Category Archives: Albany

Measure for measure

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Dutch roof line

Dutch roof line (Photo credit: carljohnson)

In 1669, New York had been under British rule for five years, but the colony, her cities and her customs were no less Dutch (nor would they be, according to many reports, until the eve of the Revolution). As one way of establishing control, the British Governor of the Colony, Richard Nicolls declared on November 4th, 1669 “That ye Lawes relating here unto (uniformity of Weights & c,) shall be put in execution.” This meant that on January 1, 1670 in “New Yorke,” Long Island and places adjacent, and on April 1 in Albany, Rensselaerswijk, “Schanecktade,” Kingston, Esopus and parts adjacent, “all persons that sell either by weight or measure are to be provided with weights and measures according to ye English standard of which ye Officers in each respective place are to take care, & that no person shall presume to sell by any other weight or measure.” So presumably bread, wheat, ale, and whatever else might be sold by the schepel, ell or morgen would now be sold by the bushel, foot or acre. Simple enough.

Except that in the last known instance of government acting before society was ready, the Governor found there was a problem, and some time later issued an order. “But finding it very difficult & Inconvenient to putt ye said Acte in practice at ye tymes & places prescribed for want of a sufficient quantity of weights and measures of ye English standard to be disposed of and disperst throughout ye Government,” he was forced to determine that it would still be lawful “to sell and buy by ye same weights and measures they have been heretofore accustomed unto untill ye Country can be supplied with such other weights & measures as in ye said Acte of Assizes are required . . . ” The order does go on to warn that whether you chose to use English or Dutch measures in the interim, there should be “no fraudulent or sinister dealing.”

(If you don’t know it, you should: “ye” is pronounced “the” because the ‘y’ isn’t a ‘y’ at all, it’s thorn.)

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Romantic Albany

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The Northern Traveller, from 1844, relates an earlier,
uncredited, positively gushing description of the capital city on the Hudson:

“The younger race of fashionables and semi-fashionables know
Albany, or affect to know it, merely as a big city-looking place, full of
taverns and hotels, where they land from the steamboat, on their way to
Saratoga, Niagara or Quebec. Another set of less locomotive good folks,
especially in New-York and Philadelphia, have no notions about it, but those
derived from old traditionary jokes about its ancient Schepens and Schoutens,
its burly  Burgomasters, ‘its lofty spires glittering with tin, and hospitable
boards smoking with sturgeon.’

“But in honest truth, there are few cities of the size any
where, which can exhibit a greater or a more agreeable variety of society and
manners. In Albany may be found talent and learning, accomplishment and beauty.
The towns of Europe of the same size and relative importance, can in this
respect bear no sort of comparison with it. Then, too, its situation, the
prospect from its higher grounds and streets abound in scenes meet for romantic
fiction.”

Cruising up the Hudson, 1909-style

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English: US Postage Stamp, Fulton on the Hudso...

English: US Postage Stamp, Fulton on the Hudson, 1909 Issue, 2c (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In “The Motor Boat: Devoted to All Types of Power Craft,”
author C.G. Davis gave us a colorful description of a 1909 trip up the Hudson
River and the Erie Canal aboard the yacht Marie, a 63-footer with two masts, a
12-1/2 foot beam and a rocking 65-horsepower Buffalo motor replacing a former
steam engine. The Marie made her way up the river overnight in just about 13
and a half hours, arriving on a Sunday Fourth of July, along with a fleet of
fourteen small motorboats in a race to Albany and back. The Marie was going
further on, and so had to lower its smokestack and masts in order to get under
the bridges; while the much-beloved Livingston Avenue Bridge and the
long-gone Maiden Lane were swing bridges that allowed ships of any height, the
Greenbush bridge was a lift, and most masted or stacked ships couldn’t simply
sail through.

He notes the ferryboat named for Troy bank director and
furniture dealer R.C. Reynolds. Above Albany, “we ran side by side with the
double-ended ferryboat R.C. Reynolds but she sucked the water past her so fast,
on account of the narrowness of the river, that we could not get by her until
she slowed up to stop at an amusement park on the left bank, called Al-Tro Park,
Albany’s Coney Island
, fitted with water toboggans, merry-go-rounds, carousels,
etc.” (I’ve no clue how a merry-go-round might have differed from a carousel in 1909.)

Grounded

He writes of passing the opening to the Erie Canal above
this point, which is confusing or confused. On the opposite bank, Davis wrote
of the landscape consisting of a “high terrace of foundry slag dumped from the
foundries on that shore, with the Rensselaer College [RPI] high up on a wooded
knoll beyond.” He passed the collar and cuff factories, a pair of bridges, and
a wooded island (presumably the island under the Collar City Bridge) until
coming upon the “sloop lock, as it is called from the fact that years ago when
sloops carried all the river freight they went through here to the river
above.” This is now known as the Federal Dam at Troy.  Misjudging the channel, the captain grounded
the Marie on a shelf rock in the low tide, but they were able to toss a line to
another grounded canal boat waiting for the tide and dragged their keel off the
rock.

Dumping

There was an early sign of environmental consciousness, and the identification of a problem that haunts the river to this day. “As we were in the first lock we were the center of
attraction from all the gentlemen of leisure who make it their unremunerative
business to criticize every craft that comes into the lock. One fisherman
pointed to his shanty close by and told us all his nets were there stowed away
useless. He said the gas houses dump oily refuse into the river and a fish
can’t swim in it. ‘Inspectors?’ and he spat with disgust, ‘course no inspectors
ever see them dump any refuse. They can store it up till night time; but we boatmen
on the river at night – we see it come out and smell it, too.'” That fisherman
was speaking of the manufactured gas plants that made a form of natural gas
from heating coal, a process that first lit America’s gas lights but left a
toxic legacy of what is technically known as “schmutz” that is still being
cleaned up today. Even now, opening up a seam of the stuff, as happened during
cleanup in South Troy a few years back, can unleash a staggering stench. Nice
to know, though, that in 1909 there were those who saw poisoning the river as
something other than progress.

The lock-tenders, then as now state employees, were held out for praise. “We had heard so much about the pig-headedness of the lock
tenders that I took particular notice on this trip to see it, and must say the
lock tenders we met were a good-natured, willing lot of men.  We didn’t give the lock master a cigar, we
gave him the price of a good one and as he thanked us he remarked, ‘We lock
between fifteen and seventeen yachts a day here and nearly every one hands out
a cigar. Say! Them fellows must think we’re some kind of an animal, but we’re
human beings as well as they and we know a good cigar as well as they – but to
smoke some of the stuff they hand you would kill you dead.'”

A bridge, and then no bridge

Up at Waterford, the Marie passed under the Union Bridge,
built in 1804. Designed by Theodore Burr (as was the Western Gateway Bridge
linking Schenectady and Scotia), it was then the longest wooden bridge in
America, and was the first bridge over the Hudson north of New York City. On
the return trip, the bridge was gone, succumbing to a spectacular blaze on July
10, 1909. More on those bridges here.

Fifth of July

They moved up the Champlain Canal.  “Mechanicsville [sic] is quite a city, and as
we went through there we saw cords of pulp wood piled along the edge of the canal,
and saw canal boats unloading it at the pulp and paper mill, whose three
immense brick chimneys are the canal landmarks for Mechanicsville.” At
Stillwater, “A trolley car came dashing past us here and Mac, suddenly
remembering that this was the Fourth of July, or rather its substitute this
year, the fifth, had Sam load the gun and the next car that came along was
saluted with a gun that made its passengers jump.”  The celebrating continued, as at
Schuylersville [again, sic] they found a large black board planted at a corner
of the road on the river bank, on which was painted in white letters: “Here
Genl. Burgoyne Surrendered His Sword to Genl. Gates, Oct. 17th,
1777.”

“We saluted families that came out on their porches to see
us pass, and also the mill hands in a large paper mill on the left bank. Every
auto, and several passed us between here and lock 10, was saluted by our
cannon.”

If you’d care to read the entire voyage, it can be found in two parts here.

The Charm House

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Primomo's Charm House
In 1938, a builder named Primomo was advertising the “Charm House” in the Times-Union. Built in a newly developed section off New Scotland Avenue, these homes featured six rooms (!), copper piping, insulation, a basement lavatory and air conditioning. What did they mean by “restricted community”? Not sure if that was racial or religious, but it is oddly unsubtle for the Northeast. All these years later, the homes in this little neighborhood do still have charm.

Plus ça change

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Around the turn of the century (no, the other century), there was some discussion of the City of
Albany setting up a municipal insurance scheme. Similar to other public
utilities, fire and hazard insurance for businesses and residences would be
provided  by the city government. This
came at a time when private insurance was hardly a new thing, and in fact some
of the leading businesses of the day were insurance businesses. But the
objections raised by some, as recorded in “The Insurance Press” in 1906, show
us how little has changed in the century that has since passed.

Edward F. Hackett, of the venerable John G. Myers department
store,
said, “About the first thing that would have to be done would be the
appointment of a commission to be known as an insurance bureau, to manage the
business. This would call around a lot of grafters looking for the spoils of
office. No matter what party got into power, every change of administration
would bring about a repetition of the same practice. If such a bureau and
business could be entirely eliminated from politics, it might stand more of a
chance, but it could not be. It would eventually dwindle to an asylum for the
political spoilsman.”

Charles H. Turner of the Albany Hardware & Iron
Company: “Would not the establishment of a bureau of insurance in
connection with the city government have a tendency to open up an enlarged
field for political henchmen, whichever political party was in power, and thus
defeat the very ends the establishment of such an enterprise seeks to overcome:
namely, a cheaper rate of insurance than is at present being given by the old
line companies?”

The gentleman in charge of the insurance at William M.
Whitney & Co.’s department store was a bit more oblique, and yet pointed at
the same time: “Municipal insurance opens up a wide range of
possibilities, and not all of them appear wise, from a business point of view.
I have not given the matter, however, that consideration or thought that I feel
the question deserves, but at first glance I am inclined to regard the plan in
no very favorable light.”

How thrilled they would be to know that asylums for the
political spoilsman have largely been eliminated from modern life.

 

Bureaucracy, 1844

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Back in 1844, the Mayor of Albany was Friend Humphrey, a leather merchant whose home in Colonie still exists. The City Council was made up of two aldermen per ward. That much sounds pretty much like government today. But among the city officers were a number of positions that, for better or worse, no longer exist:

  • Chamberlain and Deputy Chamberlain — the Chamberlain was essentially the city treasurer.
  • Overseer of the Poor — who managed the Alms-House.
  • Dock Master — which was hugely important in the city that connected the Hudson to the rest of the country, by way of Erie Canal.
  • Captains of the Watch — From a time when citizens formed the night watch.
  • Measurers of Wood — when Albany was one of the lumber capitals of the country, there was much wood to be measured.
  • Keeper of the Powder-House — the old Powder-House was on the grounds of what is now Washington Park, well away from the houses of the city.
  • City Gauger — not sure how this was different from the Inspector of Weights and Measures, unless there was a forgotten fad for enlarging ear piercings in the 1840s.
  • Inspector of Bread — it was considered vital that the city’s bakers were selling honest weight.
  • Fence Viewer — to keep people honest about their property lines, which apparently was a constant problem.
  • Weigher of Hay — No idea why this was a city interest.

Mixed in were some positions we’d still recognize, such as Collectors of Taxes, Constables, Postmaster, and even Alms-House Physician. But let’s face it, we’d all rather be a Measurer of Wood or Weigher of Hay. i bet they even had fancy badges. 

The major offices were filled biennially, sent by the Mayor to the Common Council for confirmation at the next regular meeting after their appointment. Except, bewilderingly, the appointments of the Chamberlain and Receiver of Taxes, “which shall be made on the eve of the Fast-Day of St. Michael the Archangel.” Church/state separation notwithstanding, I’d love to know the reason for that.

Woodward & Hill, Albany’s actual oldest business

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Woodward and Hill.jpg

Here’s our final Hoxsie entry from the endlessly fascinating Biggert Collection of Architectural Vignettes on Commercial Stationery, courtesy of Columbia University. This receipt from 1884 features a lovely rendition of their building at Broadway and Hamilton, and details the sale of a dozen salt rollers (?) to a George W. Clark of Salisbury, Connecticut; the articles were to travel by railroad to Rhinebeck, thence by “CtW” (Connecticut Western) railroad to Salisbury.

Amasa Parker, in his “Landmarks of Albany County,” informs us that John Woodward became prominent m the business circles of Albany because of his connection with the saddlery and harness business of Woodward & Hill. “This business was founded by Nathaniel Wright in 1819 and consequently is the third oldest established business in the city. In 1860 John Woodward together with Mr. W. W. Hill
bought the business from Mr. Wright and carried it on under the firm name of Woodward & Hill. . .  In 1888 Mr. Hill died and John and [son] Walter M. Woodward succeeded to the ownership of the business. In 1895, after his father’s death. Walter M. Woodward succeeded to the business and now conducts it under the original name of Woodward & Hill.” Well, guess what that means? It means I was wrong. By a lot.

A few months back I undertook to determine the oldest business in Albany, and came to the reasoned conclusion that Lodge’s store, often noted as the oldest store in the city, might also be its oldest business, having been established around 1848. But that was nearly 30 years after Woodward & Hill began selling carriages and saddles, hardware and trimmings. The carriages and saddles are gone, but The Woodward Company still sells hardware (fasteners, to be precise) from its location on Burdick Drive, off Sand Creek Road right near Corporate Woods. Sorry to have been so wrong, and delighted to have found a company that has continued in business here for nearly 193 years.

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Where ya gonna get satinet warps?

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Van Sickler & Forby ad.png

From an 1863 Albany directory, an ad for the previously mentioned R.M. Van Sickler & Forby. They dealt in the raw materials of fabric manufacture, and sold oil, belting, warps, spool tapes and the other things that Albany’s busy tailors, upholsterers, etc. would need.

Van Sickler & Forby

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Van Sickler and Forby.jpg

I don’t find much about R.M. Van Sickler & Forby, other than that they were succeeded in the business by G.P. Morse. This lovely cut from the Biggert Collection shows not only Van Sickler & Forby but Albany’s legendary Delevan House, one of the premiere hotels of its day, a temperance hotel that ran from 1845 until it burned in 1894. Van Sickler & Forby were commission merchants in staple dry goods, including cotton and woolen manufacturers’ articles and supplies, and sellers of wool. This receipt from 1864 to Mr. Jacob Settle describes the sale of 15 pounds of wool twine. We’ve already seen a receipt Mr. Settle of Berne here on Hoxsie, when a year later he was looking for something a bit heavier than twine.