Category Archives: Albany

Who put the Swinburne in Swinburne Park?

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John Swinburne.jpgWhish’s 1917 “Albany Guide Book” notes that Swinburne Park “commemorates Albany’s greatest surgeon.” A century later, the name Swinburne is all but forgotten, but he lived a most memorable life. An 1888 biography was titled “A Typical American,” while making it clear that he was anything but — it calls him an eminent patriot, surgeon and philanthropist, “The Fighting Doctor,” and “one of Nature’s noblemen.”

John Swinburne was born in Lewis County in 1820; his father died when he was but 12. Despite having to work to support his mother and sisters, Swinburne was educated in local public schools and attended Albany Medical College, where he was first in his class (1846) and was appointed “demonstrator” in anatomy after graduation. He even started a private anatomy school, but soon entered private practice.  When the Civil War came he was made a commander in the New York National Guard, and as chief medical officer was put in charge of the sick at the Albany recruiting depot. He offered his services to Gen. McClellan as a volunteer battlefield surgeon, and was soon sent to Savage’s Station. When the Army of the Potomac retreated from that post on June 29, 1862, Swinburne was one of the few surgeons who remained behind to care for the sick and wounded, and he was noted for treating Union and Confederate soldiers alike. It was a month before all the wounded were removed to other hospitals, and Swinburne applied to Confederate General Stonewall Jackson for permission to visit the wounded Federal prisoners. Jackson’s pass made it clear that Swinburne was not to be treated as a prisoner of war.

Returning to New York in 1864, he was made health officer of the Port of New York and immediately put to the task of establishing an effective quarantine facility, which he placed on islands, one of which, Swinburne Island, bears his name to this day. (It is now part of the Gateway National Recreation Area.)

He retired from the Port and went to France, just in time for the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. With the support of the American expatriate community, he created the first ambulance corps in Paris to tend to the wounded, and for his efforts he was decorated as a Chevalier of the Legion of Honor, and with the Red Cross of Geneva.

Swinburne returned to Albany, where he re-established his private practice and, in 1876, became Professor of Fractures and Clinical Surgery at
Albany Medical College, and became one of the first to provide
forensic testimony at trials involving medical evidence. He also found time to be elected Mayor (1880) and then to Congress (1884). While doing that he established the Swinburne Dispensary, which provided free medical services to as many as 10,000 patients a year.

His anonymous biographer wrote: “His quiet benevolence, yet bold aggressiveness in fighting error and corruption in high places, both in professional and official stations, has given his life a charm unequaled in the past, and has won for him the admiration of the masses of the people.” He died here in Albany on March 28, 1889. Like any good Albanian, he is buried at Albany Rural Cemetery.

The Tweddle Hall Dollar Store

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There can be no doubt that in 1870, a “dollar store” had a different meaning than it does today. The Tweddle Hall Dollar Store of Albany, located in the landmark building long gone from the corner of State and Pearl, was proud of its white metal show cases, its “immence” stock of beautiful and desirable articles, and, perhaps not least, its polite and attentive young ladies.

Albany Iron Railing Works

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Some of the grand old homes and buildings around Albany still have lovely ornamental rails and fences, and there’s a good chance many of them were made by Simeon Cunliff, Jr., of No. 20 Quay Street. In this ad from 1858, we have another great example of the rather humble proclamations of advertising of that era: “Respectfully calls the attention of all interested in the purchase of Ornamental Iron Railings, to his New and Elegant Patterns, Having superior facilities he flatters himself that in this branch of business he is surpassed by none.”

Fruit, Eggs, Poultry, Game, &C.

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Another advertisement from the 1858 Albany City Directory, this one for Johnson & Offenheiser at the bottom of State Street, where they dealt in foreign and domestic fruit, eggs, poultry, game and more. All consignments from the country promptly attended to. All organic and free-range, too, I believe.

Marble Pillar Restaurant

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From 1858, an ad for the Marble Pillar Restaurant, ironically using a typeface meant to resemble wooden logs, not marble.

“This old and popular House has recently undergone thorough repairs; new Furniture has been added, and the modern improvements introduced, so necessary to the comfort of the traveling public. Having had many years experience in catering to the wants of travelers, they flatter themselves that visitors will find the Marble Pillar a pleasant home. It is located at the centre of all business, and near all the Railroad Depots.”

The Museum Building at the corner of Broadway and State preceded the current rounded edifice on that corner, and also presented a distinctive rounded face to what was then one of the most important corners in Albany.

Solomon Southwick

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Ignatius Jones’s “Random Recollections of Albany” included strong and yet confusing praise for a figure I hadn’t heard of before, one Solomon Southwick. Southwick was born into a Newport, Rhode Island publishing family, but circumstances led him to serve on fishing boats before apprenticing to a New York City printer. As a journeyman in 1792 he came to Albany where his brothers-in-law published the Albany Register. He led a very successful life, reared nine children, became clerk of the Assembly and then the Senate, sheriff of Albany County, the state printer, a state Regent, president of the Mechanics’ and Farmers’ Bank, and postmaster. These describe what he did, but Jones describes who he was:

“I can not in courtesy, however, pass over my old friend Southwick, without some other notice than that of a mere casual glance of recognition.

“Southwick was a man of genius, with all the peculiarities that belong to that temperament — its strength and its weakness, its excellencies and its errors: its delusive dreams and visions, its improvidence and its instability. He had great fertility of mind, united with great enthusiasm. This was the source of his eloquence and his power. His writings were rather outpourings than compositions. Yet he imbued them with so much life and animation, that he seldom failed to carry his readers with them. His style, though well adapted to the popular ear, was redundant in epithet, inflated and declamatory, and his language, though often strong and impressive, was yet in the main, loose and inelegant. He read but little, and only from necessity. He referred to books for particular facts, rather than for general information.

“He was by nature, honest, warm-hearted, and generous to a fault, but seemed to have no fixed or settled principles. In ethics, as well as in politics, he travelled from pole to pole. Yet, the kindness of his nature went with him and never forsook him. His heart and his hand were always open, and as he was credulous to excess, and even superstitious, he was, as a matter of course, swindled by every knave, and duped by every impostor, he met with upon the road.

“He was extremely fluent and even eloquent in conversation. But he had little knowledge of the world, and the predominance of interest or of passion, left his judgment too often at fault. He had the finest eye and forehead that ever belonged to mortal man, but every other feature of his face, was either indifferent or defective. His countenance, therefore, was a correct index to the character of his mind — incongruous, mixed, and full of contradictions . . .

“. . . Even in the cloudy days of his latter years, when friends, fame and fortune, had forsaken him, when every objectionable act of his life was spread upon the record, and all his faults and weaknesses blazoned to the public eye; even then he received over Thirty Thousand votes for governor of the State.”

More can be found about Solomon Southwick here.

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Even the dogs were Dutch

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English: An etching of Dutch-style rowhouses i...

English: An etching of Dutch-style rowhouses in Albany, New York, United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Continuing with Ignatius Jones’s 1850 recollections of Albany before it had grown into a mid-19th century megalopolis, or at least one of the principal cities of commerce in the expanding nation. When Jones first came to Albany in 1800, it was undergoing a certain amount of tension between the old Dutch families that had founded the town and an influx of Englishmen from New England and New York.

“Albany was indeed dutch, in all its moods and tenses; thoroughly and inveterately dutch. The buildings were dutch — dutch in style, in position, attitude and aspect. The people were dutch, the horses were dutch, and even the dogs were dutch. If any confirmation were wanting, as to the origin and character of the place, it might be found in the old dutch church, which was itself always to be found in the middle of State-street, looking as if it had been wheeled out of line by the giants of old, and there left; or had dropped down from the clouds in a dark night, and had stuck fast where it fell.

“All the old buildings in the city — and they constituted a large majority — were but one story high, with sharp peaked-roofs, surmounted by a rooster, vulgarly called a weathercock. Every house, having any pretensions to dignity, was placed with its gable end to the street, and was ornamented with huge iron numericals, announcing the date of its erection; while from its eaves long wooden gutters, or spouts, projected in front some six or seven feet, so as to discharge the water from the roof, when it rained, directly over the centre of the sidewalks. This was probably contrived for the benefit of those who were compelled to be out in wet weather, as it furnished them with an extra shower-bath free of expense.”

The spouts, apparently, became a bone of contention between the newer English and the older Dutch:

“But the destined hour was drawing near. The Yankees were creeping in. Every day added to their number; and the unhallowed hand of innovation was seen pointing its impertinent finger at the cherished habits and venerated customers of the ancient burghers. These meddling eastern Saxons at length obtained a majority in the city councils; and then came an order, with a handsaw, to ‘cut off those spouts.'” 

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Random Recollections of Albany

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English: Early 1800s painting by James Eights ...

English: Early 1800s painting by James Eights of North Pearl Street just north of State Street; Albany, New York (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In 1850, one Ignatius Jones published the second edition of his “Random Recollections of Albany, from 1800 to 1808.” It’s interesting how many of his opinions of Albany would still find some supporters today. Jones first visited the city “just before the election of Mr. Jefferson, or the Great Apostle as he is sometimes called,” meaning 1800. (Yes, the entire book of recollections is that kind of prose.) So how did he find Albany on his first visit? He writes:

The city of Albany, in 1800, though the capital of the State, and occupying a commanding position, was, nevertheless, in point of size, commercial importance, and architectural dignity, but a third or fourth rate town. It was not, in some respects, what it might have been; but it was, in all respects, unlike what it now is.

I don’t think there’s any shortage of people who would put it as third or fourth rate now, and even more who would say it’s not what it might be.

Albany has probably undergone a greater change, not only in its physical aspect, but in the habits and character of its population, than any other city in the United States. It was, even in 1800 an old town, (with one exception, I believe, the oldest in the country,) but the face of nature in and around it had been but little disturbed . . . The rude hand of innovation, however, was then just beginning to be felt; and slight as was the touch, it was felt as an injury, or resented as an insult.

This was all nothing compared to what the rude hand of innovation would do once the Erie Canal came through and the city was transformed into one of the most important commercial centers of the young nation. But remember that even during the time Jones was writing of, there was opposition to the paving of State Street.

How much had Albany changed? Well, try to imagine this picture of the waterfront:

The margin of the river, with the exception of an opening at the foot of State-street, extending down to the ferry, was overhung with willows, and shaded by the wide spreading elm. The little islands below the town were feathered with foliage down to the very water’s edge, and bordered with stately trees, whose forms were mirrored in the stream below. As far as the eye could extend, up and down the river, all remained comparatively wild and beautiful, while the city itself was a curiosity; nay, a perfect jewel of antiquity, particularly to the eye of one who had been accustomed to the “white house, green door, and brass knocker,” of the towns and villages of New-England.

And one thing has definitely changed:

Nothing, indeed, could be more picturesque than the view of North Pearl-street, from the old elm at Webster’s corner, up to the new two-steepled church. Pearl-street, it must be remembered, was, in those days, the west end of town.

The church, of course, still stands, but the tree that gave Elm Tree Corner its name is long, long gone, and the picturesque quality of North Pearl Street is, in places, debatable.

Tomorrow: The City Was Dutch


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Munsell Steam Printing

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From 1858, an ad for Joel Munsell’s steam printing house. I’ve mentioned Munsell a few hundred times before, and even visited his grave. His Annals of Albany, mentioned here, is an indispensable resource for local history to this day. Some of the books advertised here can be found on Google Books, and others are still available through eBay and other such outlets.

World-Changers: John Wesley Hyatt

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John Wesley Hyatt

John Wesley Hyatt

John Wesley Hyatt was born in Starkey, New York, on the west side of Seneca Lake on November 28, 1837. When he was sixteen, he went to Illinois and became a journeyman printer. He (and later, his brother Isaiah) came to Albany and worked in printing. His interest in invention is shown by his patent of a knife sharpener in 1861. The story goes that Phelan and Callendar, a major manufacturer of billiard tables in New York City, offered a $10,000 prize  for the creation of a composition ball to replace ivory. Years later, in 1914, the New York Times related that Hyatt entered that competition in 1863, and that  “it was by accident that Mr. Hyatt discovered the chemical product that has brought him fame the world over. He was accustomed to use collodion for cuts while working at the printing trade. One day a bottle of collodion overturned, and it was after watching the solidification of the collodion that he got the idea of making celluloid.”

Whether celluloid was invented in 1863, 1868 or somewhere in between, Hyatt filed for a patent in 1865 (granted in 1870), and continued working as a printer for several years, living at 32 Chestnut St. and later at 149 Spring St. He must have been working on business arrangements during that time. In 1867 Hyatt was with Osborne, Newcomb & Company, checker manufacturers at 795 Broadway. By the end of 1869 Hyatt had turned his invention into a number of commercial products, all being manufactured in Albany. In that year, the Osborne, Newcomb was sharing space with the Hyatt Manufacturing Company, making billiard balls, checkers and dominoes at 795-797 Broadway (now an empty urban field just north of Livingston Avenue). (Encyclopedia Britannica suggests the checkers and dominoes weren’t celluloid, but were a mix of wood pulp and shellac Hyatt developed prior to celluloid.) By the end of 1871, the billiard balls were being made by the Hyatt Manufacturing Company at 19 Beaver Street, just west of Broadway.  His brother, Isaiah Smith Hyatt, took up the checker and domino business as the Albany Embossing Company, a few blocks south at 4 and 6 Pruyn St. The material was also apparently put to pioneering use in dental plates, by the Albany Dental Plate Company. (Despite numerous references to this company in the histories of celluloid, I find no reference to this company in the city directories of the time.)

There are numerous hints that all was not well with the finances of any of these companies. Even in the year in which Isaiah was listed in the city
directory as President of the Embossing Company, the New York Times wrote glowingly of the enterprise and identified Robert C. Pruyn, of one of the most established families of Albany, as its head. 4 and 6 Pruyn Street was also home to the Albany Saw Works, an established firm run by Pruyn (“manufacturers of extra cast steel circular, mill, gang, cross-cut and other saws.”) The Times also spoke of embossing wood, not celluloid, and of the company having been burned out twice in the previous two years. One has to wonder whether those fires were related to a persistently reported quality of the new celluloid material – that it was explosive. The oft-repeated stories of exploding billiard balls are unlikely to be true, but it cannot be denied that cellulose nitrate was a dangerous material to work with, at a time when workplace safety was not a primary concern. (Hyatt’s later factory in Newark, NJ suffered 39 fires in 36 years, killing 9 and injuring 39.)

That same article in the Times, written at the very close of 1871, effused over the Hyatt Billiard Ball Company,

“who make billiard balls of a composition which, when colored, can hardly be distinguished from ivory balls, and which, in addition to many other advantages, are claimed to be much more durable. They certainly have this one superiority over ivory balls, that whereas ivory is always apt to be unequal in density, giving a tendency to irregular direction and to ‘wabbling,’ the composition balls have an unerring center of gravity from the mere fact of their being composition — every component part being thoroughly mixed and disseminated throughout the ball.” The Times went on to describe the manufacture of the composition balls: “These balls are composed principally of “gun cotton,” reduced to a fine pulp and molded. The other ingredients are as yet a secret, which the makers do not desire to make public. After molding, the ball is put in a globular press, and reduced about one-third in bulk. It is then put away to be dried. When partially dry it is put into a bowl of quicksilver to test the uniformity of its centre of gravity. If not true in its balance it is thrown aside; if true it is again pressed and again put on the shelf to be thoroughly dried before it is taken to the turner and the polisher. Three months elapse from the day of molding till the time when a ball is ready to be sent to purchasers. The balls cost about one-half the price ordinarily charged for ivory balls.”

The history of the company gets foggy from there. One account says that the Albany Dental Plate Company changed its name to the Celluloid
Manufacturing Company and moved to Newark, New Jersey, in 1873. By all accounts, the Hyatts did move to Newark and developed new machinery and new uses for celluloid. In 1881 they founded the Hyatt Pure Water Company, and ten years later Hyatt established the Hyatt Roller Bearing Company of Harrison, New Jersey. He was even an early bio-fuels enthusiast, converting spent sugar cane into fuel. His patents also included a knife sharpener, a new method for making dominoes and checkers, a lockstitch sewing machine, a machine for squeezing juice from sugar cane (which led to the development of his roller bearing), and a new method of solidifying hard woods for use in bowling balls, golf stick heads and mallets. A series of advertisements extolling the company esteemed his roller bearing as vastly more important than celluloid:

Many millions of Hyatt Bearings are now manufactured annually. Their use has extended to practically every class of machinery and every form of transport where efficient, dependable bearing performance is demanded. They are operating in mammoth industrial plants – in mine cars and factory trucks – in farm tractors and implements – and in millions of motor cars and trucks.

Honored by the Society of the Chemical Industry with its Perkin Gold Medal (named in honor of the inventor of mauve) in 1914, Hyatt died at his home, Windermere Terrace, in Short Hills, NJ, on May 10, 1920.

A previous version of this article focused on the question of where the original Hyatt factory stood, and therefore where celluloid was first invented and produced. It’s still available here.

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