Connecticut today is a densely populated part of the East Coast megalopolis, a heavily industrialized, multi-ethnic area. This is so obvious to our students that they may not realize that this has all happened comparatively recently, in a little over a century. In the city of New Britain they are surrounded by homes, public buildings, schools, and churches which they take for granted as stone and institutions, but which all grew through individuals’ efforts responding to immediate social and personal need and often public struggle.
The city became a city through an amazingly close public vote of 521 to 520 to move from town to city government. That was in 1871, the same year that Stanley Works, now an international corporation and the city’s largest employer, decided to take a chance on cold-rolled steel. The only significant immigrant groups in town by that year were the Irish, the Germans, and the Swedes. But by the turn of the century Poles had arrived in great numbers and the beginnings of Italian immigration were seen. These new groups came because industry offered them a livelihood; their presence changed the face and structure of the newly urbanized area. The three major forces of change in Connecticut history in the late 1800s, industrialization, urbanization, and immigration are especially visible in the everyday functions of the city and people of New Britain.
The thrust of this work will be to use the city as an example of Connecticut’s growth and to use locally available primary sources as the teaching vehicle.
The materials available are vast: newspapers, church histories, town clerks’ records, artifacts, buildings, the shape of the city itself. The problem of exclusion becomes the major one. What materials best exemplify the fabric of life of the majority of people? What statistics or maps best demonstrate the tremendous changes in the pattern of urbanization and immigration and economic growth? Which biographies best demonstrate the change in lifestyle? The sample lessons included will offer some of these, and the recommended sources are intended to lead the teacher and students to others.
If these materials are used for a week in senior high school as a mini-unit in the study of Connecticut they should illuminate one of the most volatile and formative periods of this state’s history. If they are used throughout the year in American History to draw on as examples for other units on immigration, labor, government, etc., they will present the city as a microcosm of American growth and struggle. Any Connecticut area, I am sure, could do the same if its local resources were tapped or collected.