In 1838, six brothers of the Cheney family founded a silk manufacturing company in Manchester, Connecticut. Utilizing innovative silk production methods and new spinning technology, the company became the largest and wealthiest silk mill in the country by the late 1880s. Its success particularly shaped the developing community of Manchester. By the early 1920s, Cheney Mills employed twenty-five percent of all Manchester residents, including many immigrant workers. The company’s domain stretched over 175 acres, including mill buildings, houses, schools, churches, recreation centers, and even a railroad. The company became known for its progressive stance toward its employees, and practiced a form of welfare capitalism.
However, the prosperity of Cheney Mills was not to last. Overproduction in the silk industry and competition from the production of new synthetic fibers led to the company’s decline by the mid-1920s. During the Great Depression, the company had to take out loans to keep the mills in operation. Increased labor conflict in the 1930s eventually forced the company to accept the unionization of its workers under the United Textile Workers in 1934. By 1937, Cheney Mills declared bankruptcy. The company’s prospects improved slightly during World War II when it converted to wartime manufacturing to make silk parachutes for the military. However, the company could not keep up with the high labor costs and competition in the post-war years, and the Cheney family was forced to sell the company to J.P. Stevens & Company in 1955. The mills closed permanently in 1984.
The company records available in Archives & Special Collections allow us to trace the rise and decline of this great Connecticut company. Specifically, how the company’s history reflected its place in American life and culture are included in the collection:
- Records concerning the general management of the company over time. These include an assortment of documents detailing the company’s earliest history, as well as Board of Directors’ minutes, by-laws, policy letters, information about pay and protocol, and company correspondence.
- Documents showing Cheney’s marketing strategies. In particular, the collection holds an assortment of Cheney advertisements, particularly from the 1920s. This includes a Cheney publication on the history of fabrics and clothing styles, as well as many advertisements from newspapers and magazines.
- Information related to silk production in the United States in the early twentieth century. Included in the collection are publications gathered by the company about silk production, Board of Director’s minutes that detail company decisions on directing the course of business, and purchasing ledgers including dealings with suppliers from Japan and China in last half of the nineteenth century.
- Reports on strikes and the company’s efforts to subvert the unionization of their workers, including records on labor relations stretching from 1930 to 1974. The collection contains reports on strikes, documents from court cases, financial reports, and union contracts.
- Information about Cheney employees from a collection of personnel files and workers’ cards. These cards contain not only work-related information, such as position held and department, but also personal information, such as ethnicity, country of origin, family size, and if relatives were in the company’s employ. Available in our digital repository are employee record cards: https://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/object/20002%3AMS19840026.
- Evidence for Cheney Mills’ practice of welfare capitalism, which involved providing housing, amenities, services, and recreational activities for their employees. Documents include a pamphlet intended to attract immigrants to work for Cheney Mills, titled “The Miracle Workers.”
- The collection has records as one of the first textile mills to use Frederick Taylor’s methods of scientific management. Taylorism involved applying the scientific method to the management of workers in order to maximize productivity and profit.
- “Hiring Specifications” scrapbooks from the mid-1920s, which describe each job that workers did for the company from weavers to bobbin boys, and a list required skills and previous training.
The finding aid for the Cheney Brothers can be found in our digital repository at https://archives.lib.uconn.edu/islandora/object/20002:860133921
We invite you to view these collections in the reading room in Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center if you need resources about the Cheney Brothers Silk Manufacturing Company. Our staff is happy to assist you in accessing these and other collections in the archives.
This post was written by Alexandra Borkowski, a UConn PhD student and student assistant in Archives & Special Collections.