Waterbury Button Co. Fastened to American History

American Icons, Featured Article, Made in America
on November 3, 2013

When the War of 1812 halted the supply of military uniform buttons from England, Aaron Benedict founded the Waterbury Button Co. in Waterbury, Connecticut. Billions of buttons later, the company continues to fashionably fasten the clothing of the U.S. armed forces—and others.

“We’re the oldest company in America still making our original product,” says co-owner Sal Geraci, 75.

The company’s brass, silver-plated and gold-plated buttons have glistened throughout history. When Gens. Robert E. Lee and Ulysses S. Grant met to negotiate a Civil War truce in Appomattox, Virginia, both men’s uniforms sported Waterbury buttons. When the Titanic sailed in 1912, the crew of the White Star Line wore Waterbury buttons on their double-breasted coats. And when costumes for the movie Titanic were needed 80 years later, Waterbury used the same dies to make buttons for actors portraying the ship’s crew.

Cabinet drawers at the Waterbury Button factory, located since 2002 in nearby Cheshire, Connecticut, are brimming with dies for 40,000 button designs, including images of anchors, eagles and flags for the U.S. military, and everything from antique cars to hunting dogs for clubs, colleges, corporations, airlines, marching bands, and police and fire departments across America.

The company’s 53 employees also make buttons for renowned fashion designers, including Christian Dior and Ralph Lauren, but their most coveted buttons gleam each year on the green jacket presented to the winner of The Masters golf tournament.

Each of the 30 million buttons produced annually by the company is stamped from brass. While the metal is easy to obtain today, acquiring brass during the early 1800s required Yankee ingenuity on the part of the company’s founder.

“Benedict bought every brass pot and pan and kettle he could and melted them down to make buttons,” Geraci says. When he no longer could buy brass, he made buttons from pewter.

Today, employee Arthur St. Germain, 60, feeds brass from a large spool into a machine to make the button shells, or tops, to fill an order for the Chicago Police Department. With a thundering whomp, a 45-ton stamping machine impresses the design, one button at a time. The button shells are cleaned and placed in vats of chemicals, including a gold-flecked finish for gold plating. Using dozens of finishes, employees produce buttons that resemble lustrous gold, shiny silver, or dull pewter and nickel for an antique or distressed look.

Dan Dorau, 59, operates a century-old eyelet machine that adds a loop of wire to each button back. Button shells and backs then are soldered together, cleaned and buffed.

During its 200-year history, Waterbury Button also has crafted buttons from celluloid, plastic or shellac, and ventured into manufacturing other goods. During the 1800s, the company made safety pins, copper wire for telegraph lines and millions of metal climbing-monkey toys. During World War II, the company manufactured lenses for military gas masks, and as recently as 2003, Waterbury bought Northeast Emblem and Badge to become a prime supplier of badges for law enforcement and fire departments.

From the War of 1812 to the war in Afghanistan, the company’s mission and mainstay has remained making uniform buttons for U.S. soldiers, sailors and Marines.

“I’ve bought literally millions of buttons from Waterbury,” says Lenny Ochs, 56, president of Kingform Cap Co. in Hicksville, New York, which makes hats for the U.S. military. “Waterbury understands what I need.”