Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry

Brass Valley: The Fall of an American Industry
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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

High Iron No.2, On the Bridge at Shelton



PHOTOGRAPHER'S JOURNAL, "Wolcottville Brass and Battery": 

They claim it was all about buttons, mostly brass ones. I picture retired colonels from the recently won Revolution wanting something a bit spiffier than they wore at Valley Forge and chagrined to realize the best brass buttons came from Birmingham, England.  However, think of what you're wearing and imagine removing every button, clip, or fastener, every bit of elastic, every buckle, zipper or inch of velcro tape. Take off your suspenders. Now think about how you're going to hold your clothing on, and appreciate the importance of victory.

Button making had been a cottage industry in the U.S., a sideline for some farm blacksmiths especially in the Naugatuck Valley. If the a farmer-blacksmith didn't peddle his wares door to door, he paid a peddler who traveled a broader area with a wagon full of goods. Brass smiths concentrated in the Naugatuck Valley formed companies and alliances. Sometimes companies merged. They established trade agreements, controlled prices, fixed market shares, developed sources for copper in the west, but in the 1830s their cottage industries couldn't satisfy the craze for economical, attractive, brass buttons the way English buttonmakers could.

Whatever drove the need for better American buttons, there were rumors of kidnappings and men smuggled out of Birmingham, England - English platers, rollers, die sinkers whisked away in the cover of darkness, sealed into barrels, brought to the Naugatuck Valley in the New World to work their alchemy.

A story passed down from those who were there may say more about the Yankee brassmasters' character. First, it wasn't only buttons for your trousers but kettles for the hearth. In 1834 all kettles were imported from Birmingham, England. That was the year Israel Coe a local farmer, John Hungerford a local merchant, and New York entrepreneur Anson G. Phelps became partners in Wolcottville Brass & Battery to manufacture American buttons and kettles. Phelps had purchased the site high up on the Naugatuck River in Wolcottville (now Torrington) where in 1813 Frederick Wolcott had built a woolen mill, attracted a large work force, and created demand for goods and services.

The process for manufacturing kettles was known as the battery process. Israel Holmes had a share in the business and was in charge of the manufacturing. He needed expertise and equipment for rolling the brass. The story is told in an old history of Waterbury:

Mr. Holmes went to England for the purpose of procuring machinery and workmen. His efforts in this respect were hindered by every possible ingenuity and power of those interested in the same kind of manufacturing in that country, but after a time he sent two battery men to Philadelphia, one of whom died the next day after his arrival. Subsequently he procured others and thirty-eight men, women and children in one vessel  arrived in New York. Considerable trouble was experienced in transporting them without a railroad to Wolcottville. When they were landed here, the mill was not ready for operatives, and thereby the troubles were multiplied.  The men received their pay and, having nothing to do, most of them gave themselves to dissipation and the disquietudes of disposition. In the meantime Mr. Pope [one of the skilled workers] bargained with other parties for a rival concern and took three of the men with him. This was at first thought to be an injury but eventuated an advantage as these men proved to be worthless in the business. However, some of the workmen remained, and the quick eye and ready hand of Wolcottville Yankees soon secured experts in the making of brass.

In any case, the battery process for making kettles was a loser for Wocottville Brass & Battery after Hiram W. Hayden invented a method for making brass kettles by spinning disks of sheet brass through a die. The brass-spinning process revolutionized the kettle-making industry.  What should be made of the observation that Hayden was working for Israel Holmes at Scovilles Mfg. in Waterbury when he made the discovery that disadvantaged Holmes work at Wolcottville Brass & Battery in Torrington?

As I've immersed myself in these old stories of the Valley, the entanglement of individuals and corporate entities seems to be a constantly fluctuating thing like the river itself, and the same Yankee names keep reappearing along the shores as owners and partners in different combinations through expansion & consolidation and new processes and new products and new dams, and as industries like clockmaking and cabinet hardware are spun off by the same brass families, and the Naugatuck Valley begins to fill up, and then the railroads come.