Back in the day, products were made in New England — a lot of products.
The early cod fishermen and Yankee traders made their fortunes and invested them in mills and factories and railroads. Those investments resulted in what we now call the Industrial Revolution in the United States.
Starting with the first water-powered cotton mill in Pawtucket, R.I., New England clothed a good part of the world for many, many years. New Englanders made clocks and can openers, steam engines and shoes, board games and battleships.
So many products were made in New England that people started attributing technical expertise and inventiveness to ‘Yankee ingenuity.’
Now, as you travel along the highways and railroad tracks you can see the crumbling brick remnants of New England’s industrial strength. If you want a glimpse of what it used to be like to make things, you can visit some restored mills that have been turned into historic parks. Or you can visit New England’s over-financialized downtowns, where once-productive factories and warehouses are now brew pubs, offices, and condos.
Mickey Mouse Watch
Oh, could Mickey Mouse sell watches. He rescued a floundering clock company as well as Walt Disney studios during the Great Depression.
For years the Waterbury Clock Company was one of the biggest makers of clocks in Connecticut’s Naugatuck Valley, known as the Switzerland of America. It also churned out wristwatches during World War I from its huge brick factory on North Elm and Cherry streets in Waterbury.
By the 1930s, the Waterbury Clock Company struggled financially. So did Disney. An ad salesman proposed making and selling the Mickey Mouse watch to save them both. Skeptical company executives – including Walt Disney – decided to try it anyway.
The cheap cheerful watch was just what a depressed public wanted. A Macy’s promotion sold 11,000 Mickey Mouse watches in one day. And by 1957, 25 million Mickey Mouse watches had sold.
In the 1950s, the company took the Mickey Mouse watch off the market and began selling a line of reliable and inexpensive watches. They called them Timex. Today, the Waterbury Clock Company has morphed into the Timex Group, its Waterbury factory buildings nothing but empty hulks. The company started a Timexpo Museum in Waterbury, which traced the company’s history, but that, too, closed.
For decades, the Bates Bedspread made an ideal wedding gift for a discriminating young couple like George and Barbara Bush. In fact, the Bushes posed in a 1948 magazine ad for the coverlet.
Bates for years was Maine’s largest employer. The giant textile mill complex in Lewiston, Maine, opened with one building in 1854 and grew to eleven. In 1940, the company hit on the idea of reproducing colonial-era candlewicked bedspreads like the one George Washington gave to Martha. It was a hit. By the 1960s, it seemed everyone had a Bates Bedspread.
By 1990, demand petered out and cheap imitators took a big piece of the market. The company closed in 2001, its mills now part of the Bates Mill Historic District listed on the National Register of Historic Places. You can still buy a Bates Bedspread at the Bates Mill Store (904 Main Street, Monmouth, Maine) from former employees who started Maine Heritage Weavers to carry on the tradition.
In 1888, the Parker brothers started their eponymous company in Salem, Mass., making board games out of an old laundry building. First they made board games like Billy Bumps Goes to Boston, then they introduced ping pong and tiddledy winks, and eventually they came up with Monopoly. They bought more land and built a 35,000-square-foot factory, employing 500 people.
Hasbro bought Parker Brothers and therefore Monopoly in 1991. The game is still actually manufactured in a 1960s-era plant in East Longmeadow. Hasbro bought the plant from Milton Bradley and then sold it to Belgium-based Cartamundi in 2015. Cartamundi agreed to make Monopoly in the East Longmeadow factory, at least until 2020.
Prophetically, perhaps, the Monopoly factory gave way to real estate development. The old Parker Brothers factory was torn down, replaced by the Jefferson Street apartment complex. The neighborhood now belongs to the Bridge Street Neck Historic District.
You can’t miss the Amoskeag Mill complex in the center of Manchester, New Hampshire. The city grew up around the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company, founded in 1831. The mill yard it grew into the world’s largest cotton textile plant, with sixty-four mill buildings stretching a mile and a half along both banks of the Merrimack River.
Among the cloth it produced: denim for the first Levi Strauss ‘waist overalls.’ Strauss and his partner Jacob Davis invented the blue jean when they received a patent for the way they riveted their waist overalls in 1873. Amoskeag shipped its nine-ounce XX blue denim to San Francisco, where Levi’s workers sewed it into blue jeans. Until 1915, the Amoskeag mills supplied all the denim for Levi’s 501 jeans.
After World War I, the Amoskeag Manufacturing Company suffered from recession, competition, aging technology and floods, finally closing in 1935. Some textile manufacturing continued in the old mills for a while, but many of the mills were torn down. Today offices, restaurants, college branches, and the Millyard Museum fill the old millyard
The Catamaran Sailboat
One of the most talented naval architects in the world was Nathanael Greene Herreshoff, named after the Revolutionary general from his home state of Rhode Island.
After Nat Herreshoff graduated from MIT he opened a boatyard in 1878 with his blind brother, John, in Bristol, R.I. The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company started making steam-powered boats, but during most of its sixty-seven years designed and built yachts for wealthy Americans.
The Herresshoff boatyard built every yacht that won the America’s Cup race between 1893 and 1934. Nat Herreshoff built the U.S. Navy’s first torpedo boats, invented new and efficient marine hardware, developed methods to make light wooden hulls and patented the sailing catamaran.
The Herreshoff Manufacturing Company also built seven catamarans, including Amaryllis and Amaryllis II. The boatyard closed in 1945 after Nat Herreshoff died, but a museum now stands on the former site. There you can see the Amaryllis II, as well as some famous yachts, models and designs of the Herreshoff company.
The town of Saint Johnsbury in Vermont’s Northeast Kingdom once made Fairbanks platform scales and sold them around the world.
Today Fairbanks still makes scales in a long, low commercial building in scenic Saint Johnsbury. And the company still sells them around the world. You’ve probably stood on one in a doctor’s office.
In 1824, Thaddeus Fairbanks, a wheelwright by trade, opened an iron foundry with his brother in Saint Johnsbury. They made and sold heating stoves, plows, and farm implements. Around 1830 he got interested in growing hemp, but ran into trouble trying to weigh large amounts of the stuff from a balancing beam. So he came up with the idea of the platform scale, which used levers to counterbalance the weight. By digging a pit for his contraption and placing a platform on top of it, he could weigh an entire wagon accurately.
The Fairbanks brothers’ company has changed hands several times, its headquarters moved to Kansas City, Mo., and another plant built in Meridian, Miss. But they still make scales in Saint Johnsbury, and if you look around you’ll see the Fairbanks gave the town many of its public institutions.
This story was updated in 2021.