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A Condensed History of Stamford, Connecticut

From the Beginnings to the End of the 18th Century
The 19th Century
Revonah Manor
Into the 20th Century
The Most Exciting Parts of Stamford's History

Into the 20th Century

That this century is worth saving is a foregone conclusion…with all its warts and scabs and terrors, this century will be considered by future generations as a benchmark in the continuum called history.

History exists on many levels and is constantly being reinterpreted. But it is the raw data, the primary source material, and that has to start somewhere.

Individual memory and collective memory is preserved at Stamford's history center, The Stamford Historical Society.

In 1930, Stamford historian Herbert F. Sherwood wrote that “Only a nucleus of the population of Stamford today can survey for itself the tremendous changes which have taken place in the town during the last generation.” Within Sherwood's memory, Stamford had become a prosperous small city with an expanding downtown and a diverse population.

At the start of the 20th century, the city looked prosperous. Downtown, large commercial, industrial, and public buildings were replacing the small frame and brick structures of an earlier era. The old Stamford Advocate building on Atlantic Street, which has been beautifully restored, was built in 1894 to resemble a Neo-Italian Renaissance palazzo. Several bank buildings in the form of Greek and Roman temples were constructed to convey an impression of stability that inspired confidence.

The Beaux Arts Town Hall on Atlantic Square, the Georgian style Ferguson Library, The Stamford Theatre on Atlantic Street, all lent an air of significance to this small, relatively self contained city.

But the facade can be deceptive…ever more numerous factories occupied land near the harbor, railroad, and downtown areas where the workers lived. Crowded tenements and older buildings in the central city housed Stamford's immigrant population. When you think that before 1848 Stamford was a small homogeneous community populated almost entirely by decedents of the Wethersfield Plantation Puritans, you can start to imagine what changes had taken place. Why, before 1848 the Episcopalians, were barely tolerated…can you imagine how well the Irish Catholics were received?

The immigrants came, they brought their brawn, and Stamford's industry thrived. And how did the immigrants fare? Some made it into the middle class.

Two-family houses, frame bungalows, and Queen Anne style houses lined the residential streets within walking distance of the city center, and they reflected the taste and increasing prosperity of an expanding middle class. Springdale and Glenbrook, north and east of the city, offered attractive suburban homesites at reasonable prices.

Because of Stamford's proximity to New York City, the affluent came. They built large comfortable homes on Shippan Point; the estates and summer homes of the wealthy and prominent were scattered on Strawberry, Palmer, and Noroton hills as well as in rural North Stamford. Country villages in the northern ridges changed from agricultural centers to suburban neighborhoods after farming ceased to be a factor in the local economy.

Some of the wealthy were also prominent, most were not. But the prosperity of Stamford came from it's mills, its factories, and it's development as a retail hub. The bustle of Pacific Street, where members of every ethnic and racial group could be found living, working, and shopping, might be considered the precursor of The Stamford Town Center.

Immigrant groups developed subcommunities containing elements of the life and culture left behind. They organized fraternal, benevolent, and mutual aid societies to provide assistance and sociability. Organizing a church, synagogue, or parish and constructing a sanctuary were important matters for most immigrant groups. And they left their mark on this century.

During the peak years of immigration between 1900 and 1910, Stamford was one of the fastest growing cities in Connecticut. The population of Connecticut increased overall by 23 percent during the first decade of this century. The population of Stamford increased by 53 percent. By 1910 one third of Stamford's residents were foreign born.

And immigration was not the only factor in Stamford's population growth. There was a significant migration: Stamford's black population, like its foreign born population, expanded after 1900. Black workers from the South, particularly the Carolinas, came to Stamford to work in wire mills, foundries, and factories.

The abundant supply of labor was a major factor enabling Stamford firms to expand and prosper. Between 1900 and 1910, the number of manufacturing establishments increased from 49 to 86, and the size of the labor force nearly doubled. The value of products manufactured here in Stamford increased by 123 percent, the largest gain in any Connecticut city during that decade.

Stamford takes pride in it's economic development, but at what cost. As employers prospered, workers began to organize trade unions and make demands for a shorter work week and increased pay. In 1916, for example, 13 labor unions in Stamford held 6 strikes.

Discrimination and prejudice were not unknown in Stamford, the record of which is just beginning to emerge as the heirs of Stamford's history discover dirty little secrets in the attic. The Ku Klux Klan literature. The letters of rejection, the attempts to purchase property in restricted parts of town, we may not like it, but we can't ignore it.

Yale and Towne was Stamford's principal employer. By 1916, the number of employees reached an all time high of 6500, and world wide sales of their products was estimated at 76 million dollars.

There was a time in this century when one in every eight people employed in Stamford worked for Yale and Towne. Did that make Stamford a company town? It could have, but it didn't because there was room for the Blickensderfer's and the Pitney Bowes, and a myriad of other manufacturers, both large and small.

The first World War brought defense contracts to Stamford. Mustard gas was made in Stamford, and the men who worked at the arsenal were called canaries. It seems that after a week or so of working with the mustard gas components, they turned yellow. By the way, the building that housed the chemical arsenal still stands.

The first quarter of the century marked a period of unprecedented growth and optimism. In 1926, Stamford created a Town Plan Commission and hired Herbert S. Swan of New York to prepare a plan for the city. His farsighted “Plan of a Metropolitan Suburb”, published in 1929, attracted national attention.

Swan said of Stamford: “A city of unlimited potential…without either knowing or paying any particular attention to the fact, Stamford is rapidly becoming one of the great cities of America”.

In the ten year urban development program he outlined for Stamford, Swan placed a high priority on creating a transportation network. He advised Stamford to acquire land for additional parks, playgrounds, and recreational areas along the 13 mile indented shoreline and the Rippowam and Mianus rivers. He recommended that a civic auditorium and art museum be developed along the Mill River near Broad Street. Prophetically and in vain ,Swan warned in conclusion against waiting too long to implement his plan.

The stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression of the 1930's shattered the optimism and prosperity of the city.

During the Depression however, one recommendation of the plan was carried out: construction of a major east west parkway to relieve traffic on the historic Boston Post Road and to link Stamford and Connecticut with the parkway system of Westchester County. Ground was broken in 1934. The parkway was named for Stamford's own Schuyler Merritt. In 1934, Merritt was serving his eighth term as the district's congressmen. He was also chairman of the Parkway Commission.

The parkway was built by men who needed work during the Depression, and their legacy is still appreciated today. The Parkway was opened in 1938 by Governor Wilbur Cross, Congressman Schuyler Merritt, and U.S. Attorney General, Homer S. Cummings. It received nationwide acclaim for its landscaping, well planned approaches, and attractive bridges, each designed by a different architect.

Stamford suffered through the Depression, as did the rest of America, but the struggle to survive continued. The electric dry shaver industry was born in a Stamford loft during the Depression. By 1940, Colonel Jacob Schick was able to employ nearly 1000 workers at his Schick Dry Shaver Company on Atlantic Street.

Stamford's economic life was governed by cycles outside of local control, and to some extent so was its political life.

It was Republican Mayor William W. Graves who in 1928 got elected on a platform calling for Charter Revision. He appointed a Charter Revision Commission to study the forms of government suitable for the City of Stamford. There was a referendum on the question in May 1932. The choice was a strong Mayor with administrative powers concentrated in the hands of the Mayor as chief executive, or a Council Manager Charter with an elected council and professional city manager. The referendum choose a “strong Mayor.”

The new charter went into effect in 1933 and provided for the election of a full time, salaried mayor, a seven member city council, and a six member board of finance. The council handled legislative matters, subject to the mayor's veto, and the mayor was completely responsible for the operation of the government. He also had power to appoint all other city officials, including the five commissioners who headed the departments of finance, health, law, safety and services.

Of course, that was the city government, there was also a town government that had a traditional New England Town Meeting structure.

Next Chapter: The Most Exciting Parts of Stamford's History
The War Years, Stamford's Postwar Planning Council, Labor Unrest, The loss of Stamford's traditional industrial base, Urban Renewal, Education, and the redefinition of Stamford as an edge city, all happened within the last 60 years.