50 in 50: Connecticut: Buttons, Balls, Bells...and Blandings

Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse

Mention Connecticut and--at least for those of us who love old movies--the Hollywood-circa-1940's version of the place takes over. Think Christmas in Connecticut, Holiday Inn and Mr. Blandings Builds His Dreamhouse. Although 100 percent filmed in southern California, the classic New England farmhouses in these movies--complete with charming fireplaces and light-filled, cozy rooms--convincingly transport viewers to Connecticut.

Connecticut and manufacturing? Doesn't sound right. And yet the two go together like, well, like Wham and eggs (never heard of Wham? find the quote here). Indeed, manufacturing ranks third in Connecticut's economy (behind the finance and insurance industries). Forget farmhouses. Connecticut's much more than that.

In the big leagues: American multinational conglomerate United Technologies Corporation (UTC), headquartered in Farmington, researches, develops, and manufactures high-technology products in numerous areas, including aircraft engines. UTC employs more than 22,000 people. Pratt & Whitney (a division of UTC), based in East Hartford, has been a key engine provider of the U.S. space program since its inception, says the Hartford Courant. Groton-based General Dynamics Electric Boat manufactures submarines. Sikorsky Aircraft, founded in 1929 and based in Stratford, operates Connecticut's single largest plant, manufacturing military and commercial helicopters.

The Hartford Courant recently featured 45 Connecticut-made products, past and present. Notable firsts: America's first bicycle, made by Columbia in Hartford; the first Mickey Mouse pocket watches, wrist watches and clocks were made in Waterbury by the Waterbury Clock Company; in 1892, Connecticut resident George Blickensderfer patented the nation's first portable typewriter; the first friction match was invented in Beacon Falls in 1834 by Thomas Sanford; in the early 1900's, U.S. Rubber produced the first pair of Keds sneakers in Naugatuck.

And let's not forget hats. By the mid 1800's, Danbury, CT, manufactured and sold more hats than anywhere else in the world. In 1887, its 30 factories produced 5 million hats. "Hatting" disappeared from Danbury around 1950. But all was not lost. The skills from making hats "transferred themselves to other types of manufacturing," according to Stephen Bull, president of the Greater Danbury Chamber of Commerce. "Manufacturing is alive and well here in Danbury."

Assuming no one's in the market for a submarine, helicopter or jet engine (although I do have a few subscribers in Russia...) here are a few other Connecticut-made products:

WATERBURY BUTTONS: The Waterbury Button Company, "Makers of Premium Stamped Metal Brass Buttons since 1812."

Waterbury Button Company

From the company's website: "Since 1812, we’ve crafted the world’s most popular metal buttons. When Gen. Ulysses S. Grant met Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Courthouse, both men wore Waterbury buttons on their chests. Today we make buttons for the fashion industry, professional golf and its associations and every branch of the U.S. armed forces. We have amassed approximately 40,000 different button dies, each a work of art." Purchase them here.

WIFFLE BALLS: From NPR / by Chris Arnold: Many people might figure that a cheap plastic toy like a Wiffle Ball is made elsewhere, in someplace like China. After all, how can American companies compete on the cost of labor for little plastic toys? But that assumption would be wrong--every Wiffle Ball ever made has come from Shelton, Connecticut. And David Mullany, whose grandfather invented the Wiffle Ball, plans to keep it that way. "We're very happy producing our products here," he says. "No reason we can't make a top-quality product here at an affordable price and stay in business."

Wiffle Balls

The Mullanys' grandfather, David N. Mullany, invented the Wiffle Ball. The story goes that in the early 1950s, he was an out of work semi-pro baseball pitcher, so he set about to make a ball that kids could throw curveballs with. And then he started selling the balls at a local diner. "[The owner] put 'em on the counter to see what happens, and he went back a few days later, and they were gone," David Mullany says. And the rest is Wiffle Ball history.

BEVIN BROTHERS BELLS: Founded in 1832, based in East Hampton (known as "Belltown, USA"), family-owned Bevin Bells manufactures high quality hand bells, cow bells, sleigh bells and more. These bells have even been used at the opening and closing of the NYSE.

6th Generation Bevin Bros. President, Matt Bevin

From the company's website: Now in our sixth generation of family ownership, Bevin Bros. is the only dedicated bell manufacturer in the United States. Devoted to the art and science of producing exceptional bells with a brilliant sound, the Bevin family still oversees all operations in East Hampton, Connecticut. Each bell we make is backed by two centuries of experience, quality and trust, in addition to a 100% satisfaction guarantee. You can be sure that our goal is to be here in another 200 years, celebrating with bells on.

Here in northern California, pink and white blossoms seem to be everywhere. Don's yellow daffodils and multicolored primroses line the path to our front door. Life's simple pleasures, right?

Update: My friend Sue, who now lives in the S.F. Bay Area, says of her former home state:

"Connecticut is the 48th state in size but has a lot of character. There's a beautiful, long stretch of waterfront...fresh clams, lobster and other seafood...It's also home to many 'firsts': the first hamburger (1895), Polaroid camera (1934), helicopter (1939), color television (1948), and the first telephone book (had 50 names in it, I think). UConn women's basketball is amazing: 107th win and counting! You either are a Yankee fan or a Red Sox fan, depending on where you live in the state. New Haven, home to Yale, has the best thin crust pizza in the state--a tossup between Pepe's or Sally's. Connecticut's beauty (and proximity to New York City) has attracted countless famous people to it...There are still some amazing historical homes with character and land but unfortunately a lot of them are getting knocked down and replaced by McMansions. Three questions you can answer if you're a true Connecticuter: Do you know where the tag sale is? Do you want to go get a grinder? Do you know if the package store is still open? I loved living in Connecticut because it was so green, so full of trees. Growing up there, I remember how all of the stores on Greenwich Avenue were family owned. You really felt like you knew the people in town."

Thanks for giving us the inside scoop on Connecticut, Sue!