Checking through the Library of Congress collection on Flickr, we ran across this 1911 photo published by Bain News Service, marked “Morner House Near Albany.” If it looks like there was quite a hubbub going on at the Morner house, well, there was. For starters, “near Albany” is relative; Bain also described the house as in Defreestville. In fact, it was on Morner Road in East Greenbush. The reason it was in the news was the shocking murders of Mrs. Conrad Morner (a widow), son Arthur and daughters Edith and Blanche. They were generally believed to have been killed by an Italian farmhand named Edward Donato (or Di Donato) who had worked on the farm for a few months. The New York Times has as good a summary as anyone. No particular motive beyond a potential disagreement with Arthur Morner was discussed. Apparently quite a number of people thought to be Donato were arrested all over the area and beyond, but none of them could be positively identified, and he was never found. There was long speculation (including the possibility that Conrad Morner’s death a few years before was also suspicious) but no resolution. The house still stands.
While we were digging around the “Personal Pages” from a 1919 edition of Textile World, our curiosity was piqued by this note on the generosity of William Barnet, perhaps Rensselaer’s leading shoddy manufacturer. (Hoxsie will always find “shoddy manufacturer” funny, but if you don’t know, shoddy was a cheap fabric made of short-fibered reclaimed wool.) The article says that:
William Barnet, president of William Barnet & Sons, shoddy manufacturers of Rensselaer, N.Y., and a prominent resident of Albany, was one of the first to volunteer the use of his automobile to carry the orphans of Albany to and from Maple-Beach Park [successor to Al-Tro Park], where the annual orphans’ field day will be held. Mr. Barnet is a leading member of the Albany Motor Club, which has undertaken to supply transportation for the orphans.
It would appear that trundling orphans off for a day of fun was actually one of Barnet’s lesser good works; his reputation, and that of his company were anything but shoddy. (Sorry.)
According to a Knick News article from 1948, the original factory was founded at Broadway and Westerlo St. in 1898, then moved to Rensselaer in 1905. It was rebuilt after a fire in 1915 and later expanded. “The fumes and smoke which are characteristic of shoddy mills will be entirely absent in the new structure, according to Mr. Barnet, Sr. A device has been installed to draw off all obnoxious odors from the shoddies and carry them through a series of tubes to the outside.” A memorial to William Barnet from the Albany Evening News of Dec. 15, 1932, expressed what appeared to be the common opinion of Barnet:
William Barnet was one of the givers. He gave of money and time and service and sympathy. His long life of four score years was not lived for self but for others. His sense of public responsibility was large. He believed in kind words and good deeds. He had lived in Albany since he was 20 years old and he established the business of William Barnet & Son in Rensselaer. Sometimes it seemed as if business was his avocation and service to the public was his vocation. Under supervision of Herbert Hoover he was chairman of the Belgian Relief campaign. He was a trustee of the fund to build the Salvation Army Home and chairman of the Jewish War Relief campaign. In the war he was supervising chairman of draft boards in this section. He was a leader in several fraternal organizations, a world traveler and one of the foremost philanthropists that Albany has known. His life was an inspiration to all. To know him as a friend was a privilege. His example of active high citizenship will never be forgotten. The city mourns one of its rarest men.
Son Henry, who was president of the company for many years, worked on the Community Chest, on the board of the Jewish Community Center, and on the boards of Albany Hospital and Temple Beth Emeth. In 1940, he led a campaign against syphilis. “It seems that while he is in Albany, his idea of relaxation is going to meetings or trying to raise funds for his favorite projects.” The newspapers are filled with mentions of good works by Henry Barnet. In 1936, Barnet plant employees were among the first to receive hospitalization insurance (the terms will make you cry, so we’ll save that for tomorrow). No surprise, as Henry Barnet was instrumental in forming the Blue Cross Associated Hospital Service in the Capital District. He died in 1951, at age 71, extremely well-regarded. (Incidentally, he lived at 123 S. Lake Ave., certainly a handsome home but no mansion.)
A civic-minded family, Henry’s son William Barnet 2d lived his whole life in Albany, retired as chairman of the family business, and was involved In a number of philanthropic activities, including the foundation that bears his name and his wife’s. William Barnet III, an Albany Academy graduate, was President and CEO of the family business from 1976-2000, and has been on the boards of some little organizations like Duke Energy, Bank of America, and Fleet Boston. He was also mayor of Spartanburg, SC for a number of years.
William Barnet & Son went south in the 1960s, like most textile companies, moving its headquarters to South Carolina, and then branched out worldwide. While they make polymers and yarns, Hoxsie is happy to see that they still make short cut and staple fibers from post-industrial and post-consumer waste materials, so it’s entirely possible they’re still a leading shoddy manufacturer. We’d like to think so.
The Barnet mill still stands on Forbes Avenue in Rensselaer, now known as the Hilton Center and clearly visible from the Corning Preserve Boat Launch on the Albany side of the river.
As we were running down a little bit of information on Rensselaer’s Huyck Felt Mill, once one of the principal employers in that railroad town (other than the railroads, of course), we came across this little snippet from a 1919 edition of Textile World. A section called “The Personal Page” highlighted notable events in the lives of America’s textile makers, including this brief story relating what the mill’s Edmund Huyck learned from a trip to Japan:
Edmund N. Huyck, president of the F.C. Huyck & Sons Felt Mills, Rensselaer, N.Y., who recently returned from a tour of Japan, was the principal speaker at the luncheon of the Albany Rotary Club last week, and gave an interesting account of his experiences in that country. Mr. Huyck treated the subject of his address from the standpoint of a business man, and one of the points brought out was the evident lack of efficiency in the large manufacturing centers. He said that the work in that country did not equal that of the American industrial world and could not be compared in any manner. Mr. Huyck spoke of the growing military power of Japan, saying that America need have no fear from this direction as the utter lack of production in Japan would prove the undoing of that country in the event of a war, since Japan depends entirely upon its international commerce.
In fairness, Japan’s broader post-WWI military adventurism was another decade off, and its rise as an industrial power even further off in the future. But still, interesting to see how wrong you can be.
For those of you not old enough to have searched through newspaper classifieds looking for work, you probably wouldn’t know that the Help Wanted sections were strictly divided by sex. From 1946, this help wanted ad wasn’t in any way unusual for the time, from Huyck’s Mill in Rensselaer, advertising any number of positions open – for girls. The page of the Knickerbocker News this was taken from is filled with them: Sears, Roebuck & Company, New York Telephone, even Capitol Tomato Corp. were all advertising strictly for female help.
Huyck’s Mill (also known as Huyck Felt Mill) made felt used in paper-making. Between Huyck and Albany Felt (later Albany International), Albany was a hotbed of large-scale felt, known in the business as “machine clothing.” Much of the complex still stands and is used as State offices.
While digging up info on Schenectady’s Hygienic Lunch, we ran across this charming tale of armed robbery, carjacking, and the death of a dentist. Here’s the story from the Schenectady Gazette of August 18, 1914:
Cashier Swears Conway Robbed Electric Lunch
George Volk and Hygienic Lunch Man, However, Say Prisoner Is Not the Man – Arrest Made in Albany by Detectives Van Deusen and Rooney on Warrant Sworn Out by James Stathes, Night Cashier – Conway, Police Say, Bears Excellent Reputation
John Conway, 28 years old, a core-maker, was arrested yesterday afternoon by Detectives Van Deusen and Rooney in Albany, charged with being the party who held up and robbed the cashier of the Electric Lunch in State street early Saturday morning. The two officers, accompanied by James Stathes, the night cashier, who was on duty in the lunch room when the robber secured $134.70 from the cash register at the point of a gun, were on their way to Albany in an endeavor to locate the robber. While on the car Stathes suddenly pointed out Conway, who was on the car [streetcar], as the man who did the job.
Both the officers knew Conway, who bears an excellent reputation and who has roomed in Jay street, near the city hall, for the past three years and were loath to believe the cashier. Conway left the car at Pearl street, Albany, and went into Sauter’s dru store. Van Deusen and Rooney, with Stathes, secured a point of vantage and, after again looking minutely at Conway, Stathes declared he was the man.
Conway was therefore placed under arrest and brought to this city, where a charge of robbery, first degree, was lodged against him, Stathes swearing out a warrant. George Volk, the Gazette pressman, whose automobile the robber used to make his get-away, intimidating Volk with his gun, was sent for and he denied that Conway was the man. The cashier in the Hygienic Lunch, which had also been visited by the robber just prior to his doing the job at the Electric Lunch, was also called and he was positive that Conway was not the man.
Stathes, however, insisted that Conway was the man and swore to the information upon which the warrant was issued. Conway was released under bail bond and will have an examination on August 24 at 2 o’clock.
Another story was rumored about the streets last night to the effect that the man, Charles Thompson, who had such a terrific fight in the dental office of Dr. Myers in Troy late Saturday night, both men falling from the window to the pavement, which fall resulted in the death of Dr. Myers and the serious injury of Thompson, was the man who committed the hold-up in this city early Saturday morning.
Word was received by the local police last night to this effect and an effort will be made today to identify Thompson as the man who robbed the Electric Lunch. Officers with Stathes, Volk and others will visit the Troy Hospital, where Thompson is suffering from a fractured skull, and see if he answers the description of the robber.
If it was Thompson, then he had a hell of a day: robbed two lunch joints at gunpoint, stole a car and drove to Troy, where he got into a fight with a dentist that ended in fatal defenestration. Apparently that’s just what happened, and a little more. The Troy Times of August 14, 1914, told more about the death of the dentist:
Dentist’s Tragic Death – Locked in Desperate Struggle With Supposed Burglar Dr. Charles G. Myers Plunges From Roof to Brick Pavement in Yard forty Feet Below – Dies in Hospital – Intruder Survives But Badly Injured – Conceals His Identity.
Dr. Charles G. Myers, dentist, with offices over The Troy Trust Company, died at the Troy Hospital shortly before midnight Saturday night from injuries received in a fall from the roof in the rear of his office on the upper floor of the building while grappling with an intruder, supposedly a burglar intent on stealing gold leaf from the dental offices. The latter, known only as Charles Thompson, a name he gave, was also taken to the hospital, having sustained injuries to his head, face and left arm which at first were supposed to be fatal, but which the physicians later decided were not necessarily so.
Thompson told police here wasn’t there to steal, but was looking for the bathroom, and was just attacked by Dr. Myers. The police didn’t believe him, and probably believed him less when they found out his name was Raymond J. Sampson, who also went by the name of Edward Farley and had come from Elizabeth, New Jersey. In his murder trial the next year, it came out that he had run into an ex-con acquaintance from Elizabeth who was working as a motion-picture operator up in Cohoes, by the name of William Rixon. They met on the afternoon of the Schenectady robberies.
“I said ‘Hello, Ed,’ and he said ‘Hello, Will, what are you doing here?’ I said I lived there. He said, ‘How’s pickings?’ and I said ‘Pretty poor.’ He said, ‘Show me a prominent man or house, and I will go fifty-fifty with you, and you can go home.’ I had a beer and he took a ginger ale. He showed me a roll of money, and said it was Schenectady money. Then he showed me an automatic gun.”
Not suspicious at all. They didn’t get him on murder, but did send him to prison on manslaughter. The Troy Trust Building, at the southwest corner of Broadway and Third Street, was demolished in 1952, replaced by what was then the Manufacturers’ National Bank. And, as far as we know, Conway continued to enjoy an excellent reputation.
File this under: How did we not know this? Hoxsie grew up hard by Schenectady in the 1970s and was perhaps more tuned than your average teenager to both politics and local history. And yet, until this week, we had no idea that the father of Vice President Spiro Agnew, one Theodore Agnew (originally Theofraste Anagnostopolous), was once the proprietor of a couple of lunch joints in Schenectady and Troy. That seems like the kind of information that would have been floating around the zeitgeist, particularly given that Spiro (whose middle name was Theodore) was a controversial, polarizing figure who ended up resigning from the Nixon administration in a bit of a scandal.
Information on this is scant, and the timeline isn’t entirely clear. One Agnew biography says that Theodore arrived from Greece in 1902, settled in Schenectady, spent six years here and then moved to Baltimore. That timeline doesn’t quite work, as we know he was in Schenectady and Troy in 1911 and 1912.
His restaurant was called Hygienic Lunch, at a time when many restaurants, diners, and cafeterias were anything but. We first find it mentioned in Schenectady in 1911, located at 412 State Street, just below the (trolley) waiting room. (This was the old trolley waiting room at 420 State, east of the Witbeck Building. The Hygienic, we believe, was in the Hough Block, torn down to make room for the Bowtie Cinemas.)
In the Troy Times Record of March 25, 1911, we find this notice with regard to the Troy location of the Hygienic Lunch:
“The Hygienic Lunch to-day became one of the convenient eating places for shoppers and business people. Located at 319 River Street, the new lunch room is in the centre of the business district. In its equipment the Hygienic is thoroughly modern, having tiled floors and marble walls, with a kitchen equipment on which no expense or care has been spared. Small marble tables take the place of the usual wide arm chairs. The Hygienic will cater particularly to busy people, and is prepared to serve quickly a lunch or dinner, simple or elaborate. In addition to the usual sandwiches and short-order courses, patrons of the Hygienic can order a steak or portion of roast. The place is managed by the President of the company himself, Mr. Theodore S. Agnew of Schenectady, and James W. Donnan of this city. Mr. Agnew is an experienced restaurant manager, and is one of the founders of the Hygienic Lunch system, which was inaugurated in this state a few years ago.”
At the time, Agnew is found in the Troy City Directory, listed as president and manager of 319 River Street (the business was not named), and boarding at The Rensselaer (later called The Troy House).
A notice in the Schenectady Gazette from June 15, 1911, promises improvements at the Schenectady location:
“Theodore Agnew, president of the Hygienic Lunch Company is in this city after having spent some time in Troy launching a new business in that city. Mr. Agnew stated yesterday that it was his intention to as soon as possible to remodel the place of business in Schenectady and enlarge it to a certain extent. This lunch room is now capable of accommodating a large number of people, several tables have recently been installed which will seat four persons each, these replace the chairs along one entire side and a portion of the other.”
Not much else is said of the Hygienic in either location (and it’s not clear that a contemporaneous Ballston Spa operation by the same name was necessarily connected). A very brief article in the Troy Times on January 5, 1912, says that the proprietors of the Waldorf lunch system, a cafeteria style lunch joint that then had branches in eight cities from Boston to Buffalo, “to-day purchased the Hygienic Lunch from The Hygienic Lunch Company, Incorporated. George R. Donnan of Schenectady was proprietor. The new establishment will be called the Waldorf Lunch.”
That may have been the end of Theodore Agnew’s association with the Hygienic Lunch, and perhaps it was at this time that he lit out for the Charm City. It was not, however, the end of the Hygienic Lunch, for in 1914, Mr. Andrew Kansas announced the new Hygienic Lunch would be opening:
We know from the advertisements of a menswear salesman named Joe Green (and we’ll get to old Joe) that this Hygienic Lunch was also at 412 State Street, and that it continued by that name at least through 1922.
The only mention of the Spiro Agnew connection we find, other than in some biographies and birther sites (apparently there was some controversy), was an article in the Troy Times Record from October 11, 1973, after Agnew had already resigned. It was headlined “Agnew’s Father Ran Restaurant in Troy, and was filled out with just a little less information than we’ve provided above. “Agnew’s father also owned a restaurant in Schenectady but both failed to support him and his brothers. A check of the city directory of 1912 reveals Theodore Agnew moved to New York City. He eventually ended up in Baltimore, Md.”
The kids and their interwebs these days. They have no idea how the world worked before there was a worldwide web. Well, here’s how it was done. Say you wondered where to find a particular oven cleaner. You could just wander aimlessly from grocery store to grocery store, hoping to find what you needed. Or, you could write a letter to the Troy Record’s Hot Line. (Yes, a letter, to a Hot Line that lacked a phone number.) For just the cost of a stamp and the random chance that yours was the question they answered that week, that elusive oven cleaner information could be yours.
Seriously. This is how things worked. The other scintillating question on this day was from Mrs. Ruby Austin of Johnsonville, who wondered where she might find gloxinia bulbs. (Yonder Farms on North Greenbush Road. “Phone 283-4267 to find if they’ll mail them to you.”
Hoxsie was perusing some back numbers of “The Mixer & Server,” the official journal of the Hotel and Restaurant Employes [sic] International Alliance and the Bartenders International League of America (as one does) and came across this September 26, 1922 report by A. Martel, International Organizer, under the banner of “What Our Organizers Are Doing.” What Organizer Martel was doing was visiting a number of Schenectady establishments. We thought this was particularly interesting as it has several mentions of the Nicholaus Hotel (spelled variously), later just the Nicholaus German Restaurant, whose landmark building at the corner of Erie and State is now in danger of destruction because of the demolition of its neighbors.
His report is a nice little tour of the Schenectady eating establishments of 1922:
Dear Sir and Brother – The following is my report for the month of September:
August 28, as per instructions, I proceeded to Schenectady; met Secretary Geo. Harper of Local 470, with whom I took up the local situation.
August 29, visited the Mohawk Hotel; found one waiter, a former member of Local 471 of Albany; got his reinstatement. Visited the Nicholaus Hotel and talked to the chef, who is a former member of Local 470. Met the proprietor of the Italian Gardens Restaurant, a new place soon to open up.
August 30, visited the Mohawk Golf Club, where I found a Boston cook, a former member of Local 34; he will go to Italy this month so he don’t care to reinstate; the bartender and a kitchen helper promised to join. Again visited the Mohawk Hotel and had a talk with the chef. There are three cooks here, all former members of Local 470; their talk was not encouraging. Visited the Seneca, Hygienic and New Electric Lunches, also the Standard.
August 31, visited the Little Electric, Plaza, Italian Gardens, Nickolaus Hotel, Pelops and Mohawk.
September 1, in company with Secretary Harper, we made the rounds. I soon found out what the trouble was here and decided to use another method, although there was nothing encouraging in sight I was determined to give the town a good trial. The Greek restaurants are in the majority here and that makes it doubly hard.
I visited the Greek clubs daily and there found box, waiter and counter men, also the cooks, playing cards together. In time I got pretty well acquainted and kept hammering at them. They are working seven days per week and twelve hours per day; they admit this is too much but don’t think we could change anything by them joining the union. In the meantime I kept after the Mohawk Hotel cooks, who proved to be a hard bunch to deal with. The others says: [sic] “Get them at the Mohawk first,” etc.
Visited the Sirker Restaurant; the boss is chef; they employ seven girls, pay them $7 per week for ten hours a day and they scrub the dining room floor. One of our girls is there and she promised to join as soon as they get out. Had a talk with the proprietor of the Seneca Lunch; I think we will be able to organize his place if we can supply him with the right kind of help.
September 12, visited the Little Electric Lunch; got the reinstatement of one counter man and the application of the night counter man; the chef also filled out his application but has not paid up for it yet.
September 13, went to Albany and visited all the cooks I could reach (to pay their dues), also looked for a competent chef for the Italian Gardens here.
September 14, had an interview with the Rev. P. Frick of the Methodist Episcopal Church; one of the organizations of his church was eating at the Pelops, and he promised to ask them to remain away. Also had a talk with the Greek priest, but nothing came from it, as it was plain that he was siding with the bosses who feed him.
September 16, the chef of the Mohawk Hotel left, so I took his place; got the reinstatements of the two cooks and an application of a bus boy.
September 18, the chef returned with better wages; got his application also – this makes the Mohawk solid again.
September 19, met the chef and second cook of the Hygienic; got their applications.
September 20, to Albany, after the cooks again; got a chef for the Italian Gardens; he was working at the Hampton, so I got him out and he joined Local 470 here.
September 21, met the second cook of the General Electric Company, who promised to reinstate. Visited several other places; got one application at the Seneca.
September 22, got the application of the chef of the Nickolaus Hotel, and when the second cook joints this house will be complete. Visited Sirker’s again; two new girls here.
Charles Sirker was a Belgian who had come to the United States during World War I, and ran a restaurant at 155 Barrett Street. (We know this because Sirker was involved in an interesting little case of international divorce law.) That building is gone.
Pelops was located at 438 State Street, two doors from Proctor’s. Searches will turn up a postcard of the white tablecloth interior, and a matchbook.
It’d be our guess that the Seneca was the Seneca Hotel, still a landmark on Jay Street across from City Hall.
The Mohawk Golf Club was, and is, out on Union Street.
The Hygienic Lunch was located at 436 State Street, and later at 412 State Street, “near street railway waiting station.” One of its original proprietors was Theodore Anagnost, who became Theodore Agnew. His son Spiro would later become Vice President of the United States. But it would appear that Agnew was long gone from the Electric City when Martel made his visit.
Albany’s Hampton Hotel, of course, was the landmark at the foot of State Street at Broadway; the building still stands.
Of the Little Electric Lunch (such a promising name) or the Italian Gardens, we find nothing.
And the Nicholaus Hotel actually predated the currently building, which goes back to 1901 and may just survive.
Hoxsie has often referred to Albany as “The City Without a Nickname.” Other than “The Capital City,” other nicknames that it may have deserved – “The Piano City,” “The Celluloid City,” “Drainage Basin of the Erie Canal” – never quite stuck. But one of its ephemeral nicknames should have stuck, because without its contributions, the modern age of commerce could never have happened. Albany was once the center of manufacture and home of a progressive movement that freed a powerful symbol for use in commerce, and thus should be known as “The Ampersand City.”
In colonial times, the ampersand was considered a luxury item; no one actually needed them, and those who wanted them were prepared to pay dearly. And so for the first couple of centuries, ampersands were imported items. Ampersands were treated very much like windowpanes, which were enumerated and taxed individually, and only the most successful businesses could afford to proclaim themselves as “Gray & Sons” instead of using the more pedestrian “Gray and Sons.” In addition to paying an annual tax to the locality, ampersand holders paid for each use, and the actual physical item – a big wooden “&” for a factory sign, for example – could cost hundreds of dollars at a time when workers made pennies a day. This lasted well into the 1800s, a growing time of commerce in the United States when all kinds of businesses were proclaiming themselves in ways that would have benefited from the ampersand. Those who held the rights to import them kept a stranglehold on supply, and domestic craftsmen who knew how to make them were virtually non-existent, until a plucky Albany businessman made the ampersand an item of mass production.
Andrew Persé was born to an otherwise unnoticeable Albany family in Sheridan Hollow around 1840. He was early apprenticed as a clerk to Bacon, Stickney & Co., a very prestigious importer of coffee and spices that did such a business it had two stores side by side on Dean Street and another on Exchange. Not only did they have an ampersand in their name, but merchant baron Samuel Bacon held the license for importing ampersands for all of New York and western Massachusetts. Any business, any printer, any signpainter who wished to make use of that single character in place of three, and convey all the prestige that carried, had to make payment to Bacon.
Bacon was a profiteer and influential. A national craze for abbreviation was already under steam when the Civil War came, and the need for brevity in letters to and from the Union soldiers threatened his hegemony over the ampersand symbol as it became possible the owners of these exclusive rights would simply be overrun by popular use. If everyone started using the ampersand, it would be impossible to collect the fees. But Bacon hit on a brilliant and very New York scheme, convincing one of the legislators he owned to get legislation passed that established a tax (which Andrew Persé went off to fight). He was able to get a law through the Legislature that established a postal surcharge for the presumed use of ampersands in correspondence. Nevermind that it was certain that New York’s law would be, and eventually was, found to unconstitutionally intrude on Federal jurisdiction. It stood long enough to make Bacon even more ridiculously wealthy, all based on the legal presumption that each letter-writer would use an ampersand at least once per letter.
Persé, serving in the Army of the Potomac and having worked for Bacon, was particularly galled by this turn of events, and frequently wrote home of his anger, in full longhand without abbreviation as a form of protest to his family. When he got back to Albany, something would be done. He used his spare time thinking about the mechanics, talking to men of practical experience, and working out how to amass the raw materials and machinery needed to modernize ampersand production. He had a vision of turning from the hand-crafted imports (still largely wooden and produced in Holland) to modern, iron-based ampersands crafted with steampower.
It happened that his company lieutenant and fireside chat-mate was Damien Van Rensselaer, evil half-brother of Stephen Van Rensselaer, who had money and a motive, to always serve as a thorn in the side of his half-sibling. DVR saw his opportunity in a stroke of genius: he would bankroll the creation of a modern factory on property he controlled just off the edge of the Lumber District in Albany – but, more importantly, immediately adjacent to the Van Rensselaer Manor.
With the war over, both returned to Albany and began their machinations. Persé hired a pair of Dutch brothers from a long line of ampersand makers to come to Albany, and DVR hired a crew of night masons to throw up a long, low brick factory within the sight line of the family estate. The activity was just far enough from the center of city activities that it wasn’t really noticed until smoke started pouring from its stacks, and it was then too late to be stopped.
Persé hired a wily salesman who went by the name of “Spats” Gansevoort, who offered the hitherto deprived factories, merchants and associations of Albany unbelievable cut-rate deals on ampersands; if they signed up before production began, they’d cost a tenth of what Bacon charged, and would be warranted to last forever, free of termites and dry rot. Even prosperous companies that already possessed ampersands were interested, and they were all guaranteed their money back if the plant failed to produce.
Flush with capital and orders, Persé’s factory immediately began producing ampersands of all shapes (well, really, just the one shape) and sizes, primarily of iron. Merchants from Troy, Schenectady, and even far-off Amsterdam soon heard of an alternative to Bacon’s extortionate prices, and were wiring orders in to the factory.
Of course, Bacon heard of all this, too, and was livid. He rushed to a local judge to get a cease and desist order, only to find the judge clearly in the pocket of Damian Van Rensselaer and unwilling to help. Racing up the hill to his legislators, he found that even they had become enamored of the idea of not paying for ampersands on the doors of their law practices – and they had some shiny new ones, fresh from what was called the “Andrew Persé And Factory.” Cleverly, Persé didn’t even use the word “ampersand,” just in case his scheme didn’t work and he ended up in hot water. He needn’t have worried.
The ampersand business just exploded. Boardman & Gray Pianos, Van Gasbeeck Carpets, Rugs & Curtains, Cotrell & Leonard clothing, Merten’s & Phalen’s – dozens of businesses started freely using the ampersand at Persé’s low, low prices. Bacon brought action in state court, but faced a platoon of lawyers from ampersanded firms who had taken up Persé’s case. Railroads, such as the Albany and Rensselaer and Kinderhook and Hudson Railroad, saw a real opportunity for savings and brevity, and loaned their considerable weight in the battle against Bacon. Desperate, he tried to cut costs, but importing remained more expensive than local manufacture, and his business collapsed.
But so did Persé’s. As he trained more and more workers to make the character, and machining equipment became standardized, some broke off and started their own ampersand factories on the edge of the Lumber District. The Erie Canal spread their wares to the west and south. For safety reasons, railroads had been barred from carrying ampersands, but a new act of the Legislature lifted that restriction and ampersands were carried on board when the transcontinental railroad opened. So was an itinerant ampersand-maker, who soon captured the business of the west. The profit soon went out of the business, as ampersands became more plentiful than water. When the bottom dropped out, Persé seems to have just disappeared.
The old ampersand factory still sits on the edge of the old Van Rensselaer estate. Damian Van Rensselaer continued to use it to vex his relations for some years, renting it for use by a clown college and, somewhat related, a calliope factory. After his death, it passed through a number of hands, but the faded sign on the railroad-track side of the building remains to this day.
From an 1839 edition of the Albany Argus, an advertisement from the Albany Eagle Air Furnace and Machine Shop, where William V. Many (formerly of Corning, Norton & Co.) manufactured just about everything that could be made of iron. We won’t try to replicate their emphatic use of capital letters in telling you that they manufactured to order
Iron castings for gearing mills & factories, of every description. Also, malt mills, mashing machines, steam engines, and railroad castings of every description. The collection of patterns of machinery is not equalled in the United States.
The following articles will be kept constantly for sale at the Furnace, and furnished at short notice, viz: potash kettles, single and double bottoms, from 56 to 140 gallons, cauldrons from 1 to 3 barrels, hatters’ and soap boilers’ kettles, bark mills, paper mill and other screws, press plates, oven mouths and furnace doors, hand-pumps , single and double forcing pumps, wagon, cart and post coach boxes, sash weights, 7, 14, 25, 28 30, 50, 56, and 60 lb. weights, forge hammers, sleigh shoes, stoves, hall scrapers, portable furnaces, hawser irons, mandrills for coppersmiths, bookbinders’ and notarial or seal presses.
There was also a extensive assortment of plough patterns “embracing almost every kind in use, and the company offered pig iron, fire brick, coal, amboy sand and clay to “country founders.”
Orders could be addressed to Mr. Many at No. 84 Beaver street, Albany, “or to the care of Messrs. Erastus Corning & Co.”
In this advertisement, it wasn’t mentioned that the Eagle Air Furnace was also known as a temperance furnace. “Not a drop of strong drink of any description is furnished to the men or permitted to be used in the furnace, and but few of the men are in the habit of drinking at all out of the furnace, and these few but very little.” We’ve written about the Eagle Air Furnace before. The Corning connection is interesting, but Erastus Corning appears to have been no more than an agent for William Many. According to Irene Neu’s “Erastus Corning: Merchant and Financier, 1794-1872,” Corning had been employed by the previous owner of the foundry, John Spencer, as early as 1814, and he bought a partnership in Spencer’s company in 1816. Then the firm Corning and Norton was sole owner by 1825, but it was apparently not successful and he sold it to William V. Many, a Corning and Norton employee, and Robert E. Ward, but remained a merchandising agent for the firm.