All About That Brass

By Tasha Caswell, Research & Collections Associate, the Connecticut Historical SocietyWaterbury Brass Buttons

How often do you think about the buttons on your clothes? Unless you’re into fashion or design, you probably don’t think about them that much (unless one falls off). I know I don’t. Maybe you’ll be surprised at how much impact such small objects had on one Connecticut town.

The United States Button Company Display, item 22 in the CHS’s Connecticut: 50 Objects/50 Stories exhibit is one of my favorites in the exhibition. It features dozens of brass buttons arranged in the shape of an eagle behind a shield and crossed arrows, with stars on either side of it and rows of buttons below.

When I first happened upon it I was alone in our paintings storage room, looking for something else. I’m pretty sure I gasped and, to no one at all, said, “Where did this treasure come from?” Even though the amount of time I spend daily thinking about buttons is typically equal to the amount of time I spend fastening them on my clothes, I spent a few minutes with it, just admiring the beauty and variety of the buttons and the cleverness of the display.

The Mattatuck Museum generously loaned the display to the CHS to share the story of how Waterbury became “The Brass City.” According to the museum’s curators, buttons have been a big story in Waterbury for more than 200 years. Not just a big story, the manufacture of brass buttons in Waterbury was big business, with small, independent companies in the nineteenth century giving way to the “Big Three” in the 20th century. The United States Button Company, which went bankrupt in 1876, was absorbed by the Waterbury Manufacturing Company, which then became Chase Brass and Copper. Scovill and American Brass were the other two brass corporations, all three of them based in Waterbury, with factories in that town and many others across the country. In Waterbury alone, the Big Three employed thousands of factory workers at the height of their production.

Industries change, however, and after World War II, Chase Brass and Copper, Scovill, and American Brass began closing their Waterbury factories, leaving thousands of people unemployed. Even though brass is still produced in Waterbury, albeit on a smaller scale, the days when millions of buttons were made there in a single week are gone.

The beautiful buttons from the United States Button Company are symbolic as tiny works of art and as reminders of the brass industry that gave Waterbury its nickname and motto. This is why my job is so cool—a few minutes spent looking at a display of buttons turned into a deeper of understanding of an entire city. Thanks to the Mattatuck Museum for lending the CHS this beautiful display.

For more information about the history of brass manufacturing in Waterbury, see these two articles in the Waterbury Observer, both written by Raechel Guest: Brass Beginnings and The Big Three.

Tasha Caswell, Research and Collections Associate at the CHS, believes that preserving cultural heritage and making it accessible is one of the most important jobs in the world. Her work at the CHS over the past three years includes processing graphics collections and assisting patrons in the Research Center. Tasha curated the CHS exhibition Through a Different Lens: Three Connecticut Women Photographers and wrote CHS’s accompanying publication. She has presented original research at the Wellesley-Deerfield Symposium at Historic Deerfield in Massachusetts and the Barnum Museum in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Tasha earned a master of information studies (library science and archival studies) from the University of Toronto, and a master of arts in photographic preservation and collections management from Ryerson University and George Eastman House.

About the Connecticut Historical Society

A private, nonprofit, educational organization established in 1825, the Connecticut Historical Society is the state’s official historical society and one of the oldest in the nation. Located at 1 Elizabeth Street in Hartford, the CHS houses a museum, library, and the Edgar F. Waterman Research Center that are open to the public and funded by private contributions. The CHS’s collection includes more than 4 million manuscripts, graphics, books, artifacts, and other historical materials accessible at our campus and on loan at other organizations.

The CHS collection, programs and exhibits help Connecticut residents connect with each other, have conversations that shape our communities, and make informed decisions based on our past and present.

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