Category Archives: Albany

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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Joel Munsell Steam Printing House.png

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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World-Changers: Thurlow Weed

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English: Black-and-white bust portrait of Thur...

English: Black-and-white bust portrait of Thurlow Weed, Republican political boss (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

He should be remembered just for his name: Thurlow Weed. He should be remembered just for the politicians he advised, backed, or helped get elected:  DeWitt Clinton, John Quincy Adams, William H. Seward,  William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, and Abraham Lincoln. He should be remembered just for his publishing of the Albany Evening Journal, for decades a nationally leading Republican journal whose headquarters still stands as a distinct wing of the better-remembered Delaware and Hudson Railroad Headquarters, now SUNY Central Administration.

Weed was born in Cairo down in Greene County, and as a boy worked on boats up and down the Hudson River. The family went west toward Rochester for a time, where he got himself into the newspaper business and became a member of the anti-Masonic movement. He bought the Rochester Telegraph, then founded the Enquirer, the voice of the anti-Masonic movement in new York, which strongly backed John Quincy Adams and eventually formed the Whig Party. Elected to the State Assembly in 1824, Weed started production of the Albany Evening Journal in 1830. It became the main Whig paper and in the 1840s had the largest circulation of any political newspaper (which was most of them) in the United States.

Lest you think this all connotes an air of respectability,
consider what historian Burton J. Hendrick wrote:

“Thurlow Weed was a leader of nimble wit, genial, lovable personality, and uter unscrupulousness, so far as politics were concerned, in aim and method. The son of a shiftless farmer who occasionally spent periods in debtors’ prison . . . New York had known political bosses before Weed’s ascendancy, but hardly one who had constructed a machine so selfish in its purpose and so well oiled in its articulation. By all accounts he was the ablest spoilsman who had thus far appeared in the state whose politics, in the words of Seward’s other guardian angel, John Quincy Adams, were ‘the devil’s own incomprehensibles.'”

Using the power of the press, he became a Whig kingmaker, and as the Republican party arose, he became influential in the new party. “Tall, slender, awkward, and solemn, in his ways, he had a stoop in his shoulders that did not come from the study of books, but from bending over in a confidential way to hear what others had to say. He was the most confidential man in manner I ever encountered,” according to Ohio journalist and politician Donn Piatt.
Weed’s national prominence peaked as a backer of William Seward, the Union College graduate who became governor of New York, a United States Senator and finally the Secretary of State under Lincoln. Ultimately he’s best known for Seward’s Folly, the purchase of Alaska from Russia, but he was also seriously in the running for the Republican nomination in 1860.

Weed ran his empire from Albany but also held court in New York City. In addition to his newspaper, he owned the publishing company Weed, Parsons and Company, which held the contract to print the state legislature’s bills (then and for a very long time an extremely lucrative contract), as well as publishing numerous volumes that are central to understanding Albany’s history.

His was a busy life, so busy that mention of Abraham Lincoln, arguably the greatest political name of the 19th century, doesn’t appear until page 602 of Weed’s autobiography.  They first met in 1848, when Lincoln was stumping for Zachary Taylor in New England and called upon Weed in Albany, where Weed introduced him to Millard Fillmore, then the Whig candidate for Vice President. They did not meet again until 1860, when Weed’s favorite Seward failed to achieve the nomination and Weed traveled to Springfield, Illinois, not realizing until laying eyes on the candidate that they had met years before. His visit convinced Weed that Lincoln was “sagacious and practical,” and he put his efforts to work in support of the Republican. Once the election was past, Weed provided considerable advice on the making of the President’s cabinet, of which Seward would be part. He would support Lincoln throughout the war, which Weed had predicted in an editorial in the Evening Journal, and in 1861 was sent on an unofficial mission to England and France to tell the Union’s side of the story, which was how Thurlow Weed came to meet the Queen.

Weed’s long life came to an end in 1882. He is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery. His daughter published his autobiography the following year.

World Changers: Joseph Henry

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Joseph HenryI suppose that Albany residents could be forgiven for not knowing that the man who figured out how to create an electromagnet, by winding wire around a magnet and running a current through it, figured this all out in Albany. I guess it could have escaped our attention that the man who created this invention (capable of lifting 3500 pounds — it was no toy) did so while teaching snotty-nosed schoolboys at the Albany Academy, in the building that still stands in Academy Park across from the Capitol and City Hall. And since we’re generally fuzzy on the principles of electricity, the fact that he also discovered electrical induction, and created the first telegraphic signal, and created some of the first elements of electric motors, can easily get lumped into a single sentiment: “He did a lot of electric stuff.” And since it had nothing to do with electricity, it would be easy to forget that he also developed meteorology into a science and drew up the first thing we’d recognize as a weather map. But when that same person from Albany also became the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, an institution that anyone who has made it through the third grade knows and understands, then the thought that almost no one in Albany knows who Joseph Henry was is absolutely maddening.

Joseph Henry was born in Albany to Scottish immigrants William and Ann Henry in 1797. When his father died, Joseph was sent to live with his grandmother in Galway, New York. He went to school there and was apprenticed to a watchmaker and silversmith. In 1819, at 22 years of age, he was granted free admission to the Albany Academy, intending to go into medicine and supporting himself through teaching and tutoring. He became an assistant surveyor on a state road project and turned his mind toward engineering. He continued his studies and quickly became a teacher as well as a student, and in 1826 was appointed Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy at the Academy.

Birthplace of Modern Electricity marker

Birthplace of Modern Electricity marker (Photo credit: carljohnson)

Henry went on to teach at Princeton. In addition to inventing more and more of the essential components of modern electricity, he studied sunspots, and acoustics, and any number of other things. Alexander Graham Bell sought his advice in developing the telephone. After he died, John Phillip Sousa wrote “The Transit of Venus March” to commemorate the unveiling of a memorial statue. That statue in front of the original Smithsonian building? It’s not Smithson — it’s Joseph Henry.

Oh, yeah, did I mention he was from Albany?

Another local blogger has a nice little summary with some things that I missed. Joseph Henry did not spend a lot of time chilling out, it would seem.

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World-changers: Prologue

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President Arthur's Grave

President Arthur’s Grave (Photo credit: carljohnson)

Last week Marc McGuire at the Times-Union posted an article titled “Our Rich and Famous,” which included a poll for voting on the biggest “celebrity” to come from the Capital District. While the very word “celebrity” steers my mind toward vapid denizens of the entertainment world, his initial list didn’t completely miss people of actual importance from our area. He included Learned Hand, Charles Steinmetz, and Chester Arthur, along with a bunch of sports figures and TV & movie stars. But even a quick stroll through the Albany Rural Cemetery will turn up Albany residents who were more important to our nation’s and culture’s history than the woman who played a maid on “The Brady Bunch,” so for the next few days Hoxsie will be looking at important figures from Albany, Schenectady and Troy who made their mark on the world.

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World-Changers: Herman Melville

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Herman MelvilleHe may have written one of the most famous novels in history (if a novel much more talked about than read, at this moment). Okay, Herman Melville was born in New York City, but after a series of business reverses, his father brought the family to Albany and entered the fur trade just in time for the War of 1812 to put the final kibosh on the business of beaver exports. The family lived on what is now Clinton Square, across from where the Palace Theater now stands. Not long afterward, his father died, leaving the family penniless, even though Herman’s mother was a Gansevoort. Herman attended the Albany Academy for two brief periods, and in between he sought work on the Erie Canal but ended up as a hand on a ship to Liverpool. After finishing at the Academy, he became a schoolteacher and the family moved to Lansingburgh, where he also began to write seriously. In 1841 he left for Massachusetts, and signed aboard a Pacific sailing vessel; it was this trip, during which he lived among the Typee natives of the Marquesas Islands, that formed the basis for his first novel, Typee, which was a great success. Typee, Omoo and others are all but forgotten now, lost in the shadow of Moby-Dick, or, The Whale.

Photo of Herman Melville

Photo of Herman Melville (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Unappreciated in its day, Moby-Dick grew to be recognized as one of the greatest novels, and a uniquely American novel, coming at a time when home-grown literature was still often considered inferior to works from overseas.

Albany and Lansingburgh couldn’t hold Melville, though he did spend a number of the early years of his marriage in nearby Pittsfield before ending up his life in New York City

Way back when, All Over Albany had a great feature on a man whose entire library is made up of Moby-Dick.

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Postcard Week: Wellington Hotel

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Wellington Hotel postcardSeriously? Hoxsie has never featured the Wellington Hotel? Allow me to correct that with this kinda amazing postcard of Albany’s only “garage-in” hotel. Not sure exactly when it was published, though it seems to be pre-1927, since the building on the corner of State and South Pearl is the predecessor to the lovely National Savings Bank Building. And post-1911, since that’s when the 17-room Wellington expanded to more than 400 rooms. From its emphasis on its parking garage space, I’d put it somewhere in the ’20s. At that point the hotel was really two buildings, across Howard Street from each other. If redevelopment plans ever move forward, the facade at least will be retained; much of the rest of the building has already been demolished, along with its neighbors. Perhaps most surprisingly, the parking garage shown in this illustration still stands.

Postcard Week: New York State Capitol

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Capitol building, Albany postcardSurely you didn’t think we were going to get through all these old Albany postcards without a view of the State Capitol. As is commonly the case, there’s no indication of when this postcard was published, but it was mailed in 1909. The landscaping on this side of Washington Avenue is looking pretty rough, leading me to wonder if this was taken while the new State Education Building was under construction, which started in 1908. There were businesses and residences on the street before that, so I wouldn’t have expected the scrubby look.

This postcard was sent to Mrs. E.E. Reynolds of Hillside Farm, North Rochester, Massachusetts.

Dear Emma:

Helen and I as you will see are in Albany. We expect to start for home Thursday at 7-50 [?] at night and will arrive home Saturday morning at 2-20 a.m.

With love,