GREAT BARRINGTON

The hamlet of Howland in Adams took its name from a prosperous farming family, according to North County historian Paul W. Marino. It became better known as Zylonite, acknowledging the industrial age in which American Zylonite Co. built up a worker village in the 1880s. The factory was between the railroad tracks and Howland Avenue (Route 8). The old business is gone, but the name stuck. Specialty Minerals’ calcium carbonate plant and quarry are there today.

American Zylonite organized in 1881 as an offshoot of the British Xylonite Co. Different spelling, same pronunciation. Zylonite was technically cellulose nitrate, an early plastic molded into a variety of products.

The Beers 1885 History of Berkshire County explains that Zylonite "can be made in any color, admits of a high polish, and in which ivory, amber, camellia, agate and malachite have been more successfully imitated than in any other, the articles which soon appeared on the market made from Zylonite were innumerable."

Englishmen Alexander Parkes and Daniel Spill are credited with developing Zylonite. Emil Kipper, a German chemist, and L.L. Brown, a North Adams paper manufacturer, organized American Zylonite and built the mill.

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American Zylonite had three subsidiaries: Zylonite Comb & Brush, Zylonite Collar & Cuff and Zylonite Novelty. The first of these had 400 employees in 1885, under superintendent Isidor Lewis.


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The last named 175 hands making manicure sets, umbrella and cane handles, pipe parts, surgical instruments, book covers, door knobs, knife handles and chess men. Products of the middle company named were the most in demand because Zylonite was known to retain its whiteness. The company could barely keep up with orders.

George W. Mowbray, who made nitroglycerine for the construction of the Hoosac Tunnel, was the chemist for all three Zylonite entities.

Zyonite was brought to court in a patent infringement case by its major competitor, the Celluloid Manufacturing Co., which made claims based on John Wesley Hyatt’s 1870 patents, which were based on American rights that he had secured to the old Parkes’ patents. Both Parkes and Hyatt initially made billiard balls. Celluloid was combustible and not durable; today it is used mostly for table tennis balls and guitar picks.

Celluloid Manufacturing Company and Others vs. The American Zylonite Company and Others, heard before Judge J. Shipman, Southern District of New York Court, March 30, 1887, revolved around claims made in U.S. patent No. 200,937 to R.H. Sanborn, C. O. Kanouse and A.A. Sanborn on March 5, 1878, "for an improved fabric for collars and cuffs." The fabric had layers of celluloid interlined with cloth.

Testimony revealed Zylo-
nite’s collar-making methods: "The infringing fabric is made as follows: A fabric, consisting of two sheets of cloth, or muslin, with a paper interlining, is made by the Taylor & Tapley Manufacturing Comp-
any, named in the bill as a defendant, but not served with process. The American Zylonite Company places a thin sheet of zylonite upon one side of this fabric and returns the compound sheet to the Taylor & Tapley Company. After the cloth edge of this sheet has been shaven off, the zylonite face is turned back upon itself, so that there is a surface of zylonite upon both sides at all the edges of the collar except at the neck-band. These edges are fastened and made secure with paste. The parts of the collar which demand strength, neatness and a finish, and which are most liable to become soiled, have a double sheet of zylonite which encloses an interlining of textile material. The body of the back of the collar has no zylonite surface. The collar cannot be immersed in water; it can be cleaned by the application of a wet sponge and water, and, it is said, can be used for months. The collars are sold by the third defendant, the Standard Collar Company."

Celluloid prevailed in the legal action. It didn’t matter that Zylonite and Celluloid were different; the manufacturing process was what was at issue.

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Collars weren’t the only products American Zylonite manufactured, but they were a profit stream. Industrialist Brown, at the same time, suffered some financial setbacks. All production ended in January 1891. Celluloid, according to one history, purchased American Zylonite from Brown and took the equipment to its factory in New Jersey. The Adams Enerprise newspaper editorialized, "The soulless Newark concern is rich, and stockholders won’t lose. But 525 employees are thrown out in the middle of winter, and 2000 in all are dependent on the works."

Berkshire Hills Paper Co. took on some of the workers. Then, during World War I, Celluloid, unable to import necessary tissue from Europe, arranged for the paper company here to double its capacity to provide it with necessary paper.

Celluloid placed one million-dollar order. Then no more orders. The Adams paper company, which borrowed heavily so it could make $750,000 in factory modifications, was skunked. Eaton, Crane & Pike eventually acquired the building in a bankruptcy sale. James River Paper Co.’s Curtis Division operates there today.

Bernard A. Drew is a regular Eagle contributor.