Rhode Island is perhaps inordinately proud of its superlatives and firsts: first to establish religious freedom, first to rebel against the British crown, longest hold-out before ratifying the newly minted Constitution. And, in the 20th century, Rhode Island grabbed the title of longest workers’ strike in the US. Brown and Sharpe, once headquartered here, holds that dubious honor. The strike began in 1981 and lasted through the late 1990s. The strike is only one of many significant moments in the storied history of Brown and Sharpe, which began operations in 1833 on South Main Street in Providence.
Joseph Brown, clockmaker and mechanical designer joined forces with savvy businessman Lucian Sharpe, and the wildly successful Brown and Sharpe company took off, revolutionizing the machine-tool industry. Manufacturing everything from the Wilcox and Gibbs game-changing sewing machine to the machine that produced Shredded Wheat cereal to the universal grinding machine that created an effortless spin of a car’s wheels, Brown and Sharpe had an immeasurable impact on the daily lives of Americans for two centuries.
Gorham Manufacturing Company, which also formerly operated in this area, had an equally transformative influence on Rhode Island and beyond. A behemoth in the world of silver manufacturing, Gorham produced high-quality goods, including flatware, dishware, decorative objects, and statues in both silver and bronze, beginning in 1831 and continuing to today.
In addition to Brown and Sharpe and Gorham Manufacturing Company, the buildings along Steeple Street are the former homes to other sites of industry and innovation: a jewelry factory and the restaurant Al Forno, which invented wood-grilled pizza.
These buildings are testaments to Providence as an early powerhouse of American industry. They preserve the scale and density of buildings in this commercial area before 20th century demolitions created the open spaces of the surrounding parking lots.