd Baldwin, A Carpenter and Contractor

     *Girl Alone by Claire Meikle

     *The Flight of the Cotton Fairies: A Fairy at School by Rose Terry Cooke

     *Other Mill Town Documents