What was Hardware City like in its heyday? Today, it’s hard to imagine: a packed downtown, with 35,000 factory workers, and life revolving around the factories.
Through the mid-20th century, the city saw an influx of immigrants, many picked up in New York City after a long journey, and brought to New Britain to live with family or friends. WNPR explored the history of the city that still thinks of itself as the Hardware City of the World, and the people who worked in the factories.
You can barely find the Industrial Museum in downtown New Britain. It’s tucked back on the second floor of an office building - a small space jam packed with old household goods, tools, maps and treasures that tell the story of a city that at one time was absolutely a center of industry.
Karen Hudkins, museum director, knows the story of the city by heart. "It’s not that New Britain is better or different than anybody else," she said. "This story has been played over and over across America for 200 years. What I think sets New Britain apart is the five different industries."
I talked to Hudkins just after she had given a museum tour to a group of what looked like high school kids. This is a spiel she’s given many times. "It’s ball bearings, which are huge; Household goods, Landers, Frary and Clark; kitchen instruments, North and Judd making buckles and clips and things like that. It’s tools made by New Britain Machine Tools, Stanley Rule and Level; It’s manufacturing machines, which were sold all over the world, and builders hardware."
Five industries that at at their height in the mid-20th century employed 35,000 people. Today, Stanley is the lone survivor still in New Britain. But remnants like doorknobs, hinges, and ball bearings are still found all over the world. "It’s kind of hard to wrap your mind around all these numbers," Hudkins said. "You hear, 'Yes, New Britain is the Hardware City of the World.' Well, what does that really mean?"
Hudkins said that Corbin, Russell and Erwin provide a good example of the reach of New Britain's industry. By the late 1800s, the transcontinental railroad was taking Corbin doorknobs to San Francisco. "During the depression they get the contract for Rockefeller center," she said. "Think how many doorknobs that is. And then at the other end of the century the architects for the World Trade Center came to this area for the hardware."
Ed Prendergast spent time working at Stanley in the 1960s. "My grandfather worked in Landers and he worked in the foundry," he said. "My father graduated out of eighth or ninth grade and he went to the factory. My father ended up being a general foreman." Prendergast said that families had loyalties to certain factories, but there were plenty of jobs to go around.
"People have said that you could get laid off or fired from a job in the morning, walk down the street and be hired after lunch. Jobs were plentiful and available," Prendergast said. Jobs were plentiful, but it was hard work. The goal of many families was to work hard so that the next generation wouldn’t have to spend long hours in a factory. "My father always drummed into me 'Don't get into the factory,' many people would tell their children that. Their goal was to get their children out. It was not a pleasant place to work."
But many people, like Tina Langevin, worked in the factories for years, and enjoyed it. She worked at Stanley from 1981 to 1999. Conditions had improved since the '60s. She said she loved her job. "I think we did a darn good job," she said. "Myself, the people that I worked with through the years, it means something to me. I’m glad I was there I wish we still were. It was a great time in my life. I’ll always miss it."
Museum Director Karen Hudkins collects people’s stories as much as she collects paraphernalia. Many of the former factory workers volunteer for her as docents. They want to keep the history alive as much as she does. "As all communities struggle with what their identity is in the 21st century we have to remember that it's people who built all this, people will have to figure out what will make us strong in 21st century. It's what happens when we become disconnected from our own history."