Derby Silver Company
The Derby Silver Company was founded in 1872, and began operations on Shelton's Canal Street one year later. The company soon outgrew its quarters and constructed a larger building, which still stands on Bridge Street, Shelton, in 1877 near the Housatonic River, overlooking Derby. A number of additions were added in subsequent years. The original Canal Street building was razed when the railroad was built through Shelton in 1888.
company made toilet articles, mirrors, combs, clocks, brushes, table and
flatware, tea sets, children's cups, loving cups (trophies), candlesticks, fruit
baskets, dishes, basically anything which was plated by or made of silver.
Special orders were constantly commissioned as well. The factory manufactured
items for the Sperry and Hutchins trading stamp stores. The Company was noted
for its large line of silver plated toilet ware and an economical line of plated
hollowware sold under the popular trademark of the Victor Silver Plate Company.
were established in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco. A considerable
amount of silver was shipped to South America.
A victim of the Depression, the plant closed in 1933.
The Derby Silver Company's building remains intact on Bridge Street in Shelton.
The building had served as an automobile muffler factory, and during World War
II manufactured bombsight optics. In 1949 it was bought by the Sponge Rubber
Products Company. The Sponge Rubber Products Company was bought out by B.F.
Goodrich in 1954. The large smokestack that served the Silver Company was torn
down in October of 1961. The building reverted back to the rejuvenated Sponge
Rubber Products Company in 1974, and was fortunately far enough away from the
subsequent firebombing of the main plant of the SRPC a block south on Canal
Street not to be destroyed in the explosion.
The old building was bought by former employees of the Sponge Rubber
Company, who formed Housatonic Everfloat, manufacturing foam rubber cushions,
mats, and life preservers. Housatonic Everfloat was bought out by a company
called Spongex in 1985, which continues similar manufacturing operations in the
old Silver Company building to the present day.
Print of the Derby Silver Company, circa 1885.
Remembering the Derby Silver Company
Originally written August 1998 by Robert Novak Jr. for the weekly newspaper Huntington Herald)
They still stand along Canal Street. Large, brick
buildings, built during the American Industrial Revolution, the very nucleus
from which sprang forth downtown Shelton. Today they are in sorry shape. Some
are deserted or mostly deserted. One is burned out. Some are gone entirely,
leaving behind weed and brick strewn lots.
It is hard to imagine sometimes that this was a
bustling industrial center, with thousands of people pouring in and out of the
factories, many of which had three shifts. The factory whistles or gongs would
sound, and the faceless multitudes of workers would stream into the smoke
belching plants, perhaps dodging a locomotive that was running along the spur
tracks on Canal Street. They would disappear into another world behind the
closed doors, only to reemerge when the long shift would end.
While we have pictures of what all the factories
looked like from the outside in historical collections and archives, we have
precious few pictures of what went on after doors closed behind the last workers
for the day. Newspapers aren’t much help, the Derby Transcript often gave detailed, glowing accounts of the
workings of the factories without referring much to the people inside. The Evening
Sentinel offered better glimpses of factory life, but because many of the
descriptions came during times of labor unrest it wasn’t exactly the best time
to report on day to day activities inside the factories.
In 1918, Charles C. Smith (1904-1980) turned 14. By
law, Smith was eligible to work in Shelton’s factories providing he had
parental permission. Since his uncle, Watson Miller, helped found the Derby
Silver Company in 1872, and his father served as the factory’s manager, Smith
naturally gravitated to this plant on the corner of Bridge and Canal Streets.
Smith would later write a book entitled Autobiography
of a Connecticut Yankee, in which he would detail his experiences working in
the Derby Silver Company.
Working after school and on weekends, Smith labored
in the Shipping Department. Among his fellow employees were recent veterans of
World War I. Smith earned 5 cents an hour, while the adults were paid from 20 to
25 cents an hour. He recalls “There were no coffee breaks, no time and a half
overtime pay, no vacations, and no retirement benefits” in those days.
Smith’s job was to unload wagon loads of box ends.
These ends would then be nailed together to make custom-sized boxes for whatever
silver shipments were to be made. The trick was to make a box large enough to
fit everything but small enough not to leave a lot of empty space. The silver
was sent from the shoproom floor to shipping via an elevator. Much of the silver
was destined for South America, and was often packed in hay, which was difficult
to work with in the summer if one had allergies. The largest boxes weighed 300
pounds when filled. The boxes would be loaded on the horse drawn wagons of the
Oates Brothers Trucking Company, where it was hauled to the Derby train station.
Oates Brothers’ building still stands at the corner of Wharf Street and Howe
Avenue (note - this building has subsequently been torn down).
Smith recalls the busiest times were in the fall,
when stores through the United States and South America sought to fill their
stocks before Christmas. The Shipping
Although Smith had entered the workingman’s world,
he was still a young boy, and naturally curious. When his department wasn’t
busy, he’d wander to other parts of the factory. His father frowned upon this,
saying “Suppose all the workmen wandered around as you are doing- you have no
right to do this- go back to the Shipping Department”. After awhile, Smith
recalls his wanderings became a game of “hide and seek” from his father, and
he was often aided by men in other departments in avoiding his father.
The Engraving Department was where one of the Silver
Company’s best engineers, Mr. King, worked. Smith remembers King would cover
an item’s surface with talc, and trace a design in it. He then “…would
select one of his many sharp-pointed tools and with what appeared to be reckless
abandon, he would cut away on the surface of a product worth as much as $1500 (a
lot of money for a boy making 5 cents an hour!) …When he finished cutting all
his lines and curves, he washed off the talc exposing a masterpiece”.
For a few months Smith worked in the Casting
Department, located on the ground floor. Molten white metal was poured into two
sections of molding. They were then clamped together and allowed to harden,
forming the desired mold. Smith recalls “It was a hot place in the summer
because the metal pots were heated with coal fires. In those days we had no eye
shields or safety glasses to protect us from the splattering of hot molten
metal. We were furnished with eye shields to protect our clothing (from catching
fire)”. The ground floor also housed the Machine Shop and the Slow Hydraulic
Press Departments, supervised “…by a very stern Mr. Welch”.
Above the Hydraulic Press Department was the Spinning
and Turning Department, where huge blocks of Arkansas gumwood was turned into
bases for prize cups (trophies), also known as “loving cups”. Also large,
flat disks of metal on a rotating surface was formed into prize cups,
children’s cups, pitchers, and other items which would later be plated with
The work of the various departments all converged on
the third floor Soldering Department. This large department would join various
pieces together to make a wide variety of products. Smith spent another summer
in this department, “…under the kind and helpful direction of Mr. Haynes. My
work consisted of soldering the two white metal ends and two sides of fruit
bowls together and then solder the base…I held a piece of solder between my
teeth, brought two mating castings together by hand under a small Bunsen Burner
flame”. A mild sulfuric acid was used, which created “…quite an
objectionable odor”. Smith worked ‘piecework’ that summer, which meant he
was paid in accordance with his output, a common practice in Valley factories,
especially the textile ones. “Needless to say, I was not wandering around the
factory while on that job. I often wondered later in life if there wasn’t some
deal between Mr. Haynes and my father to keep me busy”.
After soldering, the products were smoothed, then put
on racks and moved by hands to cleaning tanks by the Plating Department. They
were then dipped in vats containing either gold or silver. Often the valuable
metal would drip, so every few years the floors would be torn up and sent to
Handy Harmon Company in Bridgeport, where the gold and silver would be reclaimed
from the wood. The products at this point had a dull finish, so they were sent
to the Buffing Department to be shined. The dust would cause the men in this
department to be black by the end of the day. There were no showers to wash the
stuff off, just long common sinks. The product would be cleaned and dried, then
stamped with the trademark anchor and product number, and wrapped in special
soft protective paper. It would then be sent into storage, and from there the
When demand for silver fell during the Depression,
the Derby Silver Company began turning out lower cost pewter ware. Smith’s
father took his chief designer to New York museums to copy some of the designs
used by Paul Revere. The pewter sold well, but it was not enough to rescue the
floundering Silver Company, which closed in 1933. Smith states “This laid off
many loyal men of 40 to 50 years of service, also Father with 28 years. No
retirement plan was provided for any of these men who had given the best years
of their life to the company. Some went on the WPA (Works Progress
Administration) and a few found other work”.