The Hope Webbing Company was founded in 1883 in Providence, Rhode Island, by Charles Sisson and Oscar Steere. Both men had previously worked together at the Vaughn & Greene, Later Hamilton, Webbing Company at North Kingstown, Rhode Island. Sisson was born in 1847 in Coventry, Rhode Island, and worked at Hamilton Webbing for 17 years, moving up from a position as a clerk to general superintendent. Oscar Steere’s expertise was in the manufacturing side of the business.
In 1883 Sisson took Steere, as well as Hamilton Webbing bookkeeper Willis Harkness White, with him to form Hope Webbing in Providence. The men rented a small shop on Sprague Street, and installed ten looms primarily for making webbing for pull-straps for boots. On July 26, 1889, the company incorporated as the Hope Webbing Company, a stock company with capitalization of $100,000, with Hezekiah Conant, president; Charles Sisson, treasurer; Willis H. White, secretary; and Oscar A. Steere, superintendent.
By the late 1890s the company had 15 workers tending 60 looms, and, needing room to expand, were looking for vacant land outside the city for a new plant. The company purchased a parcel of land on Learned Street, just west of Main Street, in the South Woodlawn section of Pawtucket. The contract for the first mill building was signed on September 16, 1889. In early 1890 the offices and 108 looms were moved into the new 17,000 sq it shop.
The Hope Webbing Company purchased the Pawtucket parcel for their new plant from Hezekiah Conant, who was considered “the leading manufacturer of Pawtucket.” Conant, born in Dudley, Massachusetts in 1827, was trained in Worcester, Massachusetts as a mechanic, and worked at the Colt Armory in Springfield, Massachusetts. He became an inventor and engineer concentrating on thread machines in Willimantic, Connecticut, known as the “Thread City.” In 1868 he founded the Conant Thread Company in Pawtucket, and in 1869 he established a relationship with the J & P. Coats thread of Scotland, the leading thread manufacturer in the world at that time. In April 1870 he built the massive Mill No. 2 and expanded the works through the 1880s. In 1893 the works was taken over by J. & P. Coats Company, with Conant remaining as chief executive. The plant, straddling the Pawtucket Falls, Rhode Island line, eventually became the largest textile company in Rhode Island with its plant on one site, the largest thread mill in the world, and the largest employer in Pawtucket, with 3,380 employees during World War II.
Although the Hope Webbing plant presents the appearance of having been designed and built all at once, particularly considering the cohesive, symmetrical design of its Main Street facade and continuous, repetitive appearance of the weave sheds, it was actually built in at least eight major phases reflecting steadily increasing product development and market demand during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The original plant consisted of a 78-foot-wide by 260foot-long weave shed running longitudinally east-west on the north side of Leamed Street, which extended west from Main Street. A 26-foot-wide by 20foot-long, one-story Boiler House with steam engine, was attached to the west end of the Weave Shed, and a 58-foot-wide by 62-foot-long office wing projected south from the west end, severing Learned Street.
By November 1892, Weave Shed No. 1 was extended 194 feet east toward Main Street, essentially doubling its length, and a 66-foot-wide, 77-foot-long, two-story headhouse was constructed at its east end, facing onto main street. The weave shed allowed doubling of the plant’s capacity, and the headhouse provided basement space for shipping and storage and the floors above were occupied by offices. In 1829 the west end of Weave Shed No. 1 contained a machine shop and heater room, and Building 5 was used as a storehouse. The Boiler House contained one Corliss upright boiler.
By 1895, demand had again outstripped production and the plant was expanded. The east section of Weave Shed No. 2, a 271-foot-long by 82-foot wide building, was constructed parallel to and south of Weave Shed No. 1, on the south side of Learned Street. A two-story, 60-footwide by 218-foot-long headhouse section was built at its east end, connecting with the preexisting headhouse section to the north. The section of Learned Street between the two weave sheds was cut off from Main Street by three granite-trimmed Roman arches at the center of the headhouse, establishing the symmetrical Main Street facade. Power came from two 125 hp Corliss boilers and an 80 hp Corliss steam engine, and the plant had its own generator for electric lighting. It employed 460 hands making 150 miles of products a day, including cotton, jute, worsted wool, and silk narrow woven fabrics such as boot and shoe straps, carpet and horse blanket bindings, hat bands, non-elastic webs, and dress stay webs and trimmings, hose supports, and electrical machinery insulation for markets in the U.S., Europe, and South America. In 1897 the plant was said to make 1.5 million yards of narrow fabrics a year. In 1899, Weave Shed No. 2 was extended approximately 185 feet west to meet the west wall of the original 1889 office and storehouse wing, forming an enclosed O-shaped plan with a central courtyard.
One important factor of Hope Webbing’s success at this time was the development of cotton “linen finished electric tape” and related electric coil winding tapes, extremely thin fabric tapes for insulating electric motor wire coil windings. Hope management worked with the noted pioneering electrical machinery concern, the Thomson and Houston Company of Lynn, Massachusetts, to replace a proprietary imported Scottish linen material for armature and field coil windings. Hope technicians developed a special calendar roll to give the thin fabric a waxy finish that duplicated the linen it replaced. Plant superintendent Oscar Steere designed many narrow fabric looms, including a collaborative effort with the noted New England textile machinery company Crompton & Knowles to develop a double-bank loom, which incorporated two lines of shutters for each warp, doubling the production of each machine.
In December 1902 Hope Webbing completed the north portion of the Preparing Building, a five-story, 84-foot-wide by 225-foot-long building located on Esten Avenue, west of the Boiler House, and attached to Weave Shed No. 1 by a covered overhead walkway. The building was built by the Providence construction company Maguire & Penniman. The almost 100,000 sq it building was built to house raw thread preparation processes including warping and spooling.
The plant’s capacity had by that year more than doubled from its original incarnation and had become one of the largest narrow fabric mills in America. The Boiler House was also doubled in size that year. In 1904, the company began making braided cotton electric wire insulation, which soon became a major product line.
In 1906, Hope Webbing completed construction of the 85-foot-wide, 356-foot-long Weave Shed No. 7, parallel to and north of Weave Shed No. 1, its 100-foot-wide by 108-foot-long west extension. A three-story, 60-foot-wide by 107-foot-long headhouse section was built at its east end, connecting with the preexisting Finishing Building headhouse section to the south. This section of the headhouse included a four-story Romanesque tower. These 1906 components were designed by architect Frank Sawtelle, who had offices at 48 Custom Street, Providence. In 1906 Hope Webbing made more than 20,000 different kinds of narrow fabric products.
This new north section of the headhouse also incorporated a significant amount of indoor space devoted to employee recreation. The top floor of the tower housed a “club room,” the second floor of the main section included recreation and assembly rooms, and the entire top floor was devoted to a four-lane bowling alley, which still survives in good condition. These amenities are surviving examples of industrial employee recreation facilities instituted as part of the “welfare capitalism” movement that began in the late 1880s and ended with the Great Depression.
Employers believed that recreation facilities would influence workers’ behavior outside the workplace and dissuade them from unhealthy leisure time pursuits and help built team spirit” and company loyalty. Most programs included construction of outdoor recreational facilities such as ballfields and picnic grounds. Some companies went to great expense to sacrifice potential indoor production space for facilities such as swimming pools, bowling alleys, and club rooms with pool tables.