I’m taking my annual trip to Newtown this week to speak to some 4th graders about Connecticut history. We’ll talk Charter Oak, Nutmeg, Constitution State etc. but I like to sprinkle in a bit of local history as well if I can. Something about Newtown that not many folks know is that back in the 19th century the town was a local hub of comb and button manufacturing.
The Newtown Historical Society website (which is quite informative) says this “Button and comb production was another thriving industry in 19th century Newtown. Since Newtown was primarily an agricultural town, it was natural that an industry that utilized a waste product from animal husbandry such as horn, bone, and hoof would develop and do very well here. At one time there were as many as 14 button shops in full production. After the Civil War, however, as plastics took over as the preferred material for both comb and button making, the shops began to close. By the beginning of the twentieth century just two of the button shops remained in business. One, S. Curtis and Co., survived by converting to the manufacturing of cardboard boxes and survives to this day as Curtis Packaging, Inc. The other suffered a disastrous fire in 1926 and closed for good. “
With this in mind here are a couple of Newtown patents related to the button and comb industry:
From 1854 a patent for “Manufacture of Wooden Buttons” granted to LL and AL Platt:
Next we have a Comb patented by Ammon Taylor in 1881:
Sometimes I run across an obscure Connecticut invention that seems like a good idea but I have no real way of testing it out. Not so with today’s find. This is a “Pen and Pencil Holder” patented by Frederick P. Peiter of Norwalk in 1886. A simple idea, have a writing implement literally at hand whenever you need it.
We don’t have any in our collections here so I built my own simple version with a pencil and a rubber band…..and you know what? It works pretty well. Maybe the inventor had some kind of similar version of his own before he patented the real thing.
October is National Popcorn month! Here’s a “Cooking Utensil” patented by Perl Butler of Weatogue Connecticut back in 1918. Maybe not as easy as sticking a bag in a microwave and walking away for two or three minutes, this tool simply requires you to place the unpopped kernels in the pan, close the lid then proceed to hold it “over the blaze” according to the patent application.
If that’s too much work for you there is Dague Popcorn a company in Connecticut that makes gourmet popcorn for you in some pretty tempting flavors….
A recent Museum acquisition peaked my interest as I walked by a table full of historical goodies destined for our collection. It’s an example of “The Delusion” Mouse Trap patented by John Best Cuzner of Bridgeport. The trap alone is interesting by its very look and an example of the over 4,000(!) that have been patented in the U.S. since the mid 19th century. (Including 13 here in Connecticut) But the real interesting part is the inventor himself….
John Cuzner enlisted as a “Mechanic” in the 16th Connecticut Infantry in 1862. Only 18 years old he fought in battles including Antietam and Fredricksburg and was taken as a prisoner in 1864. Cuzner was sent to Andersonville prison, one of the largest Confederate prisons of the Civil War. One of the deadliest too. Nearly 13,000 prisoners kept here died due to the deplorable conditions of the prison. Fortunately for him, Cuzner was paroled and released from Andersonville later in the year, weighing only 84 pounds.
Cuzner went on to live a long life after the war ended, passing away in 1926. He was granted patents for two other inventions besides this trap. A “Toy Horse and Carriage” in 1871 and an “Automatic Toy” in 1874.
In case you haven’t noticed (or jarringly felt it) we’ve entered pothole season here in New England. The constant swings in temperature and precipitation have left many roads looking and feeling like something one reads about in a novel about traveling through a third world country. But it’s nothing new, it happens every year and has been happening every year for decades. Of course repairing an aluminum rim from a car today might be a bit more costly than repairing a wooden wheel from a buckboard a 150 years ago….
Keeping our roads in good order is a constant battle. There are a number of Connecticut inventions from years gone by that have sought the best way to build and or repair roads:
James Brooks of Stafford Springs devised this “Road Scraper” in 1862:
Another “Road Scraper”, this from Wallingford and Marcus Cook dates to 1884:
Then from Thomas Barber of Hampton, circa 1865, we have the “Road Device”. A sort of all in one machine that digs, scrapes and crowns a road:
Now all these fancy tools can make the best roads in the world. But sometimes a driver needs a bit more help keeping his or her car on the path so to speak. John Lawson of West Haven thought he solved that by offering up the “Road Guard” back in 1923. Funny thing is this reminds me of my kids slot car racing sets that have those plastic barriers on the corners to keep their mini cars traveling down the road…..works for them, maybe not a bad idea after all.
Sure, October is a beautiful month in some respects. The blazing colors of fall foliage. The crisp, clear air, devoid of humidity. But then there’s a darker side to October…….namely the sun setting earlier and earlier, denying us of the sun’s rays after school and work. Then the worst day of all, a day I think that should be considered a National Day of Mourning….The End of Daylight Saving, which occurs this year on November 3rd. I get depressed just thinking about it.
I complain yearly about this (to the consternation of my wife) mainly because I just love to be outdoors in the light of day. And I hate winter….but that’s another story. Imagine living and working before the days of electric lights. Squinting to see whatever project or job you are working on. As the sun goes down earlier and earlier it got harder and harder to see. As our world got more industrialized and mechanized this could be quite dangerous. Ever try to use a drill press, lathe, weaving machine or sewing machine in darkness? If it was your job or your family needed it you just dealt with it and hoped for the best. Or you tried to invent a solution to the problem.
Here’s a solution, a Connecticut invention, that aimed to solve the problem of using in this case a sewing machine under limited light. Mary E. Smith of Southbury patented this “Lamp Supporting Bracket for Sewing Machines” in 1883. In her application she notes that “In the use of sewing machines in the nighttime a difficulty has always been experienced in using a light to properly light the work because of want of room on the sewing machine table to receive a lamp or burner, and the insecurity of a lamp standing on the table, subject as it is to continual jarring and the danger of it being knocked off or upset.”
Mary E. Smith, a Connecticut inventor “turning darkness into light”……
My outreach school programs are done for the school year so now its time to review, add up the numbers and plan for changes for next year. This past year I decided to bring out a bunch more Connecticut inventions to share with the kids. One that I brought out was by far the most popular. One fourth grader even went so far to call it the “creepiest, coolest thing ever”. I think he has a point:
Patented by Hartford resident William Brodrib in 1953 this is the “Ambulatory Animal Toy”. I remember when I first saw this on one of our shelves in the museum storage area. The lighting was kind of dark, the toy was pushed back to the rear, yet all I saw was this goofy, kind of creepy, smiling dog face looking at me. Surrounded by other shelves full of tools, bottles, clocks swords etc. this thing really stood out. Upon further inspection and yes, trying it out, it is a true charmer. The tail wags, a small bell jingles and on carpeting the legs move quite naturally……
How can you not smile when you look at this toy? The kids in the classrooms love it. The same kids who are used to X-Box, iphones and the like are completely blown away with this old school kind of toy when I walk the dog around their classroom. We end up having good discussions about toys, technology and inventors of the past present and future. And every time I take this little guy out of the box he’s still smiling…..