Willimantic Linen Company Trade Card: Willimantic Bridge


An 1883 trade card from the collection of the Windham Textile and History Museum, Willimantic, CT. It was commissioned by the Willimantic Linen Company to advertise its six-cord spool cotton. WLC was founded back in 1854 by Austin Dunham and Lawson Ives, two Hartford, CT businessmen. Despite the name, the company produced more cotton than linen. 

WLC was at the forefront of industrial textile production, and by the 1880's, it would become the largest thread factory in the US. The company utilized many hundreds of workers and machines, producing 85,000 miles of thread per day, which made up about 90% of all cotton sewing machine thread made in the US. Among the massive complex's numerous buildings, its Mill No. 2 was the first factory in the world to pioneer the use of electricity. The company's success, while impressive, came at the price of underpaid laborers who toiled in harsh conditions. Long 12-to-14-hour days were spent working with noisy, dangerous machines that filled the air with dust and lint. Hearing loss, missing fingers and arms, and respiratory disease were the dire consequences. Wage cuts would culminate in the 1925 American Thread Strike, one of the state's most heated labor conflicts.

This trade card, like many others, leveraged the novelty of colorful graphics to catch the attention of consumers. The popularity of these cards in the advertiser's toolkit was made possible by the development of color lithography, which made multicolor images easier and cheaper to reproduce. This card is printed on one side and blank on the other. The image appears to depict a vibrant, bustling port. A suspension bridge hangs over the water with many ships below. Workers and carriages are seen hauling crates of cargo as fisherman cast their lines. An air balloon soars into the sky. Many smokestacks exhale into the air. A small illustration of Mill No. 4 (the largest of the buildings) is shown in the upper right corner.

All these elements are used to glorify a new industrial society. An image of the factory boasts the industrial might of the company. The trail of smoke writing “Willimantic Six Cord Spool Cotton” speaks of production and progress rather than pollution. The spools of thread are incorporated into the bridge, vividly exaggerating that WLC's thread is strong enough to form its suspension. The bottom text reading “The Great Willimantic Bridge connecting all the states with strands of Willimantic six cord spool cotton” echos the expanding economic connectivity of the period (particularly due to railroads). The beauty of the scene, with its pleasant blues, yellows, and pinks, hides the dismal lives of the factory workers.