Wrights – Memories of an American Institution

By the time this is in print, a Warren MA landmark will have been shuttered, no longer a favorite gathering place for lovers of Wrights notions to be smothered in aisles of laces, trims, ribbons and other sundry items.

The Wright’s mill outlet store, founded in the early 1930s is now a victim of the high cost of overhead, taxes, overseas production and waning interest in sewing. It has been my good fortune to meet Harry S. Wright, 92, the last surviving grandson of William Wright who founded William E. Wright & Sons which continues to give this country some of the finest notions ever made. Harry, family and company historian, retired in 1962 and in 1991 wrote a book about the company during its 50 years in Warren MA.

This book – The Wright Family’s Company 50 Years in Warren 1934-1984 – serves as the basis for this column which highlights the company’s inventive and somewhat turbulent history. With seven children to support, William Enos Wright had several jobs, one being a drummer or traveling salesman for a drygoods wholesaler traveling throughout Texas, Arkansas and Oklahoma in the 1890s. And most likely gave him an insight into the cloth business. To earn more money, he went to New York where he served as a resident buyer for a syndicate of far western stores. By now he was ready to ask a friend and deskmate, William Nagle, to help him finance a business making and selling packaged folded bias tapes for the home sewer.

In 1897 the partners formed Wm E. Wright Co in downtown NYC producing W & N brand bias tapes — it turns itself on every label — and related products. Nagle died shortly afterwards and Wright bought his partner’s shares from the widow.

In 1905 the first two of five sons joined the prospering firm and the name was changed to Wm E. Wright & Sons, Co. As more family members came aboard, ads featured Wright, all five sons and five grandsons in company ads. Sons in law were hired as sales reps; nieces promoted products through home ec classroom demonstrations.

During the WWI years, the company made bandages for the armed forces while continuing to develop new products. After the war, Wright was able to obtain fast color dyes from Germany and expand its color line; each label carried the guarantee fast color and should it be faulty in any way spoiling the article on which it is applied, we will reimburse you for all materials used therein and a reasonable amount for your labor. This guarantee is still found on labels today. With a post-war boom and expanding business, the company needed more manufacturing space.

In 1922 a three-story plant was built in Orange NJ and a nearby factory acquired for inhouse printing and raw materials storage. During this period, Wright’s went global, establishing sales agencies in Canada, Britain, Holland and New Zealand. When Founder Wright died in 1926, his dream venture had sales surpassing $1 million annually. No one was exempt when the Depression hit in 1929. The crash put a hold on many business production and profit lines. Wrights huddled together to plot their survival: paycuts, streamlining operations to reduce overhead costs, tighter purchasing controls, innovative refinancing and opening up new sales sources.

One such approach was finally yielding to sell to variety chains such as Woolworth and Kresge, known as racket stores, the equivalent of today’s dollar stores, Prices were also reduced from 15 cent tapes to 5 cent tapes and 10 cent thread and tape combinations. Production was increased 50% by bypassing wholesalers and selling direct syndicates and private brands such as Wards, Pennimaid [J.C. Penney], Bonita, etc.

The major event of the Depressions years was finding a better location for improving overall performance. The company, still struggling to stay afloat, moved to West Warren MA in a region where textile mill ghost towns welcomed new business.

1934 begins a new chapter and a revitalized opportunity for Wrights. Here are excerpts of Harry S. Wright’s chronology of those 50 years in Warren.

Wrights - Memories of an American Institution

Founder William Enos Wright

Wrights - Memories of an American Institution

Harry S. Wright, head of industrial marketing, c1960s

Wrights - Memories of an American Institution

John T. Wright, President Grandson who led the company from $400,000 to $60 million in sales during his tenure from 1940 to 1984.

Wrights - Memories of an American Institution

Early 1900s – now open for business

Wrights - Memories of an American Institution

Orange NJ plant 1920s

Wrights - Memories of an American Institution

Partial complex of Warren facility 1934 Resettlement in Warren.MA from Orange NJ 1935 Entry into braid manufacturing with rickrack 1936 Entry into rufflings, frillings and novelty trim manufacturing 1938 Production of bindings on a newly developed fusing process. Younger family members allowed to purchase company.

In 1941 Production of WWII flare parachutes, anti-personnel bomb chutes, aerial delivery chutes; Wright developed and produced first parachutes for the government. First flare chute cost $90 for a $19 profit. Earned coveted Army/Navy E 2 awards in 1943.

In 1953 Dyeing add to rickrack/braiding facility 1954 Pioneered fast color dyeing of seam binding; entry into manufacturing and marketing of non-woven gift tie ribbons; custom printing added on bulk blanket bindings.

In 1961 Acquisition of Trimtex, bias tape competitor.

In 1968 Entry into decorator trims market with tassle and ball fringes.

In 1969 Company goes public with family still retaining share majority 1971-73 Entry into joint manufacturing with U.S./French zippers; acquisition of Bondex; added High Style Embassy trimming line; tried and dropped Handcraft line and Art Needlework company.

In 1977 Election of Robert Bauer as president begins a period of strife for company and family relationships, and will eventually lead to sale of company.

In 1985 Family heirs, in attempt to unseat Bauer, sell holdings to Newell Co. Newell’s share gives them majority and authority to dismiss Bauer for reneging on board appointments.

In 1989 Spinoff by Newell of Wrights along with Boye Needle to a Chicago investment firm which forms a limited partnership with several Wright executives.

In 2000 William E. Wright Lt. Partnership buys EZ International, a quilting notions company 2001 Conso/Simplicity buys Wrights; name becomes Wm. Wright Co. The Wright story is one more example of American initiative in family product pride and being part of a community. My thanks to Harry S. Wright for permission to use his book and photos for this article.

For additional Wright history and brand information see Bias tape column Bias Tape, the Great Sewing Room Labor Saver, Bias Tape Chart and Brand Name cross index, Bias tape photo gallery showing brands, memorabilia, ads, literature and other notions can be accessed through the bias tape chart site. For those who would like to read Mr Wright’s book, request an interlibrary loan by having your library contact the Warren MA public library. It’s possible some copies might be found on addall.com and other book search sites. The arbitrary cut-off date for this Vintage Fabric column is 1960.

To stay within the scope of this timeframe, reference materials published up to that date are the prime source of information to more accurately capture actual thoughts of the time.

Joan Kiplinger is an antique doll costumer and vintage fabric addict who learned to sew on her grandmother’s treadle and has been peddling fabrications ever since.

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