Brass Beginnings

Story By Raechel Guest

  Waterbury has been referred to as “The Brass City” and “The Brass Capitol of The World”. This article is the first in a four part series written by Raechel Guest exploring the history and legacy of the brass industry in Waterbury, Connecticut.

   Brass is an alloy of copper and zinc (differing from bronze, which is alloy of copper and tin), and it is both durable and reasonably resistant to tarnishing. Adjusting the ratio of zinc to copper changes the color of the brass, adding to its decorative qualities. In ancient Rome, it was known as Aurichalem and was often used for making jewelry. Its popularity increased during the Renaissance, and by the 19th century, brass was used to make just about everything.

    Waterbury owes much of its identity to brass. For generations, the brass industry dominated the city, even as it created the city. Today, while the brass industry is a thing of the past, Waterbury is still known as the Brass City and the city motto, ironically, is still Quid Aere Perennius (What Is More Lasting Than Brass?). The City Seal depicts the interior of a brass mill, an image that is almost indecipherable to modern eyes.

   Waterbury’s brass industry is traditionally considered to have begun in 1802 with the establishment of Abel Porter & Co., which eventually transformed into the Scovill Manufacturing Company. The Abel Porter factory (a relatively small building which later became a house) was on South Main Street, across from where Jarjura’s Market is today. They produced brass buttons that were effectively recycled from old copper kettles and other scrap metal. It is sometimes assumed that the brass industry flourished here because there were natural resources that lent themselves to brass production. The reality is quite different.

   During the 18th century, when Waterbury was a small farm town, much of the world’s brass was being produced in England and Wales, where mining and smelting operations flourished. The Welsh town of Swansea had been a major supplier of brass since the Renaissance, as the region had an abundance of the natural resources required: copper, tin, zinc, and coal, which was essential for industrial-scale metalworking. In contrast, Waterbury, the future Brass Capital of the World, had none of those resources.

   Waterbury’s first generation of brass manufacturers did not set out to create a brass industry. Their initial goal was to produce buttons and clocks to be sold by peddlers as an alternative to farming, which was a limited success in Waterbury. It has been stated many times that Waterbury turned to manufacturing because the quality of the soil here was too poor to sustain farming. One of the earlier records of this is found in John Hayward’s New England Gazetteer of 1839, in which he wrote “the surface of the town is generally rough, and the soil difficult of cultivation.”  Despite the soil, it was not until 1790, more than a century after Waterbury was first settled, that its residents turned to manufacturing at a noticeable level. In that year, James Harrison began producing clocks with wood movements, and the Grilley brothers, Silas, Henry and Samuel, began making pewter buttons. Those two modest cottage industries would prove to be the roots of the massive brass industry that dominated Waterbury a century later.

   When Connecticut was an English colony, the production of finished goods was not permitted. England preferred the colonies to remain a source of raw material and a market for finished products manufactured in England. Following the War of Independence, the former colonists, including Waterbury’s residents, were free to compete with England in the production of finished goods.

   Commerce in the new nation was closely connected to the legendary Yankee peddlers: tinsmiths from the Northeastern states would sell their wares door-to-door, spending half the year creating their stock and the other half of the year peddling their products along routes that became established for decades. The tin wares were supplemented by other lightweight items, including buttons, with many peddlers specializing in buttons or clocks. The emergence of a middle class in the South created a new market for the Northern peddlers, who spent the winters selling their wares in Richmond, Charleston, Savannah and everywhere in between. Peddlers became an essential component of manufacturing in early 19th-century Connecticut.

   Peddlers were just as important in Waterbury as in other manufacturing communities. Waterbury’s Mark Leavenworth, whose activities have been very well documented, began his manufacturing career making small steel products, including axes and bayonets, which he peddled in Georgia, setting off on his first trip there in 1801. Leavenworth entered into the clock business in 1810, establishing his shop on Bucks Hill Road, but later relocating to Great Brook, near Cherry Street. Anderson’s 1896 History of Waterbury describes the shop as being full of wooden clocks, “Lines of them stood at the sides of the room, reaching from floor to ceiling.” Leavenworth contracted with local peddlers to sell his clocks in Georgia and other southern states. The popularity of his shelf clocks kept Leavenworth and his associates in the clock business for 25 years.

   Waterbury’s early clock industry, begun by James Harrison in 1790, was intricately connected to clockmaking in Bristol and Terryville. Candace Roberts, daughter of Bristol clockmaker Gideon Roberts, was one of many young women hired by Harrison to paint the dials of his clocks. Roberts made the journey to Waterbury several times between 1804 and 1806, and she kept a diary in which she recorded her experiences. Despite an initial reluctance to work in Waterbury, she wrote fondly of her time here, which was filled with tea parties, picnics and dancing: “O how happy I always feel in Waterbury, surrounded with a numerous circle of friends, almost every day parties of pleasure.”

   Candace Roberts also painted clock dials for Eli Terry in Plymouth. Terry, who revolutionized American clockmaking with his techniques for mass production, contracted with Edward Porter and Levi Porter of Waterbury in 1807 to produce 4,000 clocks within three years. The Porters had been in business since 1800 making clock cases which they fitted with movements purchased from other clockmakers, including Terry. The 1807 contract launched Eli Terry’s legendary business of creating inexpensive shelf clocks.
Clockmaking was a significant part of the Waterbury community: during his 1798 Travels through New England (published in 1821), Timothy Dwight recorded that “Several manufactures have been carried on in this town with spirit and success; particularly that of clocks, principally formed of a particular species of wood.”

   While there were numerous Waterbury men who established clockmaking businesses during the first decades of the 19th century, their efforts were overshadowed by those of the button makers. Waterbury’s most successful clockmaker, Mark Leavenworth, retired from the clock business in 1835 to become a button manufacturer. Clocks would once again become a highly important Waterbury product in 1857 with the establishment of the Waterbury Clock Company, the predecessor of Timex.

   At the same time that the manufacture of clocks saw success in Waterbury, bringing workers and capital to the growing town, it was the production of buttons that truly led to Waterbury’s immersion in brass. Buttons have proven to be a reliable product for this city: they were manufactured in Waterbury continuously from 1790 until 2002, when The Waterbury Button Company relocated to Cheshire, where they continue to produce buttons today.

   Button making in Waterbury began in earnest with the Grilley brothers—Henry, Silas and Samuel. Henry Grilley learned the process of making pewter buttons from an Englishman in Boston and commenced a small-scale production in 1790 with his brothers, casting the complete pewter buttons and finishing them by hand in a shop on Bunker Hill.

   In 1802, Silas Grilley started a new venture with Daniel Clark, Abel Porter and Levi Porter. Originally from Kensington (Berlin) and trained as a tinsmith, Abel Porter had purchased a home and shop in Southington during the 1790s. By 1798, he had begun meeting with Daniel Clark, the son of a wealthy Waterbury landowner, to discuss the establishment of a button making shop. Porter’s brother Levi was also involved, and Silas Grilley brought his button-making experience to the project. Named Abel Porter & Co., the partnership manufactured buttons from sheet brass. They obtained copper from old stills, kettles and ship siding, melting it down and directly infusing it with zinc in a process invented in 1781 by James Emerson in England. It is believed that this may have been the first implementation of that process in this country, as well as being the first rolling of brass in the United States.   

   For a certain length of time, the Waterbury brass makers had to take their brass ingots to an iron mill in Bradleyville, part of Litchfield, for the initial rolling. The rough sheets were then brought back to Waterbury, where they were finished by being run between two-inch steel rods driven by horse power. Buttons were stamped from the sheet brass using steel dies. As the brass button venture proved itself, the operations become more sophisticated and self-reliant.

   The business gained an important influx of ideas and skills with the arrival of David Hayden in 1808. Hayden had previously worked in the button factories of Attleboro, Massachusetts, which was perhaps Waterbury’s most direct button competition, followed closely by Meriden, Bristol, Southington and New Haven. Three years later, in 1811, Abel Porter & Co. was purchased by David Hayden partnering with James Mitchell, Lamson Scovill and Frederick Leavenworth under the name Leavenworth, Hayden & Scovill.

   The burgeoning industries of Waterbury became somewhat diversified during the War of 1812. In addition to clocks and buttons, wool briefly became an important Waterbury product. According to legend, after Leavenworth, Hayden & Scovill secured a military contract to supply uniform buttons during the war, they were dismayed to learn that a wool shortage meant that there were not enough uniforms for all the buttons in their contract. Lamson Scovill traveled to New York City where he entered into a wool venture with John Jacob Astor who had a large flock of sheep ready for shearing. Also involved was Austin Steele, who operated a wool mill in Waterbury, as well as David Hayden and Frederick Leavenworth. The Waterbury Manufacturing Company (one of several to bear that name) was incorporated in 1814 for the manufacture of wool and cotton fabrics, but went out of business following the conclusion of the war.

   Unlike wool cloth, American-made buttons continued to be in high demand after the War of 1812. Several other Waterbury entrepreneurs turned to button-making, most notably Aaron Benedict. Benedict began making buttons from bone and ivory in 1812. Eleven years later, in 1823, Benedict and a group of partners, mostly from New Haven, established the A. Benedict company for the manufacture of gilt buttons from rolled brass. Meanwhile, Leavenworth, Hayden & Scovill continued to do well in their own business. One of their best moves was the 1821 hiring of James Croft, a Birmingham button maker recently arrived from England. Croft was sent back to England to purchase the latest machinery and to hire experts to relocate to Waterbury. He found a Birmingham tookmaker named Samuel Frost who completely revamped the casting and rolling methods being used in Waterbury, leading the company to even greater success.

   Competition from England had been a major challenge — the English buttons had an orange tint that the American could not imitate, and their profit margins were much higher, at times using only six cents’ worth of gilding for every three dollars used by the U.S. manufacturers. The new machinery and improved techniques instituted by Croft and Frost gave the Waterbury button makers the advantage they needed.

   The importance of English expertise led the Waterbury button makers to focus their efforts on overseas recruitments and acquisition of the best machinery. Israel Holmes, who later became the first president of Bristol Brass, went to great lengths to fulfill this mission. English law forbade, under severe penalty of fines and imprisonment, the emigration of skilled workers and the exportation of machinery, but this did not stop Holmes. He made a total of three trips to England, covertly studying their manufacturing methods, purchasing machinery, and hiring workers. Holmes recruited approximately twenty people, including wives and children, to relocate to Waterbury. Such a large group was difficult to sneak out of the country — three of the recruits were smuggled onto a Liverpool ship in wine casks, while the remaining members of the group traveled to Wales in order to depart for the United States.

   Holmes’ bold and determined spirit seems to have been shared by the other founders of Waterbury’s brass industry. Their confidence and perseverance more than compensated for the lack of any relevant raw materials. One of the best examples of this is James Mitchell Lamson Scovill. He was praised during his 1858 memorial service as being greatly responsible for the prosperity of the city, and Henry Bronson described him as being “bold, energetic and sagacious” and having “that degree of confidence in the future which ensured success.”

   In 1827, Lamson and his brother William, newly returned from many years in North Carolina, bought out Leavenworth and Hayden, creating a new firm which they named J.M.L. & W.H. Scovill. A disastrous fire in 1829 did not daunt their efforts — after rebuilding their factory, they issued a token bearing the image of a phoenix rising from the flames to symbolize their endurance.

   By the late 1820s, the brass button venture had proved itself to be successful, and Waterbury’s entrepreneurs expanded their operations. Aaron Benedict’s factory began rolling their own brass in 1824, and the Scovills followed suit five years later. Waterbury rolled brass and copper quickly became a marketable product, along with the gilt buttons and other brass items, including tokens and lamps. By 1830, Waterbury was clearly a factory town.

   Hayward’s 1839 New England Gazetteer, in describing the village of Waterbury (essentially the area now considered to be the downtown extending a little way south past I-84), recorded that the population of about 1500 was twice as large as it had been 12 years earlier and that six to seven hundred of those people, men and women, were employed in the factories, most of which were dedicated to producing either gilt brass buttons or to rolling copper and brass. Those factories were primarily located on the Mad and Naugatuck Rivers in the southeast part of the village. The outlying areas, including Bucks Hill and Long Hill, were still largely devoted to farming.

   Frederick J. Kingsbury, born in Waterbury in 1823, wrote in his autobiography that at “the age of twelve [in 1835], I knew nearly everyone in town. Boys in those days, at any rate boys who were known, were perfectly free to wander at will through any of the factories….” Kingsbury spent many hours in each factory, where workers taught him the basics of their trades and allowed him to practice his skills with any extra tools on hand. Kingsbury also wrote of the “Morus Multicaulis” craze of the 1830s, during which “everybody was to get rich raising silk worms,” by purchasing and growing mulberry trees.

   The Waterbury brass industry continued to grow and diversify during the 1830s, although they continued to face challenges. Attleboro continued to be a major competitor, producing more buttons in 1834 than any other U.S. location. Workers labored twelve to thirteen hours per day in the summer and nine to ten hours per day in the winter, dependent upon natural light to see what they were working on. Distribution methods were changing, as the peddlers had become increasingly unpopular. Clockmaker Chauncey Jerome, describing the 1830s, wrote in his 1860 autobiography that “the southern people were greatly opposed to the Yankee pedlars [sic] coming into their states, especially the clock pedlars [sic], and the licences [sic] were raised so high by their Legislatures that it amounted to almost a prohibition.”

   The manufacturers began increasingly to rely on agents who would travel to the major port cities with samples of their products, which they used to establish contracts with local distributors. In 1833, Israel Holmes wrote back to Waterbury from Providence, detailing his efforts to establish Boston buyers for their wire and tubing, and noting that he would send back spelter once he arrived in New York: “My labors in Boston did not amount to much.”

   The acquisition of raw materials was just as important and difficult as the sale of the finished products. Chauncey Mitchell Depew, in his 1895 book, One Hundred Years of American Commerce, wrote “It is stated that in the early forties it was customary for the manufacturers at Waterbury annually to appoint a committee to make the long journey to Baltimore for the purpose of purchasing copper for the season’s supply. At that time the purchase of 500,000 pounds of copper was sufficient for a year’s supply for these manufacturers. At present that quantity would not supply the demand of the Naugatuck Valley for two days.”  Raw copper was purchased in Chile, brought to the U.S. “in the form of pigs” and refined at Baltimore, near Boston, and in other coast cities.

   The challenges for the Waterbury brass makers became even more arduous with the Panic of 1837. The entire nation was struck by financial disaster when a speculation bubble burst; of the 850 banks in the United States at the time, 343 went out of business, while another 62 suffered severe losses. After a brief recovery, the country entered an economic depression which lasted from 1839 until 1843.

   After the economic crisis, the 1840s became a decade of rapid growth for Waterbury’s brass industry. Copper became cheaper and more readily available: the Lake Superior region had been found to have vast supplies of high-quality copper ore; the Cliff Mine was opened in 1844 and others soon followed, making the United States one of the top copper-producing countries in the world. Copper imports began to drop, and by 1879 the Lake Superior region was producing 83% of the copper used in this country. After 1880, additional mining operations were opened in Arizona and Montana, producing almost twice as much copper as was needed domestically.

   In addition to the advent of domestic mining operations, Waterbury’s brass industry was given a giant boost with the arrival of the railroad in 1849. Prior to that date, all shipments to and from Waterbury were conducted on foot, horseback and carriage, greatly limiting the shipment quantities. The Naugatuck Railroad, running from Bridgeport to Winsted, was constructed at a cost of $27,732 per mile. Construction began in 1848 and was completed in September of 1849. By the spring of 1852, there were five daily trains between Waterbury and Bridgeport. The main line was eventually furnished with spur lines running through each of the factories, facilitating the transport of metal goods.

   By the end of the 1840s, Waterbury was ready to become a city. As a town, her population had peaked at 3,536 in 1774, dropping down to just under 3,000 in 1790. The population bounced between this high and low until 1850, when it rose to just over 5,000. In 1853, the town was incorporated as a city and was run by the brass manufacturers.

   Aaron Benedict’s company, which had transformed into Benedict & Burnham, suffered greatly following the Panic of 1837. For three years, their manufacturing ceased entirely. With the end of the depression, they regrouped and created Waterbury’s first joint stock corporation, Benedict & Burnham Manufacturing Co., with Aaron Benedict as its president. Benedict & Burnham became one of Waterbury’s biggest metal manufacturers throughout the rest of the 19th century, producing sheet brass, German silver, brass and copper wire and tubing.

   The Scovill company was also reorganized following the Panic. In 1840, the button-making operations became Scovill & Co., allowing the operations of J.M.L. & W.H. Scovill to focus on rolling brass and plated metal. A third company, Scovills & Buckingham, produced patented brass butts and daguerreotype plates. In fact, Scovills & Buckingham was one of the earliest companies to produce photographic equipment beginning in 1842, only three years after Louis Daguerre’s revolutionary invention was announced to the world.

   The three different Scovill businesses were merged in 1850 as The Scovill Manufacturing Company, destined to become one of the “big three” Waterbury manufacturers of the 20th century. Benedict & Burnham became the parent of numerous other companies which grew out of its own operations. Rather than keep successful specialized production as part of their own business, the company created new joint stock companies to focus on those ventures. These companies included the American Pin Company (established in 1846), the Waterbury Button Company (1849), Waterbury Clock Company (1857) which eventually became Timex, and the Waterbury Watch Company (1880).