Oh, Snap! A Fasten-ating History of Those Things that Keep Cowboy Shirts Closed – Part I

January 26, 2015 § Leave a comment

The history of snaps is the history of manufacturing in America.  It’s also a little bit of a soap opera.  A snap opera?  Our story begins in the late 1700’s in Waterbury, Connecticut.  The Grilley Brothers, metalworkers Henry, Silas, and Samuel, manufactured buttons by casting block tin and pewter in iron moulds.  By 1792, to keep up with the latest in button fashion, they switched to brass buttons manufactured from sheet brass imported from England.  Abel Porter and his brother Levi took it one step further when they introduced the technology to make the brass themselves by the direct melting of copper and zinc (The Oldcopper Website).

Abel Porter was born in Berlin, Connecticut to Gideon and Huldah Porter.  Abel fought in the Revolution, enlisting twice under George Washington.  After the war, he settled down to the tinsmithing trade in Southington, which he learned from Solomon Dunham.  A trade is not all he acquired from Dunham; he also married Dunham’s daughter, but she died soon thereafter in 1783.  This short-lived marriage effects history only by tying Abel by marriage to William Pattison, a relative of the Dunham’s and the tinsmith whose claim to fame was starting the manufacturing of American-made tin household cooking and eating utensils in 1740.  The following year after his wife’s untimely demise, Abel married Hannah Elliot.  This happy couple purchased a home and shop of their very own a scant 11 years later, where they lived and worked successfully, hosting apprentices and whatnot, until moving to Waterbury, where our story takes place.

Now, Waterbury was quickly becoming a hotbed of button-making technology, and Abel wanted in on the action.  He bought land, met his future partner Daniel Clark, sold the place in Southington, and headed for Waterbury (Scovill Brass Works).  The Porters and the Grilleys teamed up in 1802 to form Abel Porter & Company.  The two sets of brothers were the brains of the operation.  Clark was the money-man.  David Hayden, another experienced button guy, joined the team.  They set up a plant to produce brass using the “direct fusion method.”  Copper was obtained by melting old stills, tea kettles, and other scrap.  Only the zinc still had to be imported Ye Olde England.  Eventually the brass buttons produced by Abel Porter & Co were added to the stock of local peddlers, who were responsible for bartering with their customers to obtain additional copper scrap to provide the manufacturers with more raw materials, to make more, you guessed it, brass buttons (The Oldcopper Website).

Business prospered and grew, but eventually took its toll on our young protagonists.  “It was a tough business which required stamina and endurance of heat and fumes; the original founders began to drop out after four years. At the end of nine years none were left.”  Levi Porter sold his share to Daniel Hayden in 1807.  Silas Grilley sold his in 1809.  In September 1811 Abel bought out Clark and Hayden.  Two days later he sold his entire share to Dr. Frederick Leavenworth, James Scovill, and James’s 22-year old son, James Mitchell Lamson Scovill (Scovill Brass Works).  The enterprise adopted the name Leavenworth, Hayden & Scovill.  James M.L. was the junior partner (Finance and Industry: The New York Stock Exchange: Banks, Bankers, Business Houses, and Moneyed Institutions : the Great Metropolis of the United States).

Now, the Scovills were a colorful family.  In the way that you can call British-sympathizing, slave-owning families colorful.  James M.L. Scovill’s grandfather, the Rev. James Scovill, was born in 1732 in Waterbury.

Rev. James Scovill's House

Rev. James Scovill’s House

In 1762 he married Ann Nichols, daughter of prominent townsman Captain George Nichols.  In addition to their 9 children (James M.L.’s father, also James, the eldest born in 1764, being one of them),

The Scovills had at least two slaves in their household: Dick and Phillis. Dick was taken captive while a boy in Africa, probably during the 1750s; it is not known when he or Phillis arrived in Waterbury. Dick lived to be either 90 or 96; he died in 1835, outliving all those who had held him as property.

The Reverend was known as being overtly fond of the English.  In fact, he narrowly escaped being shot as a Tory, and one of his sons was arrested and imprisoned for his sympathizer tendencies.  No one was arrested for their slave-holding tendencies, but that’s another story.  The Reverend’s son James the II took possession of the slave Dick, and lived in the family home (Fortune’s Story).  Apparently ownership of Dick passed to the Scovill’s neighbor, Henry Bronson at some point in time later.  James II married Alathea Lamson, daughter of Mitchell Lamson of Woodbury, Ct.  James M.L. was born on September 4, 1789, and on September 19, 1811 he became a partner in the firm of Leavenworth, Hayden & Scovill, after purchasing the gilt button business known as Abel Porter & Co. (The Town and City of Waterbury, CT).

James M.L. Scovill

James M.L. Scovill

For the first 10 years of its existence, the new firm was only modestly successful.  A principle difficulty was imitating the color of the buttons of English manufacture, the peculiar orange tint of the former being regarded as of great importance by the trade.  Gold to the value of three dollars was used in gilding a gross of their best buttons, while the use of gold to the value of three pence sufficed for as good results by the English method.  English operatives who claimed to understand the English process, were employed at different times, and this difficulty was not overcome till 1821 (Finance and Industry.)

Leavenworth and Hayden retired from the firm in 1827, and James M.L’s brother William H. Scovill purchased half a share of the business.  They styled their button business Scovill & Co., and along with their brother-in-law John Buckingham, began running another business as well manufacturing brass butt hinges.

W.H. Scovill

W.H. Scovill

James M.L. was by all accounts a warm-hearted, fun-loving man:

Mr. Scovill was a man of fine physique and indomitable energy and perseverance.  He had a retentive memory, a ready address, a hearty manner united with a certain dignity of bearing, that begat confidence and made a favorable impression.  His place was in the market, and for many years in New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Boston he was a familiar figure.  He was quick and generous in his sympathies, easily moved by the site of suffering, or by accounts of it, quick to the rescue when aid was possible, and equally indignant at the cause of it when that cause was to be reached.  It was not long before his death that he left his horse standing in the middle of the road to lay his whip over the shoulders of a man in a field near-by who appeared to be treating a boy with uncalled-for severity, although it was the man’s own son.  He was, as this would indicate, somewhat impetuous in his nature, but his impulses were so clearly on the right side and his courage so undaunted that his impetuosity seldom, perhaps never, led him into serious trouble.

Residence of W.H. Scovill

James M.L., who went by Lamson, was apparently a hard-working, practical young man.  He began working as a clerk in his father’s business at age 17, and at age 19 was already in business for himself.  Lamson served in the Connecticut state House of Representatives in 1826 and as a member of the Connecticut state Senate in 1834.  He housed various female relatives in his own home, his mother and his widowed sisters, and when they one by one all left for various reasons, and when he had begun to retire from business life, then and only then did he marry, in 1849 to one Sarah Morton, daughter of William H. and Sarah (Buckingham) Merriman, and widow of Thomas C. Morton.  (A Survey of the Scovils Or Scovills in England and America)

Factory of J.M.L. and W.H. Scovill 1835

According to The Waterbury Observer:

Several different branches of the company were consolidated in 1850, when the Scovill brothers incorporated their business as the Scovill Manufacturing Company.

Scovill Manufacturing Company 1858
William Scovill’s son-in-law Frederick J. Kingsbury (who created the city’s motto, Quid aere perennius) became president of Scovill Manufacturing in 1868, but the driving force of the company was soon acknowledged to be two men hired as bookkeepers in 1862: Chauncey Porter Goss and Mark Leavenworth Sperry. Like the Scovill brothers before them, Goss and Sperry worked well as a team and were described later in a company history as representing “the drive, the true entrepreneurship” of Scovill Manufacturing. They quickly proved their worth to the company and became upper management in only a few years — Goss became treasurer in 1866 and Sperry became secretary in 1869, and both joined the board of directors in 1877. Kingsbury entrusted them with the daily operations and management of the company while he occupied himself largely with outside interests. Goss eventually succeeded him as president in 1900.

At the start of the twentieth century, Scovill remained a family business, but now it was the Goss and Sperry families who ran the company. Four of Goss’s sons and three of Sperry’s sons eventually joined the company, after receiving advanced training in engineering and, in some cases, apprenticing in the Scovill shops. In 1934, Time magazine reported that Scovill was “completely dominated by the sons and grandsons of the late Chauncey Porter Goss.”

William died in 1854.  Lamson died in 1857.

And, of great importance to our narrative, in 1930 Scovill invents the Gripper snap (Scovill website.)

During WWII Jo Ann Foley worked in the Welding Department at Scovill - From Waterbury Observer

During WWII Jo Ann Foley worked in the Welding Department at Scovill – From Waterbury Observer

Meanwhile, in 1871 in Romania, future snap-manufacturer Lues Reiter is born.  As a boy he immigrated to American, and in 1892 became a naturalized citizen (Ancestry.com).

Lues Reiter - US Naturalization Record

Lues Reiter – US Naturalization Record

In 1911, Reiter started a small company, located on Blount Street in Providence, Rhode Island, staffed by four employees, producing metal stampings and fasteners for fabric.

Rau Fasteners Mill Complex in Providence, RI - EPA Website

Rau Fasteners Mill Complex in Providence, RI – EPA Website

Rau Fastener Company, 218 Dexter Street, Providence, RI

Rau Fastener Company, 218 Dexter Street, Providence, RI

They named their enterprise Rau Fasteners.  (Incidentally, the word “rau” means “bad” in Romanian.  It comes from the Latin word “reus,” which means “guilty.”  Why would a Romanian man name his company “Bad Fasteners?”  Requires further exploration.)  In 1917 Rau Fasteners moved to the Providence Lithograph Building.  By 1940 they had over 100 employees, and had also taken over the Ada Building location next door.  Rau surged to over 450 employees during the war years, and acquired lucrative contracts from the military to create shoe buckles (National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.)


Rau snap fastener trademark, first filed in 1940.

On February 4, 1947 Lues Reiter died after a brief illness at the age of 75.  He was survived by his widow, Lena R Reiter, four sons, two daughters, three brothers, and a sister (New York Times.)

In 1952, Rau Fasteners expanded their physical plant to include shipping docks and expanded space.  Rau incorporated businesses in Canada as well as Brussels.  Beginning in 1968, things took an interesting turn.  Choosing to expand by merging with a larger company, Rau was sold to US Industries. In 1975 the Rau division was sold to Premier Metal, and in 1985 it was sold to the London-based Hanson Trust.  In 1990, amid fears that Rau would be sold to its competitor,…wait for it… Scovill Fasteners, Rau’s officers borrowed heavily to buy back the company from Hanson.  The operation was a success, but sadly the patient died.  They accomplished their goal, but soon began hemorrhaging money, which continued throughout the early 1990s, and in 1994 Rau filed for receivership (National Register of Historic Places Registration Form.)  On January 24, 1996, Rau was acquired by Scovill (1998 Scovill registration statement), Rau officers’ borrowing all for naught.

What does all this have to do with snaps, you ask?  Stay tuned for Part II, A Snap is Born!

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