Buttons, Buttons, Everywhere......

by Michael Gelinas, Board member- Longmeadow Historical Society- May 2006 Issue

In 1836 a Springfield Armory employee named Cyrus Newell moved from Walnut St. in Springfield to Longmeadow and began to farm. He came with his wife, the former Celina Sessions, and four sons- Samuel, Nelson, Horace, and Charles, ages 14, 12, 10, and 8. Moving from an urban setting at that time to a rural farm one was a reversal of what was becoming the norm–from rural farm to urban factory.  

The story of the Newell family is an excellent example, however, of the quickening  transformation of the economy of the pre-Civil War Northeast. Part of the great changes was the leaving home by the young men from many farm families. Samuel left at age 16. He worked for a year in a store in Wilbraham; he then clerked for various merchants in Hartford, CT. until he was 21. He then worked for a textile manufacturer in Naugatuck CT, part of a booming industrial area. Three years later he went to New York City and worked as a salesman for the India rubber goods store of Ames & Newell.  His younger brother, Nelson who also was linked to Naugatuck had his own manufacturing company.  

Nelson sold his interests, and he and his brother moved back to Longmeadow in 1848, They brought with them knowledge of the new economy that was evolving, as well as investment capital. They associated themselves with Dimond Chandler in his cloth button manufacturing business. Chandler had six employees creating cloth buttons for a primarily regional market.  

But when the Newell brothers came back the pace of mechanization of the textile and clothes making industries was accelerating, creating a growing demand for buttons. The Newells, as part of Dimond Chandler & Co., expanded the business to just under 30 employees. Most of the employees were young women, of marrying age; their prospects of marriage were diminished because the number of men of equivalent ages was declining as they left home for opportunities “out West”. Almost all of the girls lived together in a boarding house where they could be supervised. This was the “Lowell” model that had been employed at the huge mills in Eastern Massachusetts; this was done in part to convince the parents of these young women that they would be safe away from home while earning their own livings and building a dowry to make it easier to find a mate.  

By 1860 the Newell Brothers had bought out Chandler, and were preparing a move to Springfield. The Civil War accelerated this move. In Springfield they could find the experienced labor force to operate more advanced lathes. They built a three-story factory (100 ft. x 30 ft.) at a site that is now the corner of Howard St. and Columbus Ave. The factory had access to water power and transportation facilities for access to a wider market. Besides their own capital, they worked with Daniel Colton, whose family had been Longmeadow residents, for more capital for the expanding business. After a few years, an office building had been erected, and then another factory building, this one four stories high. As well as a full line of cloth-covered buttons and ivory (made from an ivory nut imported by the ton from Central America), the brothers also controlled the Dickinson Hard Rubber Co., which manufactured hard rubber buttons. By 1880 the Newell Brothers Manufacturing Co. had over 500 employees. In 1902 Nelson C. Newell (Samuel had died in 1878 with no male heirs), along with his three sons, created the United Button Co.–a consolidation of their company with the Williston & Knight Co. of Easthampton and the Boston Button Co. The new United Button company now controlled 85% of the covered button output and 40% of the ivory button output of the country.  

Samuel and Nelson also played a role in the development of the famous McKnight neighborhood in Springfield. They had their houses completed in 1872 (testimony to the prosperity of Civil War era Springfield). Nelson’s was at 57 Bowdoin St., and Samuel’s at 69 Bowdoin. A third brother, Horace, who had spent his early adult years in Naugatuck as a teacher, returned during the Civil War and eventually became foreman of the carding (cloth preparation) and shipping departments. He, too, built in the McKnight area, at 59 Buckingham St.  

From a few buttons on Chandler Lane to many many buttons in Springfield, this has been one example of the American economy in the 19th century: from small shop to large factory, from living in a farm village to moving to greater chances of “getting ahead”, from local trading areas to national markets; and a new merchant and manufacturing class who lived in the cities and helped create dynamic infrastructures and public institutions.

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Longmeadow Historical Society

697 Longmeadow Street
Longmeadow, MA 01106
(413) 567-3600

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