Sewing Machine Research
ISMACS International
International Sewing Machine Collectors' Society

Making Needles

ISMACS News
Issue 26

Reprinted by the Torrington company, through the courtesy of the New York Herald, where this article appeared in the issue of September 30, 1923.  Sent to us by Frank Godfrey, author of the International History of the Sewing Machine.

FOLKS you've been everywhere and seen everything big and grand, New York, Niagara Falls and Pittsburgh! But what do you know about the town where the Yankees sit and carve your needles? Do you know how they first got started carving the needles of the world back there in Torrington, Connecticut? No! You do not?

Well then, in the beginning -- you probably do know -- there weren't any needles there to carve. Just merely Indians settled there on those bleak, bare Connecticut tors. Then, a couple of centuries ago, the Yankees came along and pushed the Indians off and settled on the tors themselves. and named the place, naturally, Torrington. But having settled there and looked around, the Yankees began quite early asking one another: "What'll we do, now we're here?" For they couldn't raise anything much on those Torrington tors; they were some of the poorest tors in all New England.

But, looking down the rocky sides of them, the Yankees saw the little river that the Indians called Naugatuck go fretting down its falls, as restless, nervous and anxious-acting as they were themselves. So, following the first commandment of the Yankee covenant, they said, each to each, Sunday noons, between the morning and the afternoon sermons in the Torrington Congregational Church, "Let's go down and set that thing to work!".

So they did. The Connecticut Yankees built their dams, from Torrington down the little Naugatuck Valley to Long Island Sound. And they manufactured cloth, leather, hats; masts, rakes, spools and butter stamps; flutes, fifes, drums, fiddles and melodeons; also brass kettles, wire, pins, hooks and eyes, and cheap jewelry to sell to the Ethiopians in the south; also knives, nails, screws, screwdrivers, tools, buttons and buttonhooks, and clocks and watches to time the hours of the cold Patagonians and the slow Chinese. In short, all kinds of Yankee notions.

Then, finally, that well-known Massachusetts Yankee, Elias Howe, got up his Yankee contraption, the well-known sewing machine; a kind of little steel man to do the sewing of the world, with a needle filed out of a piece of wire.The machine went! In sharp contrast with the sewing machines both here and abroad which had preceded it. But the needle was no good. So naturally all the other Yankees set their glittering eyes upon it.

"I vow", they said, examining this new Yankee notion, "Here's something that would beat the Dutch. Steel. No much more'n an inch long. No bigger round than two or three good-sized horse hairs. And you've got to carve a groove down all one side of it, and punch an eye out at the point. And if its off anywhere a quarter of a hair's breadth, it won't go. I swan, there's a problem".

The Yankees had their steel men at work now, of course, all up and down the valleys of New England, a chattering, noisy breed in the valleys of the cotton mills; great silent rolling giants in the still factories of the per-mill valleys east and west; so naturally, in due time, the first of the little steel men needed for making needles came up the valley of the Yankee notions into Torrington, Conn.

Orrin L Hopson, an old-time Vermont toolmaker with a wire chin beard and a long stiff upper lip with a bleak northerly exposure, brought the new contraption up from Waterbury.

"I snum", said the Torrington Yankees, looking it over, "I wouldn't wonder if the thing would do the business better'n a man!" "I believe you're right", said Charles Alvord. "I believe there's money in it, provided it will turn them out the way they said it will. For if you get a perfect sewing-machine needle, you've got something nobody else has got. It will sell itself!"

A mild-mannered, kind-faced, God-fearing Yanke, this Charles Alvord was, with a beard already touched with grey, and hair sleek over the top and heavy over the ears, as worn in the last daguerreotypes of prominent citizens in the 60s, and more lately, somewhat exaggerated, by the modern flapper.

So then, in 1866, Alvord and a number of others made up a company among them, right there in the place, the Excelsior Needle Company, to extract the profit out of needles. It had a capital of 25,000 dollars, only about three-fifths of it paid in cash. And the Yankees set going the first of the little steel men of Torrington.

A squat, round-shouldered-looking thing it was, standing up on iron legs. A swaging machine they called it. Inside a circular revolving case, two steel dies, bumping up against a dozen projections on the inside of the case's rim, came in together on a piece of wire, thousands and thousands of times, a minute and beat out a needle without heat, smaller and stronger than the wire, and exactly straight and smooth and true, as no other needle had ever been before. it was better than a man or 50 men for the job of forging needles, and it showed right away.

Yet, after all, no steel man, big or little, ever got itself born and raised right without a Yankee nursing it. And Orrin Hopson's swaging machine was no exception. Like many other men both natural and artificial, it had digestive troubles the first few years. They had to get another Yankee at it. So one day Bill Dayton drifted in, Bill, the son of Arvin Dayton, maker and inventor of melodeons. Bill himself in his younger days had been trained as a carpenter.

"I believe I could make one of those things work", said Bill, the son of Arvin, maker of melodeons. "I'd like to try anyhow." So they had him try, and he made it possible for that first and foremost of the little steel men of Torrington to live; and go on, like its kind, forever and ever, by loosening up one of its principle insides or viscera. And he stayed around the needle shop then all his life, seeing that more little steel men got born, and started out on immortality, himself another product of the Valley of the Yankee notions, a loose-jointed, absent-eyed, ruminating Yankee inventor.

He had an happy and congenial life work, making the little steel men of Torrington, to make the thing that was too small for human hands to make; steel creatures which could do what no man could, forge needles, carve needles, point needles, polish needles and punch eyes in needles, accurately, exactly, measured to the very last fraction of a hair.

The pointing of a needle, putting the point right spang in the middle of the end, was no job for men's hands or eyes. So Bill Dayton made steel men, without eyes or hands, to do it right. Carving a slot in a needle and punching out a needle eye, each narrower than a horsehair, was real slow, confining work for any man or woman, and then they most likely wouldn't get them right. So Bill, the son of Arvin, made another breed of little steel men that did things separately, and then together, with fewer and fewer humans touching them.

The polishing of a needle's eye by hand all day, one needle at a time, back and forth upon a thread smeared with emery paste, was another real mean, slow job, so Bill Dayton brought to life a machine that would polish 125 at once, in a shorter time than a girl could polish one.

Offhand you might say that carving needles was a real small business for rolling up millions of capital. But, after all, there are a great many needles needed in the world and if anybody was the man to extract the profit out of needles, it was Charles Alvord, a perfect type of an old-time thrifty Yankee.

Others doubted the possibilities of carving a fortune from a needle, drew out of the concern, gave away their stock to melancholy and protesting storekeepers when hard-pressed for their debts. And incidentally made the storekeepers' fortunes!  Charles Alvord held on, bought more stock, and now becoming the dominant figure in the needle works, saved, saved, and saved more capital. And now, for needles as well as for railroads, New England had her man waiting.

Charles Alvord in the 1880s had a boy John coming along in his early 20s. He set him keeping books, running errands, doling out the payroll from an old show box. He was a restless-minded boy, anxious for larger things, to get more pay, to take a chance in the larger world outside the Valley of Yankee Notions.

He told his soft-voiced frugal father he must have more action and more money or he'd break away and try his luck with the larger chances in New York. He was given his chance at home, took it, make good, and a new type of Yankee was the leader of the little steel men of Torrington.

The meagre 1880s were done; the lean years following the Civil War. The United States was getting ready for the huge expansion of the later 1890s and John Alvord was waiting there ready to take his part; a part in a time when it was as necessary to lay out big money and take a chance with it, as it had been in his father's day to do neither.

First off, he bought in the one competitor of the old Excelsior Company in the needle business. And having done this, he started looking up new work for the little steel men of Torrington.

The Massachusetts Yankees had started the world making shoes with sewing machines; another Yankee contraption. Needles must be had for this; more and different kinds every year. Needles straight, curved, round, flat, strange and extravagantly shaped, but made after all on the general lines of the old straight needle of the sewing machine. Before long John Alvord had secured a great part of the making of these needles for the United States, and hence for all creation, in Torrington.

The Yankees were showing the world how to knit seamless goods on the new and practical American machines on which its hosiery and underwear is so largely made today. And the New Hampshire Yankees were turning out the delicate and complicated latch needles used in this work, and made quite largely by hand. John Alvord brought the New Hampshire Yankees down to swap ideas with the Connecticut Yankees in Torrington.

The world had started careering around on two wheels, the restless Yankee leading. The manufacture of bicycles grew to tremendous size in New England. John Alvord got for his factory the greater share of making the bicycle spokes and nipples; a new and great line of work for the swaging machine, that first pioneer of the little steel men of Torrington.

A million was in fact a gross understatement of the needle company's capital and value. For when outsiders came in 1898 to reorganise the concern in Charles Alvord's old age as the Torrington Company, they put out in stocks and bonds, four million dollars capital. Nor was this 160 times the dollar first scratched together for extracting the meagre profits out of carving needles an overestimate of the real value of the business. Quite the contrary.

But now Charles Alvord's work was done. The needle-making business had swung across the million-dollar line; and another type of Yankee was required. Not a new type either! The Yankee who, gathering up the capital saved string by string and needle by needle and penny by penny at home, set out from New England to beat all creation with it; who sold ice to India, ginseng to China; chased whale oil down the Antarctic, and had charge of opening up and hitching back to civilisation the great interior of the United States by Rail. The figure they used to call the Merchant Adventurer!

By this time, the last of the last century, one of the greatest movements of modern times was under way; the invasion of the world by the Yankee and his steel men. The creatures made by Yankee inventors and led out by Yankee Merchant Adventurers to beat the remainder of creation on their own ground. Sewing machines, typewriters, shoe machines and farm implements were being manufactured by the Yankees in Europe. So John Alvord decided, in the late 1890s, to lead his men out from their native rocks and rills of Torrington to conquer Europe.

From that time until now, the steel men of Torrington have proved conclusively that they are superior to the German workmen. Today the American invaders, through their German factory, are the greatest manufacturers of machine needles in Germany, and so in all the world outside as well as inside the United States. So this then in the main outline of the magnificent and Arabian Nights adventure of the Yankees who set out to beat all creation with a needle.

They have fought their way with it through to the last Indian village behind the Himalayas. They have been set up as rulers in strange countries. In new unheard-of and marvellous industries. They have put away millions in their pockets; dividends for the current year reaching 60 times their first investment. They have remaining in capital, after taking out all this, other millions valued now at 500 times the amount of money they put in.

All because a half a dozen Yankees, two generations ago, undertook the smallest job known to man, to carve a needle and to carve it right, in that narrow rocky valleys of the Yankee Notions, beneath the bleak, bare, hungry tors of Torrington, Connecticut.