By Lander, David
American Heritage , Vol. 52, No. 8
ONE DAY IN 1994, A PRODUCER from 20th Century--Fox phoned a manufacturer in Waterbury, Connecticut, 30 miles southwest of Hartford. The Waterbury Button Company had produced the brass buttons for the uniforms worn by the Titanic's crew, and, more than 80 years later, the director James Cameron wanted them duplicated for his epic movie. The firm was able to accommodate him.
As displays at its Mattatuck Museum adeptly show, Waterbury, once a vigorous manufacturing center, calls itself the Brass City for good reason. Local entrepreneurs began working with the copper-and-zinc alloy in 1802. They turned out buttons, buckles, pins, eyelets, thimbles, clockworks, lamps, and plumbing pipe. The product list was so extensive that by 1900 Waterbury was supplying well over two-thirds of America's brass. The need for shell casings and related munitions products kept its plants booming through both World Wars, but then the brass age succumbed to an era of plastic, and Waterbury tarnished. A shopping center now occupies the prominent 90-acre tract that once contained a complex of 150 industrial buildings owned by the Scovill Manufacturing Company, one of Waterbury's three major brass makers. But less than three miles away, the Waterbury Button Company continues to stamp out the same product it has specialized in since 1812. That was the year Aaron Benedict, its founder, began melting down pots and kettles for the brass to make U. …