Updated: Dec 1, 2022
Did you know that Longmeadow once had a thriving spectacle and thimble manufacturing industry? From 1830 through 1861, at least 38 men in Longmeadow made gold or silver spectacles and thimbles for a living. According to an account in the archives of the Longmeadow Historical Society four manufacturing shops were in town; they were run by: Jacob Colton and Gilson Hollister; E. K. Colton and George Ferre; Sumner W. Gates; and Samuel Burbank.
Jacob Colton began making spectacles and thimbles in the early 1830s and all sources point to him as the founder of the Longmeadow industry. Dimond Chandler, who had learned to be a silversmith in New York City, was also an early craftsman. He sold his business to Jacob Colton in 1847 or 1848.
New-York Daily Advertiser, Sept. 14, 1821
Jacob Colton enlarged his business, partnering with Lester Noble (his nephew) from 1844-1847 and then with Gilson Hollister from 1847-1860, and the Longmeadow Historical Society archives contain five account books from these partnerships. In reviewing these books, names of almost all of the Longmeadow spectacle makers appear as either apprentices or employees, documenting the training that Jacob Colton provided to his fellow townsmen.
So, what supplies do you need to make spectacles and thimbles? The account books document purchases of silver, gold, convex glass, and steel tops. Why steel tops? Thimbles made solely of silver were too soft and could be easily punctured by sewing needles; steel tops greatly increased the useful lifetime of the thimble. Records reflect that, in addition to bars of silver and gold, Jacob purchased old gold coins and old silver to melt down to make his products.
Manufacturing shops were located up and down Longmeadow Street, often in small buildings which had previously served other purposes. For example, the E. K. Colton and George Ferre shop had previously been a schoolhouse. After the spectacle shop closed, the building moved to Williams Street and became the first Catholic church in town- St. Mary's RC Church.
In 1848, Dimond Chandler purchased 776 Longmeadow Street (where The Spa on the Green resides today) and began his button manufacturing business. The button business flourished and it moved next door to 19 Chandler Avenue. Dimond Chandler was a true entrepreneur and today’s Chandler Avenue is named for him. In the 1850s, Dimond sold the button business to his son-in-law, Nelson Newell, and Nelson's brother. Newell Brothers soon outgrew its space in Longmeadow and the business relocated to Springfield around 1863. To learn more about the button manufacturing enterprise, please see this article- Buttons, Buttons, Everywhere.... by Michael Gelinas, former president of the Longmeadow Historical Society.
After buttons ceased to be made at 776 Longmeadow Street, at least part of the building became a shop to manufacture spectacles and thimbles. A dry goods store occupied the front part of the building and a shop in the back of the building (visible in the c. 1885 image below, but not longer standing today) was a spectacle shop. E. K. Colton, a former spectacle manufacturer, operated the general store in the front and William W. Coomes operated the spectacle shop in the back.
776 Longmeadow Street circa 1885
The account books show that Jacob Colton sold spectacles and thimbles to over 60 stores from Boston to New York. William Rogers & Co. in Hartford was a frequent customer.
Hartford Daily Courant, Mar. 5, 1845
And, the industry was lucrative. A number of Jacob Colton’s apprentices accumulated enough capital during their employment with him to start their own shops. In 1860, Jacob Colton sold $15,000 worth of spectacles and thimbles and Sumner W. Gates sold $6,000 worth of spectacles.
1860 Nonpopulation Schedule Manufacturing
This booming business came to an abrupt halt in 1861. The uncertainties at the start of the Civil War caused many customers to cancel their orders. And, many of the technically-trained men working in the shops found other employment. Springfield Armory ramped up armament production and many of these skilled men were enticed to Springfield to make rifles. And, at least eight of the former spectacle makers were drafted into the U.S. Army to use these rifles in the Union Army.
Former spectacle makers, Lester Noble and his brother, Henry Bliss Noble, utilized their skills in working with gold when they became dentists. Both started their dental practices in Washington, D.C.; Lester later moved to Longmeadow and opened a practice in Springfield.
Jacob Colton, who never resumed his business, sold his company to one of his employees, William W. Coomes. Mr. Coomes continued working in the spectacle shop behind the general store until he died in 1893, the last remaining spectacle maker in Longmeadow.
With such an abundance of precious metals in Longmeadow, I was surprised to find only one account of theft. According to an article in the Springfield Republican, both the store and the spectacle shop were robbed in December, 1888. The burglars blew open the safe and absconded with a bar of silver and 4 pieces of gold, and gun play ensued as James W. Coomes, the nephew of William W. Coomes, chased the wounded burglar down Longmeadow Street.
Springfield Republican, Dec. 22, 1888
Although there are few tangible reminders of spectacle and thimble manufacturing in today’s Longmeadow, the collections of the Longmeadow Historical Society include some of the spectacles that were created here.
- Longmeadow Historical Society Archives - Springfield Republican, Dec. 22, 1888 - New-York Daily Advertiser, Sept. 14, 1821 - Hartford Daily Courant, Mar. 5, 1845 - U.S. Censuses: 1850, 1860, 1870 - Massachusetts Census: 1855, - 1865 U.S. Nonpopulation Schedule Manufacturing 1860
Contributed by Elizabeth Hoff, Longmeadow Historical Society Board Member Originally published August 12, 2021