Our Favorite Things: Wilson Bobbin Company Display

By Dave Unger, ATHM Director of Interpretation

Wilson Bobbin Company Display
For Leigh & Butler Company, Boston, MA
Late-19th or Early-20th Century

In the late-19th century and early 20th centuries, this display case stood in the lobby of the Leigh & Butler Company in Boston. It showed off a meticulously arranged selection of bobbins and shuttles from the Wilson Bobbin Company. Textile factories needed thousands of shuttles and bobbins every year. Shuttles crashed back and forth across looms until they wore out, and bobbins turned in circles until they were broken or lost. These were the disposable parts of a factory’s everyday operation, of no more interest than toothbrushes or #2 pencils would be to us. But, whoever designed this case took time and care to make something beautiful from the mundane.

When I started working at ATHM three years ago, this display case was outside our conference room. I often found myself lingering in front of it on my way to the copy machine or coffee maker. I loved the contrast between the decorative woodwork and the utilitarian parts, and I loved the gilt lettering and colorful bobbins. For three years I’ve been looking for an excuse to bring this case out for our visitors to see.

While putting together our advertising exhibit, To Catch the Eye, we realized that the bobbin case would fit perfectly into the story. In the exhibit, it illustrates how aesthetics and display techniques of the world’s fairs were adopted more widely. The case also points toward the importance of the disposable and mundane parts that have been easily forgotten in the clatter industrial history. As the number of textile factories grew, so too did the number factories that made the millions of parts and pieces needed to keep the machines running. This case is a testament to the importance of those secondary industries.

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