Category Archives: Albany

I’ll show you a printing press!

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JB Lyon Press Encyclopedia Americana.pngEveryone’s been all a-twitter because the Times Union got a new press. (In fairness, it is likely to be the last offset web press ever installed in the area. Ever.) Well, the local newspaper didn’t always rule the roost when it came to printing production; far from it. Here’s a view of the J.B. Lyon Company printing plant, which printed countless books, including the Encyclopedia Americana, “on thin india paper made in America for this work.” Along with Van Benthuysen, the Argus and Williams Press, J.B. Lyon was one of the giants of printing and publishing in the Northeast.

In 1907, Lyon employed over 800 people. It boasted a composing room capacity of 1,500,000 ems (“or 800 pages average book size per day”). Its electrotype and stereotype equipment could handle all that output each day, its press rooms could make 500,000 impressions per day, and its book bindery could put out 4,000 books per day.

The plant shown here was at Market and Grand Streets, across from the Public Market, and lasted as a multi-use building long after Lyon had decamped. They also had a building at Beaver and Daniel streets, neither of which still exists there. It was just below Eagle Street, about where the Knickerbocker Arena’s parking garage is. (Oh, I guess that’s called the Times Union Center now.)

J.B. Lyon’s estate in Bethlehem burned in the 1960s, but the concrete lions that marked the entrance to the estate can still be seen along the road that leads to Henry Hudson Park.

Bringing home the mummies

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Letter_from_Samuel_W_Brown_to_Cuyler_Reynolds 1909 AIHA.jpgThe Albany Institute of History and Art collection includes this fabulous 1909 letter, on the letterhead of Cairo’s Eden Palace Hotel (with electric light and a lift!). The letter is from Samuel W. Brown, a noted businessman in the coffee, spice and mustard trade (Bacon, Stickney was his company) who was also on the board of trustees of the Institute. It was written to Cuyler Reynolds, the curator of the Institute, and it betrays a certain frustration with Reynolds’s expectations for Brown’s trip to Egypt to procure artifacts to bring back to Albany:

“Mr. Cuyler Reynolds

My Dear Mr. Reynolds

I received your letter with enclosures as stated I called at the U.S. Consulate several times but did not find Mr. Berry; later on learned that he was not connected with the Consulate but was a “Judge” of the Tribunal Court here. I called at his hotel then but did not see him there. He called on me at my hotel last evening. He did not hesitate to inform me that he could do little to assist me as he was not acquainted with the Director of the Museum. I am at a loss to understand why you should expect to get any of the Museum Curios for nothing. The Museum is a Government affair and everything going out of the Museum must be paid for at a fixed price whether for a museum or private collection. These people are not in the Museum business for their health, and I fully learned of that fact when I was in Cairo four years ago.

I called on the Director the following day and And made my wants Known to him and have secured two Mummy’s [sic] which I am having packed for shipment. I have written to Mr. Ten Eyck the details of the transaction and I hope that they will be in Albany before I reach home.

We are having a delightful time Bright warm weather.

Sincerely Yours

Samuel W. Brown”

Whatever his frustrations, Brown was successful and brought back the mummies that reside in the Institute to this day. Except for when they’re taken out for medical experiments.

Later this year they’ll be the subject of a new exhibition at the Albany Institute.

Freihofer’s Swedish Bread

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Freihofer's 1931.pngAnyone of a certain age (which is to say, my age or more) probably has fond memories of Freihofer’s, when it was a very important local brand, perhaps the local brand of bread and cakes. It was delivered, first by horsewagon and then by truck, right to our homes; we would put a sign with the Freihofer’s logo in the windows and the driver would know to make a stop on his route. It sponsored various radio shows and the very popular “Freddie Freihofer” children’s show on WRGB-TV. And its bakeries were popular elementary school field trips.

This ad from 1931 proclaims the wonder of Freihofer’s Swedish Health Bread, which stayed fresh four times longer, and kept the system properly regulated, “but so naturally that you hardly realize it.” (Decades before poop-yogurt, I’ll have you know.)

Note that local radio station WOKO featured “Freihofer’s Bakerboy Chester Gaylord” and the Bakermaids. WOKO was the first commercial station in Albany; the call letters now belong to a Burlington, Vermont station.

WGY Food Stores

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WGY coffee tinIt seems incredible that there was once a very large chain of grocery stores named for one of the first radio stations in the country, and even more incredible that no one seems to remember it. But it’s true.

In 1930, approximately 130 independently owned grocery stores in “virtually all cities and villages within a 75-mile radius of Schenectady” formed a chain merchandising system under the name of WGY Food Stores. An article in the Schenectady Gazette from February 21 of that year explained that “All stores in the unit will have uniform fronts and signs as well as interiors and will be serviced by the WGY Food Products Company, Inc., a subsidiary of the Jonathan Levi Company.” It was a combination of stores already branded as Mohawk or WGY:

“There are about 100 of the Mohawk stores, which is the older chain, and the more local, all the 100 stores being in Schenectady, Troy and Albany. The 30 WGY stores already cover a large territory, and under the combined organization further expansion is planned.” In addition to the advantages of buying for a bigger chain, the superintendent of the company promised “new campaigns of periodical exploitation and instituting a weekly radio program to be broadcast over WGY.”

Jonathan Levi was an Austrian native who settled as a peddler in Schenectady in the 1860s. He had a dry goods shop at 104 and 106 State Street, which he built into a wholesale grocery business. That was headquartered on Dock Street, between the canal and the railroad, for many years and then moved to the north end of Erie Boulevard (the filled-in canal) around the time of the expansion of the WGY chain.

As late as 1958, WGY Food Products was acting as a grocery wholesaler at 95 Tivoli St. in Albany, and there was still a WGY Superette at 74 Madison Ave.

Cell phone service in Albany, 1945

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two_way_radiotelephone-300x236.jpgWe know that Albany was in on some great technological breakthroughs – Joseph Henry’s discovery of electrical induction and creation of the first telegraph signal, John Wesley Hyatt’s invention of one of the earliest plastics. Turns out, we were on the map for one of the early experiments in what was then called the mobile radiotelephone – something like a cell phone. This AP wire story from the Schenectady Gazette on Dec. 19, 1945, lays out the hopeful details of a future where drivers are paying no attention to the road:

CHICAGO, Dec. 18 (AP)–The Bell system announced plans today for extensive service trials of mobile radiotelephone service along three inter-city highway routes between Chicago and St. Louis, New York, Albany and Buffalo, and New York and Boston.

When these services are established, the company said, it will be possible for any suitably equipped vehicle on these routes or any boat on adjacent waterways to make and receive calls from any telephone connected to lines of the Bell system. Transmitting and receiving stations needed for the service will be located along the routes.

The company said it planned to make the trials under actual operating conditions, and that a number of companies had indicated desire to participate, including truck lines, bus lines, long distance movers, and utilities. It was believed several hundred vehicles would be equipped initially along the three routes.

Highway mobile radiotelephone service will operate like this:

Calls will be handled by mobile several [sic] telephone operators, and conversations will travel part of the way by telephone wire and part by radio. A caller in Chicago wanting to talk to the occupant of a certain automobile between Chicago and St. Louis would call long distance, ask for mobile service operator, and give her the call number of the vehicle.

The operator would route the call over telephone wires to one of the transmitting-receiving stations on the highway, which would send the signal to the vehicle by radio. The car operator then will receive an audible visual signal and can operate a push button which permits him to switch from talking to listening.

The occupant of the mobile unit can originate a call by picking up his phone, ascertaining the circuit is not in use, and pushing the talk button. The mobile service operator will come on the line and get the number the caller requests.

Radiotelephone photo by AP; posted at

“Get out and be something.”

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William Henry Johnson biography.jpgThe wide-ranging autobiography of William Henry Johnson is filled with reminders of how much and how little has changed since its publication in 1900. In the “Finale,” John T. Chapman, manager of the Leonard Publishing Company’s publications, relates the story of two young men of color who stepped into Johnson’s well-respected Maiden Lane barber shop and,

were met with the terse salutation given in dead earnest, “Well, what are you two loafing around here for?” After they had caught their breath, one said, “I expect to go to work shortly” — “I,” said the other, “am promised a place at the Kenmore” (the then leading hotel of Albany.) “Shame on you both, you are two fools,” came the blows, straight from the shoulder, “all respectable work is honorable, it is true, but both of you are capable of doing better work for yourselves and incidentally for your race. Get out and be something. Why, if either of you were competent, I could put you in a place worth more than you ever earned in your life and that too within a stone’s throw of my shop, for the man I refer to wants a good bookkeeper. If the brains and ability and willingness to work are there, the color of his skin won’t count. Go — get a move on yourselves. I tell you, and when you have something to sell that somebody wants, bring it to market.” Both young men were considerable wrought up by his language and left the place with hurt and angry feelings. They swallowed the drastic dose, however, and walking home together agreed to be something out of the rut into which most of our young people seem to have fallen. One of the young men, now connected with one of the largest music establishments in the city, promptly put himself to and thoroughly learned the tailor’s trade laying a foundation for a knowledge of business methods, which largely contributed to placing him where he is now. The other, several months after the conversation took place, walked into Mr. Johnson’s shop, and said, “I am ready for that job of bookkeeping, now, where is it?” Again, like a pistol report, came the answer quick and clear, “Do you suppose that man is waiting yet for you? If so, then you know less than I gave you credit for, and are hardly less foolish than when you were loafing around here last fall. He could have had fifty men while you were getting ready, but never mind,” he added, “the man and the opportunity usually find each other so do not let the fact of his not wanting your valuable services just now discourage you.” Sure enough, within two weeks, an opening did come and was immediately taken advantage of. This occurred nearly twenty years ago. Both the young men are well situated to-day and agree they began their life work at the time Mr. Johnson prodded them up to be something. For whatever measure of success which may have come to me (as one of the young men referred to), I certainly date its inception from that strong talk, to put it mildly, which Mr. Johnson, in his constant thought of race progress and elevation, gave us at that time….

A few more “Johnsons,” and our young men and women would be made to feel that life was given them for a purpose higher than the level which a great many are content with; and the world personified in the race with which they are identified, and, as in the case of Mr. Johnson, would be the better for their having lived in it.

More on William Henry Johnson here and here.

President’s Day

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Flowers for a dead president 2If someone from another culture were to come here today, on this President’s Day holiday, and try to guess what it is we’re celebrating, there’s no doubt he or she would probably guess that we’re honoring our two greatest mattress and auto salesmen of all time. Or perhaps furniture. But there is no chance, from the media references seen today, that a stranger would guess we’re supposed to be respecting two of the greatest leaders our country has ever seen.

Both of them, Washington and Lincoln, visited Albany, by the way. Washington came through the area on a couple of occasions; no surprise, given that his wartime headquarters was just down the river in Newburgh. Lincoln came to the city as a Senator to meet with the kingmaker Thurlow Weed, and some years later, as the President-elect,  saw his future assassin perform on an Albany stage, and then moved on for a salute from Troy. The next time Albany would see him, it would be as one of the destinations of his funeral train.

The photograph, by the way, is of a touching tradition – the sitting president sends flowers to the graves of former presidents on their birthdays. This arrangement honors Chester Alan Arthur, the 21st president, who is buried in the family plot at Albany Rural Cemetery.

An Aggressive and Intrepid Advocate

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William Henry Johnson residence.pngYesterday we introduced the man who may have been Albany’s foremost citizen of the abolitionist era, Dr. William Henry Johnson, “an aggressive and intrepid advocate of the rights of his race and the maintenance of the supremacy of our glorious United States. The “Doctor” before his name was purely an honorific, though one that may have been associated with a patent medicine that he sold, “Dr. Johnson’s Blood Purifying Compound Infusion Golden Seal.” He was widely regarded as “The Sage of Maiden Lane,” where his barbershop stood for many years. His autobiography consists of correspondence and remembrances from his many adventures in the abolitionist movement, the Civil War, and post-war politics, with some advice for the young of his race thrown in. Unfortunately, there’s very little in there on his life in Albany; were it not for the caption of this picture, we wouldn’t know he lived at 319 Orange Street for 28 years.

We do know that while in Albany, even though recognized as one of its leading citizens by some, he encountered issues of race. In 1870 he, his wife and child were ejected from the Trimble Opera House, even after he had been allowed to buy tickets.

“The facts are simply these: I desired to attend the opera house; I did not know whether persons of color were or were not admitted. I had heard that they were, and I also heard that they were not, admitted; yet, I did not at any time believe that they would be refused admission; neither did I believe that an orderly, respectable colored citizen, with his family, would be denied admittance to any proper public place.”

And yet he was denied entrance to the section (the “dress circle”) for which he had tickets. He sued the Trimble and brought a settlement under which he would be admitted free to the opera house, and the Evening Journal reported that “Since then all theatres have been doing business upon the equal rights plan … Dr. Johnson’s $5 were received by the then managers as being as white as anybody’s and, when he wants to enjoy a performance there, he will come pretty near doing so, or will learn, in a proper and legal manner, the reason why.”

He also advocated for the rights of others, noting in 1894 that “If women were allowed to vote, little time would be lost from the performance of their domestic duties, and there would be thrown around the voting places a halo of woman’s beautiful moral, religious and elevating influence. I hope that the wise men constituting the Constitutional Convention will do themselves justice by securing and awarding equal rights to their sisters.