The Dennison Tag Factory / by Jason Turgeon

Most of us don’t know much about the large vacant lot between Valentine, Fulda, Thornton, and Vale Streets.  It’s surrounded by a chain link fence and the outer ring of the lot is cleared a couple of times a year, but inside is something of an urban wildlife sanctuary with mature trees and dense undergrowth.  




Before it was a home for wild turkeys and skunks, this lot used to be a thriving manufacturing facility for the Dennison company.  Dennison, founded by brothers Aaron and EW Dennison as an adjunct to their father’s jewelry business, was originally a jewelry-box making company run out of the family home in Brunswick, Maine, in the 1840s.  EW, by all accounts an ambitious and enterprising young man, took over the company within a few years and his brother went on to become a leading watchmaker.  

EW soon moved the headquarters to Boston, with a storefront on Milk Street near the current location of Flat Black Coffee and a leased manufacturing facility in Roxbury - the Perkins factory.  In 1878, when Dennison was making boxes, cards to display jewelry, and selling shipping tags with bits of string tied to them by the millions, they bought out their hosts at the Perkins facility and changed the name to the Dennison Manufacturing Company.  

It’s not clear how long Dennison kept the factory open, but it was still there in 1912 when Lewis Hine photographed the child labor practices related to the factory as part of his nationwide crusade to end the then-common practice of child labor.  We are fortunate enough to have many of his images of our neighborhood well-preserved and cataloged at a number of places around the internet.  This link seems to be the easiest to navigate and most comprehensive of the ones I’ve found, but there are many others including a large collection at the Library of Congress (see this link, also).

"A typical sight. Family and neighbors working on tags on door steps of Mrs. McCarthy, 88 Marcella Street, Roxbury, Mass. See Home Work report. Location: Roxbury, Massachusetts."

typical sight. Family and neighbors working on tags on door steps of Mrs. McCarthy88 Marcella 

StreetRoxburyMass. See Home Workreport. Location: RoxburyMassachusetts.

In 1919, the Dennison company put out an incredibly detailed history of the company to commemorate its 75th anniversary.  Thanks to that book, I’m able to share this photo of the factory.  There’s an accompanying page of text.  This link will take you to those pages.

By the 1890s, the company had outgrown its Roxbury factory and wanted to consolidate its operations, so it moved everything from the Roxbury factory, an operation in Maine, and another in New York to Framingham.  By the time the commemorative book was written, the Framingham operation employed over 2600 people on a campus of 16 acres and Framingham eventually became known as “Tag Town.”

If you want to know a bit more about the man behind the company, there’s an excellent short biography at this link.  

As of now, I don’t know what happened to the factory after 1898.  All the reports seem to indicated that all of Dennison’s operations were centralized in Framingham, but Lewis Hine’s 1912 photos indicate otherwise.  I also don’t know much about the Perkins factory (aka the NE Gard factory on the 1873 map) that preceded it, but if I can find out more I will update this.  If anyone knows when the factory was closed and when it was demolished, please pass the info on!

UPDATE 10/30/11: Mark writes in to say that “The brick Dennison plant shown in the 1895 map was there until at least 1931. Regarding the Hine photos: by that time, Dennison still owned the property, but it was a furniture factury. It may have been leased out to another company.”  Thanks, Mark!