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02/15/2017 08:00 AM

The Write Stuff: Chester Historical Society Explores Forgotten Industry

These traveling inkwells were sold to dealers in boxes of 12, and were about 1 ½ to 2 inches tall. Photo courtesy of the Chester Historical Society

Chester might be a small town in Connecticut, but in the 1800s one of its mill industries had a big impact on history. In an upcoming talk by Chester native and long-time collector Tom Marshall, the Chester Historical Society will look at the history of the Silliman family, the mill, and the items made there, including the inkwells that were patented by the company for their unique designs and used widely across the country.

“It’s one of the interesting stories about Chester,” said Chester Historical Society curator Diane Lindsey. “The traveling inkwells had a big impact during the Civil War. Soldiers were able to write letters home; it impacted a lot of people.”

The talk was conceived after Marshall presented his collection of Silliman artifacts at the Chester Fair. After more than 25 years of collecting the objects and learning about their history and the history of the family within the town, he has collected a lot of knowledge that he now intends to share with others.

The Chester Historical society also had a number of Silliman inkwells, with many found at antique shops and donated to the society, or brought in by residents.

“I expect there will be many who show up for the talk who are also collectors,” said Lindsey.

The Silliman Company made a wide range of office supplies and stationary items, including the fans, wax seals, wafer cups, and other accoutrements that were needed to write letters before the ballpoint pen had been invented. According to Lindsey, larger inkwells were decorated and, notably, the company used a range of imported woods, such as boxwood and rosewood, not only local materials.

Samuel Silliman opened the company in 1832; it was in business until the late 1800s. By 1905, the mill and company buildings were deserted, and bought by C.J. Bates, a company that manufactured knitting needles and manicure sets.

“The topography of Chester, all of the streams, meant that it was a good place for mills and manufacturing,” said Lindsey. “There was a lot of industry in the area.”

These industries also included a female workforce, according to Chester town historian Rob Miceli.

“This was not as rare as might be expected,” said Miceli. “But this was a small town in the early 1800s, and women were working outside of the house.”

Miceli also noted that one of the Silliman patents, the traveling inkwell, had a further impact on Civil War history than simply allowing soldiers to write letters home.

“Early on in the war, the press was cut off from actual, factual information,” said Miceli. “Real information on day to day life and battles came from letters. No one realizes that this was thanks to a little factory in Connecticut.”

Silliman traveling inkwells were issued to the Union Army, as part of a contract the Army had with the company. Today, it is common to find the inkwells at many Civil War reenactments and among collections of Civil War memorabilia.

The traveling inkwell was not the only patent that made an impact. According to Marshall, what made Silliman inkwells so special was that not only were they exceptionally well crafted, they were insulated, so that the ink would not freeze.

“You can really find Silliman products everywhere, in antique shops up and down the East Coast, in the White House—there’s even a Connecticut Post Office in Henry Ford’s Greenfield Village in Dearborn, Michigan that has shelves filled with all kinds of Silliman products,” said Marshall.

Marshall’s interest lies also with the impact the Sillimans, and other industrialists had on the town of Chester.

“The fascinating thing is that, even though the mill itself is gone, the foundations are still there,” said Marshall. “The houses still stand, a lot of the homes around the Green belonged to these industrialist families. Silliman was one of the things that put Chester on the map.”

The free talk will take place on Sunday, Feb. 26 at 4:30 p.m. at the Chester Meeting House; refreshments will be served and people will have the chance to try writing with Silliman products. The snow date will be Sunday, March 5 at 4:30 p.m. More information can be found at, or by calling 860-558-4701.

The Silliman factory on North Main Street, from the 1820s. Photo courtesy of the Chester Historical Society
The four-inch inkwell decorated with an eagle would have been one of Silliman’s larger inkwells. Photo courtesy of the Chester Historical Society