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!
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 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.
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
Part 2: Swift Waters: The Industrial Environment
*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
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
*The South Park Street Plant
*Preserving the Past: Repurposing Buildings from the Industrial Era
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