Coats & Clark Thread

As one would imagine, the combination of the Coats and Clark names involved a merger of two outstanding thread companies in the distant past. What you may not know is that other companies were involved as well. Since this web history concentrates on US textile companies, I have not dwelt at length on the history of international companies. Both the Clark and the Coats thread companies originated in Scotland in the 19th century (1812 and 1826) and exported thread to the United States. In the meanwhile, the Willimantic Linen Company produced thread for domestic consumption. In 1856, a skillful mechanical engineer and inventor, Hezekiah Conant developed a sewing machine for another of the pioneering companies, Samuel Slater & Sons, Webster, MA, just up the road from the original Pawtucket, RI location. About the same time, Conant began developing thread processing machinery. He developed a machine for winding spool cotton. The Willimantic Linen Co. purchased one half interest in the ensuing patent and hired him as a mechanical expert in 1859. After several years, the company sent Conant to Europe to visit the major thread­manufacturing companies. He visited the thread works of Coats in Paisley, Scotland and those of J. Clark, Jr. at Mile End in Glasgow, Scotland. He resigned his position as superintendent at Willimantic in 1868 and moved to Pawtucket, RI, raised money and established the Conant Thread Company. In 1869, he returned to Scotland, signed an agreement with J& P Coats and began expanding the business. The post war market was so lucrative that three additional buildings were constructed within four years. Until 1893, the business operated as Conant Thread but it was in reality a branch of the J. & P. Coats Company, Ltd. When Conant retired, the Pawtucket operation became known as J. & P. Coats as the Conant name disappeared. Hezekiah Conant died in 1902. At that time, the works covered about 40 acres of land and had a capital investment of $5,000,000.(1)

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Conant Mill and J.& P. Coats ­ same mill
Postcards Courtesy Bill Wornall Collection

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J.& P. Coats, Central Falls. RI

 

 

 

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J. & P. Coats, Pawtucket, RI

 

 

 

 

Marketing thread, like many other products where competition forced merchants to make decisions about products, made for innovative decisions.

Thomas D. Clark wrote about The Southern Country Store and described thread merchandising. 

Along the top of the counter were the J. and P. Coats cabinets. Every store had an assortment of these small walnut, maple and cherry cases filled with thread and trinkets. There were the smaller ones with two, three and five sliding drawers, and then there were the larger golden­oak ones built like desks which merchants used as top­of­the­counter catchalls…

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J. &P. Coats Best Six Cord Thread Cabinet
Textile Heritage Museum, Glencoe, NC

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Assorted Colors thread box normally inserted in the drawer. Far Right: Six categories.  -Courtesy Peter Metzke

 

 

From the late 1800’s to 1950 the thread cabinets ( J. & P. Coats ) did not change in wording on the drawers. They were made of wood and the shop models were made of pressed steel with J. & P. Coats pressed in on the top radius of the chest from the inside to give a raised text appearance. Peter Metzke

‘Actually the black and gold label bearing the legend J.& P. COATS “BEST SIX CORD” was introduced first in America in 1840, but it did not become a universally familiar product until the American factories were built. The ingenious Scotch thread winders had an eye for the country trade and they printed from the beginning a six­inch ruler on their boxes which became an important household tool. ‘The thread business in postwar America was a prosperous one, and advertising men for the highly competitive companies had to devise clever methods for keeping their goods before the public. By a lucky circumstance, the J. and P. Coats Company hit upon the idea of utilizing the by­products of their spool factory to make cases which could be placed on counters in stores. Their names were placed in bold letters on the fronts of the drawers, first on brass strips and later behind glass panels. In 1877 a special box factory was erected in Pawtucket to turn out thousands of boxes for country­store counters. Merchants bought thread and received the box free. These thread cases became as standard in the southern stores as did the lunch counters and Arm and Hammer baking soda. ‘But “Best Six Cord Thread” was not to enjoy its popular market unchallenged. Other thread winders sensed the rich possibilities and entered the fight by giving away paper dolls, jingle books, calendars, thimbles, songbooks and fancy miniature boxes.’ (2)

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Coats & Clark’s O.N.T. Button & Carpet Thread Wooden Spool Ends. Gary N. Mock.

J&P. Coats Mercerized Crochet Yarn UK brought to Australia ca. 1950.  Courtesy Peter Metzke

The Conant / J. & P. Coats Ltd, complex merged with the Clark Company to become Coats & Clark, Inc., grew to some twenty buildings and operated in Pawtucket until the late 1960’s. That company exists today, running their operation from South Carolina and doing business as Coats plc. The former complex consisting of seven historic buildings with a total of over 1,000,000 square feet on 17 acres is under redevelopment by Urban Smart Growth(3).

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This one just for fun. 5,184 spools of Coats & Clark thread enabled Devorah Sperber to create After the Mona Lisa 2 in 2005. On display NC Museum of Art Raleigh 2010 A small glass sphere on the black stand allows the viewer to invert the image.

 

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Sources:

  1. Fibre & Fabric: a record of American textile industry in the United States, Vol. 34, Feb. 1, 1902, p291.
  2. Clark, Thomas D., Pills, Petticoats, and Plows, The Southern Country Store, The Bobbs­Merrill Co., 1944.
  3. http://www.urbansmartgrowth.net/thread.htm Accessed March 2010.