REPRINTS


Light Bulbs, Soap and Drama on Hilliard Street
by Susan Barlow, Manchester Historical Society

Manchester was booming in 1887. The May 31, 1887 Hartford Courant reports, “The number of dwelling houses in process of creation is unprecedented; no less than forty are building at the present time, and new ones are started every day.”

In the South End, Cheney silk mills were expanding – they had to move the railroad yard to complete the three-story brick Weaving Mill.

Electrical Boom

In the North End, Mather Electric was moving from Hartford, and, according to the same Courant column, building on Hilliard Street a mill “admirably designed and constructed in a first-class manner,” and “so near the New England Railroad that a side track runs to its doors.” The Courant article continues its praise of the large and commodious brick building, noting that the Mather Company would move to the new mill July 1, 1887.

Mather Electric made “shunt-wound electrical machines,” known as dynamos or generators today, and later made “lamps,” known as light bulbs today.

Richard N. Mather (1856-1930) was described by his Courant obituary as an electrical genius, as well as a recluse. In his later years, he lived alone in a house lit only by kerosene.

Mather had gone into business in 1882 with Charles Knox, Harry Cheney, and Robert Cheney. Mr. Mather invented and patented the first generator in 1883, and went on to obtain over 20 patents. According to the obituary, he and engineer Arthur E. Eddy “erected and ran the first arc light in the city of Hartford. It was suspended in front of the entrance to the old Courant building and drew a crowd as big as the world series does today. The power for the light was generated from the engine in the Courant basement.”

In 1885, the Chicago Opera House switched from gaslights to Mather Electric incandescent “lamps,” which were brighter than gas, and required fewer fixtures.

Business was booming, and the country was mad for electricity! By 1888, Mather Electric employed 125 employees, and in 1889 organized a subsidiary, the Perkins Electric Lamp Company, which manufactured light bulbs – different from the ones patented by the Thomas Edison. Mather Electric supplied the streetlights to the North End, beginning in 1892 (as Case Brothers did in the Highland Park section of town, and Cheney Brothers did in the South End).

In 1893, the Waring Company was organized in South Manchester, producing another version of light bulb.

Electrical Bust

Trouble erupted over the light bulbs. Mather and the General Electric Company (of which the Edison General Electric Company was a part) had dramatic dealings in the courts.

General Electric said Mather infringed on the Edison patent, and obtained an injunction against Mather, stopping them from making light bulbs.

Mather brought an anti-trust suit, saying G.E. had created a monopoly and was driving Mather out of business. Mather asked for an injunction, charging that G.E. fraudulently accused Mather of infringing upon its patent. But G.E. prevailed.

Webmaster's Note: A newspaper article from the Hartford Courant, dated January 13, 1893, giving you some idea of the legal struggles and the resultant impact of the court's decision, can be found on this web site by clicking Manchester Dark.

The fledgling Waring company in the South End had to close in 1894.

At one point, the street lights in the North End went out, and eventually Mather had to stop making light bulbs.

In April 1895, Mather Electric went into receivership, although after reorganization, it continued for a time to manufacture machinery on Hilliard Street.

Note: To view a booklet of the Mather Electric operation, by the Mather Electric Company in the late 1800s, please click Mather Electric book.

Other Tenants of the Hilliard Street Building

The Norton Electrical Instrument Company, which operated near the Mather plant, rented some of Mather’s building. Norton had started out in a small shop on Hudson Street in the 1870s, and specialized in instruments for regulating and measuring. Like many Connecticut manufacturers, it had busy years during World War II, when Manchester was a center of the defense industry. Norton was then making devices for anti-mine apparatus and for the construction of atomic bombs.

Another tenant worked on horseless carriages. In 1896, The Courant reported that “English capitalists” leased part of the Mather buildings, providing space for a master mechanic designing “Power Road Carriages.”

In 1898, Unitype, maker of typesetting equipment, moved in. They received a five-year tax abatement from the Town of Manchester to move operations into Manchester and this building.

Best of all, the Orford Soap Company began renting after their factory on Oakland Street was destroyed by fire in 1899. In 1903, the soap company purchased and occupied the entire Mather plant and went on to construct several additions.

Bon Ami

John T. Robertson (1856-1922), general manager of Orford Soap, invented various soaps, including a mineral soap and a cleanser that became known as Bon Ami (“good friend,” in French, but pronounced locally as bonn AM eye). To ensure cleaning without scratching, the soap used finely ground quartz and feldspar, mountains of which were piled up across Hilliard Street. The feldspar came from Bolton and from other spots in New England.

The soap was popular, and in the hands of marketing agent W.H. Childs (1857-1930), Bon Ami became a sensation. W.H. Childs formed the advertising partnership Childs & Childs, and eventually bought the soap company from Mr. Robertson.

Bon Ami was known for its motto “hasn’t scratched yet,” as well as for its mascot – a fluffy yellow chick – which appeared on the soap labels and in advertising.

In 1924, the Bon Ami Company was capitalized at $3,500,000, and operated factories in the United States and Canada. The plant on Hilliard Street was assessed at $522,356, and employed 150 people. Bon Ami had its own baseball team, playing other local teams, such as Cheney Brothers.

Like other businesses during the Great Depression, the plant slowed down somewhat, but was able to pay a bonus to employees in 1935. There were other ups and downs over the years, until operations ceased in 1959, after 75 years in Manchester.

Bon Ami soap continued to be made at other locations, although sales declined. Ownership changed, including purchase by Lestoil Products in 1963. Bon Ami almost disappeared from store shelves by the late 1960s. Faultless Starch of Kansas City, Missouri, bought the company in 1971. Their 1980 advertising campaign used the slogan: “Never Underestimate the Cleaning Power of a 94-Year-Old Chick With a French Name.” Today Bon Ami, touted as earth-friendly, is the third largest selling cleanser in the United States. See more history and vintage Bon Ami advertisements at www.bonami.com/index.php/about_bon_ami.

Soap to Trains

Other businesses moved into the Bon Ami property at 75 Hilliard Street, but they never employed as many “hands” as the soap company. Fires of suspicious origin took place in 1972 and 1973. Miraculously, a lot of this historic area remains. Bob Bell purchased part of the property in 1980, and the Train Exchange and Miniature Corner operated there, with a large miniature railroad on the second floor, and many vestiges of local history. In 1999, the Time Machine Hobby store moved in.

Manchester is fortunate that this Hilliard Street landmark continues a useful life, attracting young and old to its interesting wares.

To visit the Library of Congress' web site, please click here
and follow the navigation instructions (zoom in and out).
 
 
In the ad at left, which is taken from the 1888 edition of Hanks' Manchester
Directory
, we see the light bulb referenced above, along with mention of
the Oakland Paper Company. Mr. N.T.Pulsifer is noted as Treasurer
of the Paper company. His connection to the Oakland Paper Company is
described in the 1924 edition of the History of Manchester, by Mathias
Spiess and Percy Bidwell, which is available on our website. A link to the
Oakland Paper section can be found by clicking Oakland Paper.


Susan Barlow serves on the Board of Directors of the Manchester Historical Society