Waterbury Buttons: A Storied Past

Posted: Mar 17 2014

 

Philly has its cheesesteaks; Chicago has its deep dish pizza; and Waterbury, Connecticut has its buttons. Yup, buttons. And while they are not as tasty as cheesesteaks or deep dish pizza (in fact, to be clear, we DO NOT recommend eating buttons), the Waterbury Button, and the Waterbury Button Company as a whole, is pretty darn special.

The Waterbury Button Company is the oldest metal button manufacturer in the United States. The Company was founded in 1812 when the United States went to war with Britain, the U.S.'s exclusive supplier of buttons prior to war. As a result of the war, the two countries stopped trading and the U.S. was left without a supply of buttons and an even greater need for buttons. which were used by the military for its uniforms. In response to this situation, Aaron Benedict, a resident of a town near Waterbury, Connecticut, bought everything brass he could find (kettles, pans, and pots), built a button production facility in Waterbury, and began making buttons for the U.S. military. Waterbury thus became known as the “brass capital of the world” and Benedict, the “king of brass.” To this day, button manufacturing is a substantial part of Waterbury's economic activity.

But even after the war, Benedict's business, which has been known over time as Benedict & Co., Benedict & Burnham and Benedict & Burnham Manufacturing Co., thrived. The U.S. military appreciated the craftsmanship and quality of Benedict's buttons and deepened its relationship with Benedict's company, ordering in greater frequency and in larger quantities. The Company scaled in turn, upping its production capabilities (and volume) and diversifying its button offerings. Early craftsmen at the Company were meticulous throughout the button manufacturing process, using engraving tools the size of toothpicks to hand dye buttons and create intricate designs with remarkable detail.

Soon, Waterbury established a reputation overseas and as demand increased in Europe, the country began wholesaling its creations to European clothing manufacturers. In fact, though the Company did not supply buttons directly to the South during the Civil War, both Union troops and Confederate troops sported them. The South went so far as to use intermediaries in Europe to procure its Waterbury buttons. In fact, when General Ulysses S. Grant convened with General Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse to end the War, they each wore Waterbury buttons on their chests.

The Waterbury Button Company has since evolved, remaining at the cutting edge of the button industry yet never forgetting its roots.

Today, the Company uses computers and other technology for design work, reducing its manufacturing time to 2-3 days. However, many features of Waterbury Buttons are still made by hand, particularly in situations in which designs are too intricate for a computer to be trusted.

Waterbury Button Company's strict craftsmanship and superior quality continues to be recognized as they now make buttons, of all types and materials, for leading designers, corporations, and government entities and organizations around the world.

And if you're ever interested in learning more about the history of Waterbury buttons, we encourage you to visit the Mattatuck Museum in Waterbury, Connecticut.

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