The 19th Century economic boom

Shirt-making was a big industry in Wilton at the outbreak of the Civil War.

According to Robert Russell’s book Wilton, Connecticut, 50 Wilton residents claimed shirt-making as their occupations.

By 1860, wrote Mr. Russell, two particular Wilton shirt-making businesses each grossed $40,000:

  • The Olmstead shirt factory;
  • William A. Sturges’ shirt factory, located at what later became known as the Barringer Building.

Lewis Olmstead started making shirts in 1834, when there were no sewing machines and the work was done by hand.

When sewing machines became more commonly used, Mr. Olmstead moved the business to the corner of DeForest and Ridgefield roads, which later became home to the 1850 North Wilton Post Office.

On Sunday, March 30, the Wilton Library and Wilton Historical Society will present the last in their series of scholarly lectures: The Dawn of Innovation.

Guest speaker Charles Morris said he will emphasize the achievements of Eli Whitney, inventor of the cotton gin, which enabled large quantities of cotton fiber to be supplied to the growing textile industry, impacting factories like Olmstead’s and Sturges’.

Mr. Morris said he will also present an overview of his book, The Dawn of Innovation: The First American Industrial Revolution. He has written 14 books in 17 languages.

“I had previously done a book, The Tycoons, detailing the rise of the United States to economic dominance in the second half of the century,” Mr. Morris said earlier this week.

“As I worked on that, I got deeper insights into the groundwork for the boom laid in the first half of the century.”

Mr. Morris said Great Britain was the home of the Industrial Revolution in the 18th Century.

“It was by far the most democratic, meritocratic and industrious society, but by the 1820s, the United States was probably surpassing Great Britain in manufacturing productivity,” he said.

“The United States was probably the most commercialized society in the world at that time.”

War of 1812

Mr. Morris said the War of 1812 jump-started the New England cotton mills and iron centers.

“Before the war, the United States was in the position of selling Great Britain raw materials — wheat, cotton, lumber and such — to feed the British manufacturing sector,” said Mr. Morris, “much of which was sold back here.”

Mr. Morris said the War of 1812 eliminated trade in both directions and unleashed a great burst of entrepreneurialism throughout New England and New York.

The main manufacturing industries, said Mr. Morris, were:

  • Textile and cotton mills;
  • Ironwork and firearms;
  • Forging around the Great Lakes.

“Military arms production took a huge leap,” said Mr. Morris. “Even just the ironwork to outfit the ships on the Great Lakes was a major jolt to the United States metal trades.”

Mr. Morris said those industries were concentrated along the whole Connecticut River Valley, stretching from Vermont down to Long Island Sound.

During that time, Mr. Morris said Connecticut was caught up in making and selling a variety of manufactured goods, including clocks, textiles, buttons, guns and farm tools.

In contrast to the second half of the century, Mr. Morris said, “there were no giant figures like Rockefeller or Morgan driving the process.”

Instead, he said, palletized regional manufacturing and commercial centers were simultaneously coming into being throughout the country, except the South.

“The couple decades before the Civil War, transportation networks were knitting them together and creating the subsoil for the sudden burst to dominance that was underway by the mid-1870s,” said Mr. Morris.

In the 30 years following the Civil War, the United States grew into the greatest economic power in world history, said Mr. Morris.

“By the late 1880s and early 1890s, the United States has the largest GDP, productivity, steel production, oil, wheat, per capita growth rate, and so on,” he said. “The primary genius of these generations of Americans was their push for mass production.”

The 4 p.m. lecture at the Wilton Historical Society is free, and registration is encouraged.

Information: wiltonlibrary.org or 203-762-3950.