By Christopher Shields
It is a festive time of year. We attend parties and gather with family and friends to celebrate. But the decorations that brighten these joyous holidays leave little pieces of themselves behind on our carpets and floors. As you vacuum up pine needles and holiday glitter, did you know that the products produced at a Greenwich factory played a significant role in keeping America’s households clean?
The Electrolux Corporation was started by Swedish businessman Gustaf Sahlin. Its first American factory was established in Old Greenwich in 1933 in a building that had previously housed a tool manufacturer, a producer of safety razors and an organ company. At the beginning it employed 116 people. When it closed in 1985, it had 830 workers and had produced millions of vacuum cleaners.
In addition to manufacturing, product testing, research and development were conducted at the plant. Innovations developed there included the automatic cordwinder, a self-sealing dirt bag, and a power nozzle to beat debris out of carpets.
During World War II, the factory manufactured electric motors and precision controls for use in the war effort. A production schedule that included three eight-hour shifts went into effect to maximize output of these vital components. The plant was awarded the Army Navy production award for excellence and an Army Navy “E” pennant was proudly flown above the facility.
An appreciation for the quality of life of Electrolux employees was evident in the construction of a large recreation facility that included an auditorium/gymnasium, lounges, snack bar, baseball/softball fields and bowling alleys. The facility, known as the Ekman Center, was enjoyed by workers and their families and was the site of many large social events. This property was eventually purchased by the Town of Greenwich and is now called the Eastern Greenwich Civic Center.
In the end, the lack of automation, high costs and an obsolete factory design led to the closing of the factory. Employees were given 6 months notice of the impending closure and the company offered training and a job center to help them find work. It was reported that less than 2 months after the closure of the factory, 70 percent of the staff had found new work at comparable salaries.
The Archives at the Greenwich Historical Society holds the Town History Collection which includes an assortment of printed materials relating to the Electrolux factory and its workers. The museum collection also includes an Electrolux Cleaner Model XXX manufactured between 1937 and 1954. It was the most popular vacuum in the Electrolux line. The Archives are open to the public on Wednesdays from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Christopher Shields is Archivist at the Greenwich Historical Society, 39 Strickland Road, Cos Cob, CT 06807.