Category Archives: Albany

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
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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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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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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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.

Salamander and Albany Fire Brick Works

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Palmer, Newton & Company’s Salamander and Albany Fire Brick Works provided the specialized brick needed for stove linings, furnaces, and various manufacturing processes. That they were located on Rathbone St. (now no more than an alley footpath, and appropriately named for any one of a number of the stove-building Rathbones) is no surprise; they would have been adjacent to some of the big stove-makers of Albany.

Bishop’s “A History of American Manufactures from 1608 to 1860” (Volume 2, mind you) speaks well of this enterprise:

To obtain linings that were good conductors of heat, and yet strong enough to bear transportation without fracture, has long been a desideratum of Stove and Range manufacturers, and judging from the extent of their business, we infer that this firm has attained the desired result. They supply not only the foundries of Albany and Troy, but the extensive Range manufacturers of Boston and Providence, and also many dealers in New York, Baltimore, and other places. Among the specialties of this firm’s manufactures, we might mention fire Brick Grates for Thompson’s patent furnace for burning wet tan. This improvement is of immense value to tanners, enabling them to use as fuel the tan which was heretofore an encumbrance to them, and thus save not only the expense of its removal, but of purchasing other fuel.

This billhead from the Biggert Collection dates to 1863 and depicts the factory with that industrial age enthusiasm for smoke-filled skies. The letter’s author is sending bricks for a stove that he acknowledges will not fit, and suggests that perhaps the recipient could cut them down. I’m not sure what tool I would use here in the 21st century to cut down firebrick, but whatever it would be, I’m betting it wasn’t around in the 19th century.

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S.H. Ransom – again with the stoves

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Somewhere along the line one of the partners in the Rathbone family stove business was S.H. Ransom. John Rathbone and Samuel Ransom were only partnered from 1841 until 1844, when they split into separate firms. Ransom made stoves and hollow ware in their foundry on the south end of Broadway. The business remained until 1881, when it was sold to Clarence Rathbone, who despite his Rathboniness continued the Ransom business name.

This receipt from the Biggert Collection is from December 1863, when a Mr. M.L. Filley bought of S.H. Ransom & Co. one dozen regulator knobs and a D valve. The view here of Albany’s working waterfront is fabulous; click to see it larger.

Rathbone, Sard & Co. – The Acorn Line

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Rathbone Sard and CoThe first Rathbone in the stove business in Albany, Joel, was highly sucessful; his country estate, Kenwood, later became a Catholic convent and girls’ academy. His nephew John also went into the stove business, and with Grange Sard manufactured the Acorn line of stoves and ranges. Not only can you find their advertising ephemera through a quick Google search, you’ll also find some of the stoves are still available. The firm dated back to 1830 with various other names partnering up with a Rathbone. It became Rathbone, Sard & Co. in 1873. Howell, writing in 1885, mentions that the North Ferry Street factory, near the canal, had were five modeling floors, five cupola furnaces, 90 tons of iron melted daily, and 75,000 stoves a year produced.

Grange Sard didn’t do too badly for himself, either, the son of a tailor who quickly became a partner in an established stove business, ultimately becoming its president, and who had his city home, familiar to anyone who was walked State Street near the park, built for him by H.H. Richardson, who usually spent his time on things like the State Capitol and Albany City Hall.

Not entirely clear what was going on in this 1887 correspondence from the Biggert Collection, though it would appear that Mrs. Luke Tower wrote directly to the Rathbone, Sard factory, perhaps trying to get around the local Youngstown, NY distributors of William Ripson and Son.