National Clothespin Factory, Montpelier Vermont
The clothespin industry in the United States was historically comprised of small, family-run factories, located primarily in the Northeast, of which National Clothespin Factory is an excellent example. Due to a decline in clothespin demand and the low cost of foreign imports, the Montpelier factory was the last of its kind in the United States.
Montpelier, the capital city of Vermont and the seat of Washington County, lies approximately ten miles northeast of the geographic center of the state. The city is bounded northerly by Middlesex and East Montpelier, easterly by Berlin, separated by the Winooski River, southerly by Berlin, and westerly by Berlin and Middlesex. The township was granted on October 21, 1780, and was chartered on August 14, 1781, by Timothy Bigelow and fifty-nine associates, to contain 23,040 acres and given the name Montpelier.
Shortly after the settlement of Montpelier, grist-mills, saw-mills, wool-carding mills, and dress-mills grew along the Winooski and North Branch rivers, which flow through town. The riverfront became an invaluable location for many industries, serving as an efficient source of power, and providing many necessities to settlers. During the second half of the nineteenth century, steam power replaced water power, and railroads introduced improvements in the transportation of raw materials and finished products. The rail corridor in Montpelier followed the flat terrain of the Winooski River on the south side of town, where industry had already been established, further solidifying the location of that industrial base. In 1887, the Montpelier Building Association was established to "build sheds for the use of granite manufacturers," according to The Vermont Watchman, Illustrated Souvenir Edition, published in 1893. The organization began purchasing lots between the rail corridor and the river in order to erect manufacturing facilities, mostly granite sheds. The first of these sheds was built in 1888 on Barre Street. Other granite sheds and lumber works followed, the development moving southward, away from Main Street.
By the twentieth century, electricity replaced steam power, but the location of Montpelier's industry remained firmly in place. Both the National Clothespin Company's original building at One Main Street (no longer standing) and its second (and present) building erected in 1918 on Granite Street were situated along the Winooski River, between the water corridor and the adjacent railroad lines. Thus, the existing factory reveals the cultural significance of these two features in Montpelier's industrial history.
The proximity of this industrial area to nearby residential neighborhoods, located immediately adjacent to the rail yards and the river, also reveals important patterns in the city's industrial history. Small, family-run companies relied heavily on local workers, who in turn contributed significantly to the city's economic development. The National Clothespin Factory exemplified this practice throughout its history, employing a number of workers who have been with the firm for many decades. The important relationship between neighborhood industry and local labor is illustrated by the willingness—indeed enthusiasm—of these workers for continuing their employment with the firm. Moreover, the relationship between small industries such as the National Clothespin Company and the local economy extends far beyond the borders of urban neighborhoods. In particular, the company has played a significant role in a regional wood-products industry, providing a source of revenue for timberland owners, saw mill operators, and carriers.
The booming lumber industry and access to new types of machinery made clothespin manufacturing an ideal industry for northern New England in the early twentieth century. Clothespins were an economical product to manufacture, ideal for small, family run businesses, and were initially a byproduct of companies that produced other lumber goods, as they are small, and can be made from lower-grade scrap lumber. During the height of the industry, in the 1930's, fifteen factories were running throughout New England, including two in Montpelier alone. With the advent of the electric dryer, after World-War II, clothespin demand plummeted. In the mid-1960's, cheaper, imported clothespins. from Europe and Asia, became a serious threat to the already declining clothespin industry. Representatives from the clothespin industries attempted, unsuccessfully, to lobby Congress to limit or halt the import of clothespins. In 1982, five clothespin factories remained in New England, employing 427 workers. One of the last clothespin manufacturers in the United States, the family-owned Penley Corporation of Maine, founded in 1923, stopped manufacturing clothespins, layed off 39 of its 54 employees, and transitioned to the import and distribution of foreign clothespins. Forester, Inc., of Wilton, Maine, stopped manufacturing clothespins in 2003, because production was no longer cost efficient. The National Clothespin Company, in Montpelier, Vermont, was the last remaining factory in the United States manufacturing clothespins, last filling a purchase order in November 2003, and closing shortly after.
Clothespin manufacturing was part of the industrial boom occurring in Montpelier in the latter half of nineteenth century, through the beginning of the twentieth century. The National Clothespin Company has its roots in the United States Clothes Pin Company, the first clothespin manufacturer in Montpelier. The U.S. Clothespin Company was chartered August 22, 1887, with General Stephen Thomas as President, and a patent for product design. When the company opened in 1887, new machinery had been constructed specifically for the manufacture of clothespins. The manufacturing facilities of the U.S. Clothespin Company expanded throughout the early part of the twentieth century, and the company continued to produce until the early 1940s.
An employee of the U.S. Clothespin Company, Allen D. Moore, refined the metal springs on clothespins, creating a more cost efficient and wind-safe product. In 1909, he started his own company, financed by local businessman, Fred Blanchard. Then called the National Spring Clip Company, the factory was originally located at One Main Street, in Montpelier, and the initially employed twenty workers. In 1918, the company moved to its present location at One Granite Street (it first appears on the 1925 Sanborn map). Development in this area of town had continued from the earliest granite sheds in the late 1880s. By 1918, new utility lines were being extended to this area of town, making it a desirable area for building new, modern factory facilities. It is likely that the National Spring Clip Company moved for this reason, as well as to expand its production in a larger building. Machinery located in the building dates from the early part of the twentieth century, and was designed specifically for clothespin manufacturing. The machines themselves were produced in machine shops in Springfield, Vermont, and repairs and replacement parts were provided by the Lane Machine shops located in Montpelier. Lumber for the production of the clothespins also came from Vermont. although during the busiest years of production, some lumber was required from nearby New Hampshire. At peak production, the National Clothespin Company would use 500,000 board feet of lumber a year, an immense amount considering the size of clothespins.
In 1929, the factory was sold to local businessman, Arthur Douglas Hayes, who subsequently acquired a trademark for the clothespins, calling them Klos Klips, a name still used today. In 1939, the company changed its name to the National Clothespin Company, its present day moniker. In 1967, Jack Crowell purchased the company, and it has since remained in the family, with his daughter and son-in-law, Janet and Peter Merrill, owning and operating the factory.
The company dealt with a myriad of customers over the century, but the main client was the F.W. Woolworth Company. At one time, the National Clothespin Company was the exclusive supplier of clothespins for all Woolworth stores across the country. Transportation of the raw materials and finished clothespins initially occurred via rail lines, and at one time, a rail spur ran directly to the building. Later, trucking became more convenient for distribution. As clothespin industry began declining mid-century, the National Clothespin Company began diversifying their product line, introducing toothpicks, plastic clothespins and diaper pins.