The Silver City
The area now known as Meriden began to take shape as a land grant to Jonathan Gilbert in the mid-17th century. Prior to European settlement, the Quinnipiac and Mattabasset Tribes frequently hunted, fished, trapped, lived, and traded in the area.
By the mid-18th century, more than 30 families farmed the region, then still a part of the town of Wallingford. Daily stagecoach service began in Meriden by 1784, but until the arrival of the turnpike in 1799, Meriden remained relatively isolated from the surrounding towns and communities. The turnpike, which roughly followed present day Broad Street, opened up regional markets in both New Haven and Hartford. Prior to the completion of the turnpike, freight between Hartford and New Haven traveled via the Connecticut River, which often froze over during the winter months. The intersection of the present Broad Street and East Main Street became a convenient overnight stop for teamsters traveling the 40-mile route between Hartford and New Haven.
As transportation corridors in central Connecticut improved, more people came to Meriden and by 1806 the population rose to over 1,000 residents. As more and more farms appeared in the region, so did ancillary businesses to serve the needs of those engaged in agriculture and of those traveling through Meriden. A tavern, small stores, craftsman shops, a church and a school sprang up along Broad Street, which quickly became recognized as the center of Meriden. Saw mills, wool carding mills, gristmills and other agricultural related industry soon followed. Slowly, Meriden began to evolve from a small agricultural village to an economically diverse town.
By 1806 the General Assembly at Hartford officially recognized Meriden as an independent town. Shortly thereafter, in the early 1820’s, the first true industry developed in Meriden when resident Julius Pratt began Howard Pratt & Company, a manufacturer of ivory combs. By mid-century, Julius Pratt’s company supplied nearly three-quarters of all ivory combs used in the United States.1
Pratt’s company is significant because it exemplified a new type of national economy. Pratt obtained raw materials, in this case ivory most likely shipped from the Port of New Haven, and manufactured a finished product that was then shipped abroad. This is in sharp contrast to a local economy in which goods are produced, then sold and used in proximity to their original place of manufacture. Transportation linkages, which are vital to industrial growth, began to alter the landscape of Meriden.
Transportation improvements, such as the arrival of the turnpike and development of the steam engine, made possible the shipment of goods between distant places. The arrival of the railroad in 1839 was the second major transportation development to shape the spatial layout of Meriden. The railroad strengthened transportation links with the growing cities of New Haven and Hartford and provided access to national and world markets. The appearance of the railroad also shifted the center of town from the area surrounding Broad Street to the corner of Colony Street and West Main, nearer to the railroad station. Factories appeared in the area surrounding the railroad to take advantage of the ability to easily ship goods to Hartford and New Haven.
Not long after the railroad arrived, a small company named Joel Miller and Son began manufacturing lamp screws and candle springs in Meriden. It marked the beginning of an industrial expansion in Meriden that continued until World War II. Industry flourished as manufacturing plants sprang up in Meriden during the last half of the 19th century. Meriden’s industry attracted greater numbers of people as the population increased from less than 2,000 in 1840 to over 25,000 by 1890. As a result of this rapid population growth, Meriden incorporated as a city in 1867.
The industrial revolution altered the landscape of Meriden and the social demographics of the area. Operating a large industrial factory required a great degree of organization and specialized expertise. Prior to the industrial revolution, many goods were produced in so called “cottage industries.” This type of industrial organization often required that people produce goods out of their own home or in a small shop for an individual or small company that would then sell the goods. The employees worked at their own pace and were paid according to the amount of goods they actually produced. Larger factories, however, required managers to direct the production of goods. Managers required more education and experience, as they needed to have an intense understanding of the overall production processes.
These managers represented a large portion of the burgeoning middle class in the 19th century. Most of the population prior to the industrial revolution was clearly divided between the well to do and the poor. The industrial revolution however, gave rise to a new demographic which continued to expand well into the 20th century. This new middle class was paid better than those who performed the manual labor in the factories. As time went on, this expanding middle class sought to institute social customs and institutions that separated themselves from the laboring lower class, which consisted of mostly European immigrants.
During the last half of the 19th century the middle class enthusiastically adopted Victorian ideals of etiquette and custom. Publications such as Godey’s Lady’s Book, which began publishing in the mid-19th century, offered a handbook for how genteel society should behave. This rise of a genteel class is mirrored in much of the domestic architecture of Meriden. Victorian architecture reflects the ideals of the 19th century middle class. It is highly stylized, borrows from gothic and religious inspirations, and mirrors the bucolic setting in which most were located.
The irony of Victorian era architecture in the United States is that the people who benefited most from the rise of industry lived in homes that stylistically embraced organic forms and the natural world while rejecting urbanism. The middle class increasingly viewed the inner cities as unclean and lacking in morality. Pattern books of the mid-19th century, such as those authored by architect Andrew Jackson Downing, emphasized the pastoral settings in which middle class houses should be built. These homes further isolated the middle class from the lower working classes, who often lived in tenements and multi-family dwellings.
Factories in Meriden produced everything from firearms to coffee grinders. However no other commodity symbolized Meriden more than did the production of silverware. Silver production quickly became synonymous with Meriden as companies such as the Meriden Britannia Company thrived in the latter half of the 19th century. The Meriden Britannia Company began in 1852 as a distributor of pewter and Britannia ware. They quickly abandoned distributing in favor of actual production of silverware and by 1860 employed over 300 people.2
The rise of the Meriden Britannia Company is a product of both technological and social changes as well as the rapid expansion of the western territories of the United States and new discoveries of silver. New deposits of silver found in the western territories of the United States, such as the Comstock Load in Nevada in 1859, along with innovative techniques in electroplating, changed the silver industry considerably during the post-Civil War period. Individual silver smiths crafting one piece at a time gave way to mass-produced silverware. Silver goods, previously an extravagance of the upper class, became increasingly affordable to the rapidly expanding middle class. The sheer amount of raw silver being mined in western states depressed silver prices so much that silver became affordable to the middle class. By the turn of the century, the Meriden Britannia Company merged with 16 other silverware manufacturers to form the International Silver Company.
As industry in Meriden grew, so did the wealth of its upper and middle classes. High style homes of the upper class, as well as stylized homes for the middle classes, sprang up along Colony Street and the surrounding area during the latter decades of the 19th century. The introduction of the horse drawn streetcar in 1886, and the replacement of that system with an electric streetcar in 1888, allowed for the suburbanization of Meriden. Streetcar suburbs sprang up along many of the streets the trolleys serviced such as Hanover Street & Pratt Street. Homes such as those along North Lincoln Street are excellent examples of late Victorian architecture. These structures, and many others throughout the city, reveal the economic expansion that occurred in Meriden during the 19th century.
By the mid-20th century, many of the factories, including the International Silver Company, closed or moved. Neglect, demolition, fires, and urban renewal efforts in the 1960’s and 1970’s destroyed many of the old factories and historic structures in Meriden. A shopping mall, housing projects, and other modern buildings now occupy the places where large industrial factories once stood. Only a handful of the grand homes that once existed in Meriden still exist, while many more have been altered considerably. Some of these magnificent structures still exist along North Colony Street, Washington Heights, Cook Avenue, Griswold Street, and many other locations throughout Meriden. The Meriden downtown and vicinity reflects the growth the City experienced in the latter half of the 19th century and the early 20th century. Many of the structures in the downtown area are exceptional examples of architecture from this period of growth.
1 Brenda J. Vumbaco, Meriden: Connecticut’s Crossroads, an Illustrated History, Windsor Publishing, 1988. pp. 33.
2 Vumbaco, 40.
Meriden's Centennial Celebration
In 1906 Meriden celebrated its centennial with a week long celebration from July 10th to the 16th that engaged the entire city.
On July 12th, A.J. Aubrey participated in the Automobile Parade which was described as:
There have been automobile parades and automobile parades and yet it is doubtful if anything as elaborate, as attractive or as generally satisfactory, was ever held in Connecticut before that could be compared with this procession of "whizz" carts. One hundred and sixty-two machines of every sort and description traveled over the principal streets of the city down lanes of enthusiastic people who applauded vigorously the handsomely decorated cars.
F.A. Stephani, treasurer of Meriden Fire Arms served as a member on the Industrial Parade committee.
The centennial celebration also included the thirty-seventh schuetzenfest of the Southern New England Schuetzenbund. Various medals and prizes were awarded in this shooting competition. One such award was an Aubrey shotgun which was won by A.R. Cooley of Springfield.
Meriden the "Silver City"
Statley mansions, manufacturers became prosoerous.
Hotels, banks and electric light arrives.
Meriden the "Silver City" Statley mansions, manufacturers became prosoerous. Hotels, banks and electric light arrives. City Thrives 24,000 and growing, Everything from belts to coffee grinders and cutlery "silver" the product that would lend it's luster as Meriden became the "Silver City". Courtesy of MeridenWas.com