Filed Under Mills

Nicholson File

The modest sign remaining on Kinsley Avenue does not do justice to this former industrial behemoth. The contribution of machines, and the parts and tools needed to run them, can sometimes be lost on the consumer who purchases the end product.

Nicholson File is a toolmaker that today’s consumers might not appreciate or even notice. Yet if you had opened any newspaper from any region of the US at the turn of the 20th century, chances are you would see an ad for a Nicholson File. Nicholson File Company was the world’s first commercially successful manufacturer of machine-made files (rather than hand sharpened). Founded at the end of the Civil War in 1864 by William T. Nicholson, the company dominated the file market for a century. The company occupied these buildings for 90 years.

William T. Nicholson was born in Pawtucket, RI in 1834. His coming of age story reads like a journey across Providence’s major industrial giants. At age 14 he joined his father and learned the machinist’s trade (shaping, cutting and forming of metal) and at 17 worked in the manufacture of screw machines for Eagle Screw Company in Providence. In 1852 Nicholson worked for Joseph Brown (founder of Brown and Sharpe) in the manufacture of surveyors’ instruments, watches, clocks, rules and gauges for precision measurement. By 1858 he formed a partnership with Isaac Brownell to manufacture jeweler’s tools and light machinery. He took over the company in 1859.

With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Nicholson got into the arms business, making parts for the Springfield rifle, the standard infantry weapon for the Union Army. At the end of the war, he started making files to be used in machine tool production. By 1886 his company manufactured 1500 files a day that ranged in size from 10 pounds to featherweight files used by watchmakers.

Ever vigilant of the market, and following a trend in American manufacturing at the time for horizontal integration, Nicholson began acquiring file manufacturers around the country in the 1890s. By 1909 the various Nicholson plants produced 120,000 files a day, employed 2,500 people, and comprised 80% of the national market for files.


Illustration of the Nicholson File Plant
Illustration of the Nicholson File Plant This illustration from 1880 depicts that Nicholson File Plant's campus. Source: Providence Pictures Vol. 1. Rhode Island Collection, Providence Public Library. Date: 1880
Map of Providence
Map of Providence This map shows seven tool and machinery factories, six woolen (worsted) mills, and five fine jewelry-related businesses, a snapshot of industrial Providence. The vignettes at the bottom depict Corliss Steam Engine Works and Nicholson File Company, which at the time were the largest factories of their type in the world. Date: 1880
Advertisement for for Nicholson Files
Advertisement for for Nicholson Files This advertisement from the North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune, is one of the many ads that Americans would have seen from Nicholson on a daily basis! Source: North Platte Semi-Weekly Tribune, November 12, 1912. Library of Congress
Manufacturing Workers
Manufacturing Workers By 1909, the various Nicholson plants produced 120,000 files a day and employed 2,500 people, many of whom worked in factories like the one depicted here. Source: Rhode Island Historical Society – RHiX32905
Nicholson File Patent
Nicholson File Patent When William Nicholson died in 1893, he held 98 patents related to files, like this one, from 1876. Source: Rhode Island Historical Society – RHiX173266.


350 Kinsley Ave, Providence, RI 02903


Jane Gerhard , “Nicholson File,” Rhode Tour, accessed February 24, 2024,