Eastern Connecticut Textile Industry
The textile industry was the dominant industry in eastern Connecticut during the 1800s and the first half
of the 1900s. The roots of the industry began prior to the American Revolution. Eastern Connecticut entrepeneurs sought to
replace imported English and European goods with domestic products. These efforts continued after the Revolution.
American efforts to establish a textile industry were unsuccessful until English immigrants provided the
necessary skills and knowledge for industrial textile production in the 1790s. In 1791, Samuel Slater established
the first successful cotton mill in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. The Schofield brothers, John and Arthur, set up woolen carding
machinery in Montville. Connecticut in 1794.
The first successful cotton mill in Connecticut was Pomfret Factory, constructed in 1806 by the Wilkinson
family, in-laws of Samuel Slater, at Cargill Falls on the Quinebaug River. This was the nucleus of the present-day town of
Putnam, Connecticut. The Embargo of 1807 and the War of 1812 stimulated manufacturing by preventing the importation of
competing goods. Maritime trade, the lifeblood of the New England economy, was largely cut off by the embargo and
war. Capital was diverted from shipping to manufacturing. Favorable tarriffs after the War of 1812 ensured the
growth of American textile production. By 1833, over 100 mills were reported in operation along the route of the proposed
railroad between Norwich, CT and Worcester, MA.
Rhode Island entrepeneurs provided much of the capital and expertise for the textile industry in Eastern
Connecticut. Typically, a mill site was located where a river fell steeply, providing the waterpower needed to operate machinery.
The site was purchased, a dam and mill built to exploit the available waterpower, and a village laid out to house the
employees or "operatives". The early mills were small in scale, owned by an individual rather than a corporation, and employed
families. Parents and children both worked in the mill. The millowner provided housing and usually operated a store as well.
This style of ownership and management was known as the "Rhode Island" or "Family" system. At Lowell and other large
cities, corporations usually owned the mill, leasing waterpower from a separate company. Lowell mills hired single women
and men to work in the mills, providing boardinghouses for them.
Eastern Connecticut mills produced a great variety of textile goods. Cotton, wool, linen, silk, and,
later, synthetic fibers were all spun here. Woven and knit fabrics from the mills made their way into homes and businesses
across America. From fine, gauze-like lawns for women's wear, to awning cloth for storefronts, to the fabric used for movie
screens, the variety was astounding.
It is our pleasure to introduce you to the mill towns and villages of Eastern Connecticut.