New Britain City Journal

New Britain's Weekly Online Newspaper


Industrial Museum Increases Hours to Include Saturday

Step inside the New Britain Industrial Museum on Main Street and visitors will see how the labors of the city’s manufacturing past transformed how people scrambled their eggs, opened doors, and got a man on the moon.

Located on the second floor of the CCSU/ITBD building at 185 Main St., the museum will now be open on Saturdays thanks to a grant from the American Savings Foundation and the assistance of CCSU. Museum Director Karen Hudkins said expanding to Saturday will give people who have to work during the week an opportunity to visit, a lesson she learned while working at the New Britain Museum of American Art.

The museum showcases the pieces and stories from the city’s earliest manufacturers who made things like sleigh bells, beaver hats, and pistols all the way to present day businesses like Era Motor Cars, the producers of replica muscle cars, and ACME Monaco, the maker of medical wiring.

The main exhibits highlight the city’s most famous manufacturers, including the hand tools of Stanley Works, Fafnir Bearing, home products from Landers, Frary, and Clark, American Hardware, and buckles of North & Judd. While many companies have since taken on new names or gone out of existence, others, like Stanley, still produce millions of tape rulers each year at a factory on Myrtle Street decades after it got its start in 1843.

For the hundreds of visitors who come each year, Hudkins said the museum has become a place for people with connections to the city to finally see and touch the items that have given New Britain the “Hardware City” moniker. It’s also given former factory members a chance to reminiscence or family members the resources to learn about their ancestry. The museum has a collection of books printed by the city dating from 1898 to the 1990s that lists what street people lived on, their occupations, and other information.

On a recent evening, more than 25 relatives of Rick Naples, a Southington man who worked at Landers, Frary, and Clark, gathered at the museum for a night of pizza, a tour, and an exploration of family history.

“It’s a lot more fun if you can see the stuff,” Hudkins said of visiting. “Stories start to get swapped.”

New Britain’s manufacturing prowess has left it’s imprint on the world: from the spurs of cowboys in the West, to parts for B-52 bombers, to the door hardware for buildings like those in Rockefeller Center and the World Trade Center.

While towns are often known for producing a single item, like Meriden and silver or Manchester and silk, New Britain’s factories turned out a vast range of products.

Many manufacturers didn’t invent products, but improved upon existing ones, Hudkins said. Lander’s, Frary, and Clark, likely drove the creation of the consumer culture, with the production of items like toasters, cutlery, vacuums, stoves, blow dryers, and coffee makers, Hudkins said. P&F Corbin made bicycle parts and mailboxes for a time, along with cars in the early part of the 20th century. One early industrialist even made a knife for a one armed-person following the Civil War.

“There pretty much wasn’t anything that couldn’t be made here. It was the Silicon Valley of its time,” Hudkins said.

Without any natural resources like waterpower to rely on, the city’s earliest manufacturers were industrial folk artists and intellectually smart, Hudkins said. “This happy band of people just came here and did it. We can do it again,” Hudkins added.

At their peak, the city’s five major factories had 10 million square feet of space under production. Working conditions were often loud and dirty, but complaints were few. “People were proud to have been apart of that,” Hudkins said.

In 1900, around 1,000 patents were issued to businesses in the city—a figure greater than any other city of the same size at the time. Much of that innovation floated up from the factory floor. During the city’s manufacturing golden years that followed World War II, close to half of the city’s 75,000 residents were working in the factories.

Many companies often recruited immigrants coming off the boats at Ellis Island. For many families, their roots to the city can often be traced back to accepting a free cup of coffee and hearing a pitch to come work in New Britain.

Hudkins is working on surveying the city’s current manufacturers to give visitors a better idea of the industries that still exist and what’s being produced.

“There are still many things being made here. I don’t think the best is behind us,” Hudkins said of the city. “The museum really wants to serve as a bridge between the past, present, and future. You can’t be proud of a community if you don’t know what happened there.”

In recent years, the exhibits have been rearranged so they show more of a chronological history of the city’s manufacturing. Tours also focus on what city life was like for workers, such as the athletic events they participated in on their days off.

Horace Van Dorn, who worked at Fafnir for 43 years, helped establish the museum in 1995.

“We must preserve artifacts representative of the creativeness and labor of the ‘Hardware City’ people over the generations,” Van Dorn remarked in December 1993. “There is inspiration for the future and appreciation for the past to be gleaned from the accomplishment of our local forebears.”

He cautioned at the time that future generations must take action to bring together products that are “fast disappearing into the scrap heap.”

“As large older industries fade, entrepreneurial endeavors grow from seeds of ideas into new vibrant enterprises,” Van Dorn said. “The economic cycle of city life then ebbs and flows on the path of challenges and successes which it’s business and industry encounter. Ingenuity is timeless.”