There’s Something About an Aqua Velva Man: the J.B. Williams Company, Connecticut’s Maker of Men’s Toiletries

An exhibit of historical records and items manufactured by the J.B. Williams Company, shown on the Plaza Level of Homer Babbidge Library through March 2024.

The exhibit shows photographs, advertisements, and historical documents from the J.B. Williams Company Records, but includes a special component — almost 80 collectible items manufactured by the company.

All of the collectibles shown in this display are from the collection of Boyd and Melissa Williams, residents of Franklin, Tennessee.

Melissa and Boyd Williams, 2023

About eight years ago Mr. and Mrs. Williams were in an antique store and found a J.B. Williams Company shaving soap box. Knowing nothing about the company, with no connection to Connecticut, they purchased the box on the basis that the company’s name was theirs as well. After that, they perused antique shops and Ebay for other company items and slowly amassed their collection of about 150 items, which they display in a vacation cabin they own.

The focus of the collection is solely on items that indicate that they were produced in Glastonbury, 1960 and earlier.

In June 2023 Mr. Williams contacted the UConn Archives asking for information from the J.B. Williams Company Records about their products, to supplement his knowledge of the company. When the archives staff learned about the Williams’ extraordinary collectible collection, the couple generously agreed to loan the items for this display.

About the J.B. Williams Company:

James Baker Williams was born in Lebanon, Connecticut, in 1818 and worked at a general store in Manchester beginning at the age of 16. When he was 22 he began to experiment with soaps to determine which were best for shaving, and developed Williams’ Genuine Yankee Soap, the first manufactured soap for use in shaving mugs.

In 1847 Williams opened his soap company on Williams Street in Glastonbury, where he continued to manufacture shaving soap and other products.

By the early 1900s the company was known throughout the world for its line of shaving creams, talcum powder, toilet soaps, and, later, for Aqua Velva, Lectric Shave, and Skol. After 1950 the company, in mergers with other businesses, became known for producing Conti Castile Soap, Kreml Hair Tonic, and Kreml Shampoo.

In 1957 a New York based conglomerate, Pharmaceuticals, Inc., acquired the J.B. Williams Company and moved the headquarters to New Jersey. In 1971 the company was sold to Nabisco.

The plant in Glastonbury was taken over by former Williams Company employees and became Glastonbury Toiletries, producing shaving soaps, bathroom soaps, aerosol shaving creams, body lotions and shampoos. This company closed in 1977. The original 1847 factory was converted to condominiums and, in 1983, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The company records were donated to the UConn Archives in 1967.

Our new exhibit — Hard Work: Connecticut’s Laborers in the Industrial Age

Farrel Company workers, undated

This exhibit shows scenes of Connecticut’s workers doing Hard Work. Capital H, Capital W.  The kind of work where you surely need the brains but if you ain’t got the brawn it’s not gonna happen.  And we’ve got plenty of photographs in our business collections showing the men and women in the state in various depictions of work where some of the main job requirements are muscle and sweat.  I’m sure tears were there somewhere but the photographs don’t really show that.

In the late 19th and early 20th century — a time period in America known for big industry — Connecticut was one of the major players, producing brass, iron, steel, tools, textiles and more for the state, the country, and the world.  These products didn’t just happen.  It took a workforce of thousands, many of them new immigrants who flocked to Connecticut for these types of jobs, to produce, to make, to build, and to work.

Tracking Down the Goods sold on Main Street USA


Kirin J. Makker is an Assistant Professor of Architectural Studies at Hobart William Smith Colleges in Geneva, New York, and the recipient of a 2014 Strochlitz Travel Grant.  Travel Grants are awarded bi-annually to scholars and students to support their travel to and research in Archives and Special Collections.  Part of the following essay also draws on materials at Winterthur Library, where this year Dr. Makker is also being supported by a National Endowment for the Humanities residential fellowship. To learn more about the book she is working on, please go here.

I went to Archives & Special Collections of the University of Connecticut Libraries to spend a couple of days sifting through the records of the E. Ingraham Company.  I’m working on a book about the history of small town development when it boomed around 1900 and a major part of my research methodology involves following the trail of company goods right at the moment big capitalism really spread its wings (see blog The Myths of Main Street).  My hope is to track where a handful of companies sold their goods in order to describe a product’s national distribution, and hence its availability across small town America.  I have found, and my research will argue, that one of the reasons that small town America is such a consistent idea in the nation’s cultural language is that the goods exchanged there had both local and national parameters. Some of this research has had to do with companies that literally produced small town America:  the storefronts, the brick-making machinery, the lamp posts.  But other parts of the research is about the everyday objects that were sold in small towns, and how most of them during the period of small town America’s boom were not made locally or even regionally.  The retailers were locals, but the items for sale on Main Street were typically sourced from manufactories or large distributors in cities.

For example, a $2 watch made by the E. Ingraham Company in 1898 was made in Bristol, Connecticut but was sold on several thousand Main Streets all across America in general stores or small jewelry shops.  Ingraham was after the mass market that the very successful company Robert H. Ingersoll had been selling to.  Ingersoll had shrewdly introduced a $1 pocket watch, the “Yankee,” in 1892, stumbling into an enormous mass market of working- and middle-class consumers interested in owning timepieces they could afford.

Although Ingraham couldn’t make a quality watch for that little (the Ingersoll watches, not surprisingly, were cheap but not known for quality), they did start making a $2 watch by 1900 and these sold quite well, judging by how long they produced this watch (until the 1950s).  Yet, when I dug around the Ingraham Company archives in Archives & Special Collections, I had some trouble finding records to support their efforts to take a share of the Ingersoll Yankee’s market.

As I said, I set out to spend all my time on the Ingraham Clock Company archive.  However, it turned out that what I was really hoping to find within my time period (1870-1930, Main Street’s ‘boom period,’ so to speak), wasn’t so easy to cull.  I had set out to identify names and locations of retailers who ordered Ingraham watches for their shops on Main Streets in towns all over the country.  Or possibly find advertising by the company that included testimonials from retailers in small towns.  I have found these types of testimonials for Elgin watches of the period, so I was hopeful.  However, most of the Ingraham Company’s order records in Archives & Special Collections show sales to large distributors in cities.  In addition, most of the records in the collection were from the 1940s and 50s (just the luck of what records survived, unfortunately).  I did find contract letters with Sears from the 1930s, in which the mega-retailer agreed to uniquely market Ingraham watches in their stores and catalogs.  But I needed letters with Sears or Montgomery Ward from around 1905 or more information about the distributors who bought $2 watches in large volume and then re-sold them in small batches to shopowners in the nation’s towns.  That information may or may not be available in any archives, so in the end, the Ingraham $2 pocket watch story might not make it into the book.

However, as typically happens for me, as soon as I turn my attention away from one enticing collection, I find myself in the midst of a host of material that suits some other aspect of the book research.  (Nothing, I tell you, NOTHING beats the fun of serendipity in the archives!)

What did I find?  A glorious collection of ephemera and sales records for the E.E. Dickinson Witch Hazel Company of Essex, Connecticut.  One of the chapters I’m writing is on the variety of goods and services related to a townsperson’s health, all of which they could get on Main Street.  There was quite a bit of overlap between what was a “good”, a “service” and also a ways to participate in community life in the many shops and offices in downtown small town America between 1870-1930.  For example, one might go to the town druggist to purchase a prescription from a local doctor, a box of candy, or sit at the soda fountain and gab with friends over a strawberry fizz.  Barber and beauty shops were where one got one’s haircut or styled, but also where one socialized with a gendered group of residents.  Doctors were where one received diagnoses and health recommendations, but also where one might purchase a drug remedy (many physicians made their own drugs during the early part of my period of study).  I’m interested in looking at how Americans living in small towns attended to their health needs because understanding healthcare history before drug and health insurance, medical malpractice, and managed care may be valuable for understanding our contemporary struggles with the industry.  Or at the very least, this history offers an interesting comparison to the practices and standards the current day.

The story of Dickinson’s Witch Hazel fits right into this chapter because it was a factory-produced astringent that became an everyday remedy for minor ills.  It was sold all over the country in drugstores and used extensively in small town doctor’s offices.  And this time, I found records that show national distribution.  For example, during the mid-1920s there were many letters between Dickinson executives and the Druggist Supply Corporation (DSC).  The DSC was made up of retailers across America, many of which were located in small towns (Fresno, CA; Peoria, IL; Ottumwa, IA; Burlington, IA; Fort Wayne, IN; Rock Island, IL among many others).  By working with that organization, Dickinson assured that they would get their product into those shop owners’ hands.

There were also several large company scrapbooks with hundreds of ads, letters from happy vendors, testimonials, and the like.  For example, there was a letter from the owner of a drug store in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  He was thanking the Dickinson Company for sending him a set of booklets to give out to his customers with their purchase of a bottle of Witch Hazel.  With his letter of thanks, he included a clipping from the local newspaper which documents his announcement of the Witch Hazel booklet’s availability.  He also noted that he gave a bunch of the booklets to a teacher at a nearby rural school for their students.

I could go on and on, but you’ll have to wait for the book.  Overall, my visit to Archives & Special Collections was a success, both in terms of clarifying the role of Ingraham in the book and adding to my health-related goods and services chapter.  [KJM]



The Somersville Manufacturing Company Records

The Somersville Manufacturing Company, maker of fine heavy woolen cloth, was established in 1879 in Somersville, a village in the town of Somers, Connecticut, by Rockwell Keeney. For the company’s entire 90 year history it was owned and run by Rockwell’s descendents.

Advertisement for woollens made by the Somersville Manufacturing Company in Somersville, Connecticut, ca. 1950s

Advertisement for woollens made by the Somersville Manufacturing Company in Somersville, Connecticut, ca. 1950s

Last year Mr. Timothy R.E. Keeney, Rockwell’s great great-grandson, contacted Archives & Special Collections to discuss the donation of the company’s records, which were stored in his home in Somersville.  We found the records to be unique, accounting for the entire history of the company from its founding in 1979 to the point where it shut its doors in 1969.  The documents themselves were a treasure trove, ranging from administrative and financial files and volumes to marketing material, photographs and scrapbooks, detailing not only the life cycle of the company but also the Keeney family.  Mr. Keeney graciously gave us plenty of details about his family’s extensive and affectionate family; one fascinating aspect of the collection includes hundreds of letters written in the late 1930s and World War II years by his grandfather Leland Keeney to various members of the family.

The finding aid to the records is available at

A Letter from Thomas A. Edison

Letter from Thomas A. Edison to E.E. Dickinson & Co. of Essex, Connecticut, written on March 16, 1916, about a recommendation for Mr. V.L. King for work at the company.  E.E. Dickinson Co. Records, Archives & Special Collections, University of Connecticut Libraries.

Letter from Thomas A. Edison to E.E. Dickinson & Co. of Essex, Connecticut.

Recently a researcher visited our reading room to look at the E. E. Dickinson Co. records and brought this letter to our attention.  Written on March 16, 1916, from Orange, New Jersey, it is a letter signed by inventor Thomas A. Edison about his recommendation of Mr. V.L. King, who was seeking employment at the E.E. Dickinson Company, a maker of witch hazel and birch oil in Durham and Essex, Connecticut.

The E.E. Dickinson Company was established by Alvin Whittemore, who owned a drug store in Essex.  By 1870, partners of Whittemore consolidated under the control of Rev. Thomas Dickinson and his family, including his son E.E. Dickinson, held the company as a family business until the 1980s.  By the 1920s the company produced half of all witch hazel produced in the United States.

Archivists and historians value primary sources for their content and context — how they contribute to our understanding of historical events or a historical time.  The value of a letter just because it has a famous person’s signature doesn’t usually fit in this category.  It has a different sort of value, one where anything that attaches us to a famous person is automatically valuable. In any event, we are happy to know about this letter in our collection and hope you enjoy it too.

Photographs from Archives & Special Collections part of an exhibit at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans


Employee of the New Britain Machine Company during World War II

 Several months ago I worked with Laura Blum, a student at E.O. Smith High School in Mansfield, Connecticut, who needed photographs from the Connecticut Business History Collections for a project she was working on for the National World War II Museum in New Orleans.  Laura was selected, with fifty other high school students in every state in the country and the District of Columbia, to provide images of how their states contributed to the challenges of World War II on the homefront.  Laura chose six photographs from our collections, all depicting Connecticut workers and the efforts they made on behalf of the war effort, and wrote an introduction.

The photographs that Laura chose are available in the Connecticut window of the Salute to Freedom website of the National World War II Museum, at  We are happy that Laura used photographs from our collection for this national-oriented project and very impressed with the good work she did in highlighting and describing the photographs.

The museum blogged about the exhibit on December 31, 2012, available here:

A Historical Comic Book of the Southern New England Telephone Company

In January 1878 George Coy founded the District Telephone Company of New Haven, Connecticut, less than one year after telephone inventor Alexander Graham Bell demonstrated his invention at Skiff’s Opera House in that city.  Coy’s new company was the first commercial telephone company in the world.

Seventy-five years later, in 1953, the company now known as the Southern New England Telphone Company produced a charming comic book — Pioneering the Telephone in Connecticut — to celebrate its history.  In 1998 the company records were donated to Archives & Special Collections, and the comic book was among the materials.

Here are just a few cells of the comic book, a captivating way to learn about this important company’s history.

Celebrate the first day of summer!

Who wouldn’t want to spend the first day of summer at the beach?  Surely these telephone operators from Norwich were enjoying just that as this photograph, from the Southern New England Telephone Company records, from 1913, shows us.  These ladies, dressed all in white down to their stockings and shoes, seem happy to be on such a pleasant outing that briefly took them from their switchboards for sun and sand.

Tariffville Dam on the Farmington River

Tariffville Dam on the Farmington River, ca. 1915

The last two posts of this week showed some photographs of Walter Atkin, an employee at the Tariffville Dam, who went fishing from an open window at the hydroelectric station.  Those photographs were just three of many interesting images of the dam that we find in the Hartford Electric Light Company Records, one of which includes this beautiful wide angled shot of the dam, taken circa 1915.

The  Tariffville Dam hydroelectric station was built in 1899 on the Farmington River in Simsbury, Connecticut, by the Hartford Electric Light Company.  It provided electricity to the Hartford area until at least August 1955, when it was destroyed by flooding caused by back to back hurricanes in August 1955.

The Man With the Fish — Here’s the scoop

Here’s the deal about the man with the fish. 

This gentleman is identified on the photograph as Walter Atkin who presumably worked at the Tariffville Dam hydroelectric station on the Farmington River in Simsbury, Connecticut.  The date of the photograph is 1948.  This photograph is from the Hartford Electric Light Company Records, a collection of business records of this company that we have here at the Dodd Research Center. 

The collection has these photos of Mr. Atkin fishing directly from a window in the power station, something I personally think is hilarious.  I wonder if his employers were aware that he was spending his time in this manner while on the job.  Hmmm…I wonder if my supervisors would approve my fishing in Mirror Lake during work time. 

Hey, it worked for Walter…

Laura Smith, Curator for Business, Railroad and Labor Collections

The Thermos Company in Connecticut

Thermos Company workers, ca. 1940s

The vacuum flask, better known by the trade name Thermos, is fairly ubiquitous in the United States.  Virtually every household has a few, to keep food at the desired temperature, be it hot or cold.  The vacuum flask was invented in 1892 by Scottish inventor Sir James DeWar and its popularity quickly spread.

William Walker, founder of the American Thermos Bottle Company, established a Thermos plant in Brooklyn, New York, in 1907, but moved in 1913 to Norwich, Connecticut, where it became the city’s largest employer.  After World War II the company built another plant in nearby Taftville, Connecticut, and became known as Thermos Company.

In 1969 Thermos was bought by Household International and in the 1980s production moved to Illinois.  The collection held in Archives & Special Collections are not the company records but a collection of publications, photographs, company newsletters, and annual reports, gathered by the company’s workers to celebrate their pride in the company that they, and many of their family members, worked for for much of the 20th century.

You can read more about the company and the collection in its finding aid, at

The 1906 Wire Gang Crew of the Southern New England Telephone Company

1906 work crew, Southern New England Telephone Company

The records of the Southern New England Telephone Company held in Archives & Special Collections have a historical depth that archivists and historians alike find amazing.  The collection not only can give a comprehensive overview of the company itself, but the materials can also speak to other histories — of Connecticut, of the beginnings of the telephone industry, of the introduction of women into the storied profession of telephone operator (“Number, please”), and many many others.

Established as the District Telephone Company of New Haven, the company opened on January 28, 1878, with a mere twenty-one subscribers.  It was the world’s first commercial telephone exchange, the brainchild of Civil War veteran  George Coy along with Herrick Frost and Walter Lewis.  By the time these men distributed the world’s first telephone directory three weeks later the company had 50 subscribers.  The company took the name of the Southern New England Telephone Company in October 1882 and lasted until it was taken over by SBC Communications in 1998.  After that it merged with AT&T.

Wire Gang journal, 1906, Southern New England Telephone Company Records

There are many extraordinary documents and photographs in the collection and it was hard to choose among them to highlight for today’s blog.  On top is the photograph of a 1906 work crew in Guilford, Connecticut.  Note the goat standing between the legs of the man on the right and the dog with the man up on the pole.  Above are two pages from a 1906 Work Book of Wire Gang No. 31 out of Ridgefield, Connecticut, with details of work done on the line in August 23-29.

For more information about the SNET records see the finding aid at