Category Archives: Albany

Hotel Borthwick

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Hotel Borthwick full view

This charming edifice (a combination of two buildings, if you look closely) is the Hotel Borthwick. Known in a previous life as the Avenue House, it was located just a bit west of the Capitol at 74 Washington Ave. We’re not quite sure when it was built, but as early as 1868 Avenue House was listed as a boarding house commonly used by minor officials of the Legislature, and it seems to have been a favorite of farmers from out of town.

In 1897, James M. Borthwick, who served as county clerk, had been the proprietor of the Kimball House, located nearly directly across the street. He decided to move across the street and “refitted what was formerly the Avenue house, nearly opposite, and opened it last night [7-1-1897]. It will be known as the Hotel Borthwick. Mr. Borthwick has spent a large amount of money in the endeavor to provide first rate accommodations at a minimum price. The house has been repainted and refurnished.”

Borthwick was a native of Broome in Schoharie County who started in the grocery business at South Berne, and then moved to Albany where he was in the grocery business as Russell & Borthwick. He served as an alderman and a founding member and director of the Albany County Fish and Game Club. Son Acton followed him as county clerk, and it’s possible that following James’s death in 1909, Acton kept up the grocery business (listed as a traveling salesman for a grocery business in 1910).

1876 Detail showing Avenue House and rest of West Capitol Park areaHotel Borthwick was said to cater to the rural clientele. It had an entryway into a courtyard of sorts, which apparently included some sizeable stables (the courtyard area shows on this 1876 map as property of J.D. Wasson). A 1938 remembrance of the neighborhood by one Nancy Van Dyck recalled “the old Hotel Borthwick with its wide drive and large back yard for the parking of the farmers’ rigs when they came to town.” This seems to have made it a favorite location for horse dealers, who regularly advertised that their horses would be available at the Borthwick, such as in an 1898 ad from W.H. Plank offering 30 head of horses direct from Canada, “consisting of matched pairs, single drivers, coach horses, knee actors, saddlers, family broke horses, draft horses and general purpose horses.”

In 1902, the hotel was offered to let: “Large hotel with ample yard and stable room; steam heat.” We haven’t determined if anyone took up the offer at that time. In 1904, James was still the proprietor, but James died in 1909, and beginning that year John H. Miller is listed as the proprietor, but the Hotel Borthwick name remained.

Hotel Borthwick detail

Is there a phrase for a “ghost sign” whose business is still a going concern? We’re not sure when this picture was taken, though we think it likely to have been 1917-18, so the paint on this sign couldn’t have been more than 20 years old but looked more like it had weathered a century. If you look carefully, you can also see the Hotel Borthwick sign on the front of the edifice, in the shadows of the fire escape.

Hotel Borthwick lower detail

We’re fascinated by the three people. The shaky man to the right is an example of what happened when subjects moved during the long exposures needed for photography at this time, even in bright daylight. Perhaps he has had his head turned by activity in the alley to the courtyard, just visible to the right. The gentleman on the stoop has been good enough to hold perfectly still for us.  To his right, perhaps a woman, moving too quickly to be captured by the camera. The sign above says “Borthwick Hotel” though it appears to have always been titled “Hotel Borthwick.” The signs on either side announce that they were subscribers of the Bell Telephone system. In 1916, most businesses along this strip had telephone service, as did a few private individuals.

The storefront to the left of the Borthwick, the one with the key hanging in the door, appears to have been a barber (Henry B. Norris) and/or an electrician (A. Schimpf). Did one of them do locksmithing on the side? Not clear to us.

We’ll talk more about the fate of the Borthwick and its neighbors.

Photograph from the collection of the Albany Group Archive, which catalogs all the historic photos from the Albany…The Way It Was Facebook group.

The Fabulous (and Preserved) Hats of John Mayell

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After our brief entry on Latham “The” Hatter, an alert reader hepped us to the continued existence of a number of absolutely splendid hats by another Albany hatter by the name of John Mayell.

Howell’s “Bi-centennial History of Albany,” which is famously derivative and occasionally unreliable, counts among the pioneers of the Albany hat industry one William Mayell, “who came from England in 1795, settled in Albany, and began to make hats. In an advertisement in the newspapers in 1820 his store was designated as opposite the Eagle Tavern. He was at this time the most extensive manufacturer of hats in the city. Besides being a good mechanic, he made some pretension to science. He was an active member of the Mechanics’ Society, and afterwards of the Albany Institute, of which he is said to have been the founder.”  He also represented a ward of the city on the County board from 1823-28.

In 1844-45, Albany was lousy with hatters named Mayell. John Mayell appears in Hoffman’s Albany Directory for 1844-45 with a “hat and cap store” at 27 Market Street (now Broadway), and residence at 61 Hudson St. At the same time, an Alfred Mayell had a hat store at 5 Market Street. William Mayell Jr. was a hatter at 25 Liberty Street. There was still William H. Mayell, who may have been our original hatter, listed at 181 Green Street, or another William Mayell at 102 Herkimer.

Let’s assume that John and the others were probably sons of William. We know that John was already a hatter by 1827 because Col. Edward Frisby was apprenticed to him in his hatmaking operation by that date. More than that, and that in addition to 27 Market Street, Mayell may have operated at 377 South Market St., we don’t know much about John Mayell. But, boy, a number of his splendid hats, and their splendid boxes, are still around for us to view.

First, and appropriately enough, from the collection of the Albany Institute of History and Art, we have a cocked hat box and hat (hat, tragically, not pictured), dated to about 1835:

Albany Institute Mayell Hat Box

For a better view of what that cocked hat might look like, we have an example from an auction at Sotheby’s, which sold off this “Military Officer’s Chapeau de Bras,” dated circa 1830, from the private collection of William H. Guthman, for $3,300:
Sothebey's Mayell Guthman Collection

Yeah, that’s kinda splendid. Sotheby’s is auctioning another one, this one dated to circa 1820 (but honestly, their guess is probably no better than ours):

Sotheby's Mayell No 2

Historic New England also has a Mayell hat and its box on display, a tricorner silk affair that appears to have been owned by an L. Pruyn of Albany:

Another auction house, August Auctions, featured a Mayell creation, an old high hat with an incredible matching box, that was owned by Samuel Hand of Shoreham, VT:

August Auctions High Hat

And just a topside view of that incredible hatbox:
John Mayell Hat Box

Latham “The” Hatter

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Latham "The" Hatter 1876

From a guide book to the State of New York, we have this description of Latham “The” Hatter (emphasis always his), who was located at 558 Broadway in the latter part of the 19th century.

Prominent among the business enterprises of North Broadway is the hat emporium of Mr. George Latham, who is largely engaged at 558 Broadway in dealing in fine hats and caps for gentlemen and yhouths. He is a special agent for the celebrated “Dunlap” hats. The store property is a handsome three-story brick, 20 by 100 feet in extent, filled to repletion with all the attractive hats and furs in various styles. This enterprise was established in 1861, and does a handsome business. Mr. Latham is a gentleman forty-three years of age, a native of Connecticut, and has been in Albany for the last thirty-five years. The retail department is in charge of his son, James B. Latham, whose polite and courteous dealings with the public have helped to make Latham “the” hatter the best in town.

(We don’t believe there is a connection to the hotelkeeper William Latham for whom Latham was named.)

The Ark of Albany

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Munsell’s Annals of Albany could keep an amateur historian busy until the end of time, running down all the interesting tidbits. For example, without Munsell, we would never have known that Albany once had an ark.

Apparently around 1830 or so, the companies that owned tow boats (probably steam boats by this time – Fulton and Livingston’s Clermont first plied the Hudson’s waters in 1807) that carried goods from the mouth of the Erie Canal to the ports of New York City decided that rather than storing freight with all the nearby warehouses that they didn’t own, they’d store it in something they did own, and they built a jumbo ark right in the Albany basin. This cleverly avoided wharfage fees, because Albany only collected fees in the basin from vessels that navigated the Hudson river. As you might well imagine, the people who owned warehouses on the wharves, where such goods would ordinarily have been stored, didn’t think highly of this new floating storage unit in their midst.

New York City merchants named Hart and Hoyt, to facilitate their business “caused to be constructed and built at an expense of more than $3,000, a float or ark about 120 feet in length and about 42 feet in width, with a covering or roof and convenient openings at the sides for receiving and discharging bales, casks, and merchandize [sic] of every description.” We learn from the “Cases in the Court of Errors” (December 1832) that the ark was moored in a part of the basin where sloops and other boats “never came or had occasion to come in the ordinary course of their business; so that the float, in its then and intended location, did not nor would constitute any obstruction to the free passage or any business transactions of the sloops or other craft or vessels engaged in the commerce of the Hudson river or the canals.” Further, by use of the ark, tow boats could more easily unload and canal boats could receive their cargoes three days sooner than otherwise.

Given that these were New Yorkers, and the owners of the wharves were among Albany’s leading citizens, it’s probably no surprise that the common council passed legislation, on July 25, 1831, that, while not specifically naming the ark, certainly didn’t apply to anything else:

“…the dock master of the city of Albany was required to fix a notice on any vessel, boat or float in the basin, not used in the navigation of the Hudson river or the canals, and the owner of which should not be a resident of said city, requiring its removal in ten days, and in case of its not being so removed, directing the dock master to remove and sell the same, or the materials of which it had been built, at public auction, and to pay the money arising from such sale, after deducting the expense of removal and sale to the chamberlain of the city for the use of the mayor, aldermen and commonalty thereof….”

On August 8, another law was passed, pretty much the same, which required that the ark be removed by August 22. In court, Hart and Hoyt said the ark could not be removed without being destroyed (“except during the period of a very high freshet in the river”), and that it was the intent of the council to destroy it to the irreparable injury of the merchants and “to the great and useless detriment of their business.”

Hart and Hoyt sued unsuccessfully for an injunction. Why the destruction didn’t take place doesn’t seem to have been explained. According to Munsell, in 1833 the council took the issue up again:

The common council determined by a vote of 10 to 8, to allow the Ark to remain in the basin. An effort had been made for some time to remove it as a violation of law and on the 1st July the board resolved that it should be removed, 8 to 7.

The Ark was an immense floating store-house constructed in the basin, between State street and Hamilton street bridges, capable of holding a large number of canal boat cargoes at one time. It was built by the Tow Boat companies to save storage on shore. When there were no river vessels on hand to receive freight from the canal it was deposited in the Ark until the tow boats arrived from below to take it in. The merchants and storers who hired warehouses on the wharves at high rents, complained loudly of this unfair interference with their legitimate business, and insisted on its removal. The defense was that it could not be taken out of the basin, there being at that time no outlet sufficiently large for the purpose. The Ark was finally broken up and taken away piece-meal.

But the Evening Journal reported that on July 25, 1833, a resolution granting permission for the ark passed by a vote of 14 to 5. Munsell’s “finally” must have meant “eventually,” because a treatise on the Albany Basin published in 1836 (author unknown, but published by T.G. Wait) refers to the ark as a continuing thorn in the side of the city, which the author charges as “greatly deficient in the plan and energy of execution” with regard to the Basin, whose various evils we have written of before. Perhaps more importantly, it was a thorn in the side of the owners of piers and docks.

“…shall the pier owners and some ten or twenty dock owners, shall a few of the fat and well-favored of this world, by political influence, be suffered to monopolize all the benefits of navigation for one mile in length, and that too, by an abuse of chartered rights? There appears to be but one thing which interferes with their exclusive claims in the basin, and that is, what is called by some “Noah’s Ark,” which has taken shelter in this consecrated spot, and has excited great indignation among the interested; and the principal objections brought against this harmless creature, is, that she carries too much freight, although she has never made a trip to any foreign port, has never been out of sight of land, yet she annoys her neighbors, not only because of the quantity of freight she carries, but because she stores and freights so much under price, and has incurred the ill will of her near neighbors to that degree, that the corporation have been induced to serve a writ of ejectment on her, ordering her to depart forthwith on pain of death and destruction; and this policy may be considered a fair specimen of the principle of equal rights, and of the true republicanism which prevails in Albany – the few by their political juggling, oppressing and trampling on the rights of the many.”

We have not yet learned exactly when the ark was finally removed from the basin.

Samuel Penny and Rebecca Rhino

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Buried in Munsell’s “Annals of Albany,” in the “Notes from the Newspapers” section, is this tidbit from 1833 on the death of one Samuel T. Penny.

“He was a native of England, had resided in this city about thirty years, and was noted for his biblical knowledge and eccentricities, the latter the effect of partial insanity. He was buried in the cemetery of the First Methodist church.”

Okay. Interesting. Then there’s a footnote, which is somewhat singular, as such extensive footnotes were not common in the Annals:

“Penny married a widow – Rebecca Rhino – (rather a curious conjunction of names), who had considerable property, some of which he soon squandered; in consequence of which and his vagaries besides, she obtained a divorce from him in the state of Vermont, whither she went to reside for a while with that purpose. On her return to Albany she opened quite a large dry good store in the building now No. 585 Broadway, where she transacted an extensive business, while Penny kept a store a few doors above in the same street. Both of their names appear, as merchants, in Fry’s Directory of 1813. She resumed her former name, and many of our oldest citizens will remember Mrs. Rhino’s Cheap Store, and the crowds of customers she attracted thither.

In his latter days Penny became quite poor, and mended umbrellas for a living. He went from house to house collecting them, and was rarely seen except with a bundle of old umbrellas under his arm, striding along the streets and clearing the sidewalks of all the youngsters in his way. With them, Old Penny and Old Umbrellas were synonymous terms.”

The name Rhino seems singular, particularly in old Dutch Albany, but her name appears multiple times. In 1800, she shows up in the federal census (as men were usually the householder listed, she must have been considered the head of household). In her home were one free white male up to 10 years old, another between 16 and 26, two free white females 10 or below, two aged 16 to 26, and one (presumably Rebecca) aged 26 to 45. In the 1817 directory, she is listed at 312 North Market Street (now Broadway), engaged in “merchant commerce.” According to the State Museum, in 1800 and 1801, she paid seven dollars for a grocer’s license (yeah, government regulations are entirely new). They say that she was born in 1766 or later, and suspect that she was a widow in 1799 who married neighbor Samuel T. Penny sometime thereafter. A John Rhino, perhaps her son, shows up as a blacksmith in the 1830 directory.

The Journal of the Senate of the State of New York notes that a petition was submitted on her behalf on Feb. 20, 1816:

“The petition of Rebecca Penny, late Rebecca Rhino, of the city of Albany, praying that she may have the sole right to convey her property, which she has at present or may hereafter accumulate by lawful means; and that she may be known hereafter by the name of Rebecca Rhino, was read and referred to a select committee, consisting of Mr. Jay, Mr. A. Miller and Mr. Palmer.”

Rebecca Rhino is an interesting early example of a woman owning her own property, running her own business, and reclaiming her (original?) name in Albany. We don’t turn up much else on poor, possibly half-insane Samuel Penny. He appears on tax assessments from 1802, with a non-substantial personal estate of $50 (and owing a tax of $0.15). As Munsell noted, he showed up in the 1813 directory at 44 Market Street, also listed as “merchant commerce.” We’re sorry to report that even in the early 19th century, you couldn’t make a living fixing umbrellas.

Unclaimed Baggage and Storage

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Unclaimed Baggage and StorageFrom the Times-Union, December 11, 1914, a reminder that the idea of people leaving behind things they’ve put into storage is nothing new, although a century ago they hadn’t figured out how to make it into entertainment. This announces a public auction sale of unclaimed storage and baggage, “and many other articles which have lost their identity” from the New York Central and Delaware and Hudson lines.

Harry Simmons proclaimed itself to be the oldest established and largest auction house in the state, located at 96 State Street,  and 7 and 9 Howard Street. They auctioned off everything from home goods to homes. This would appear to be a particularly interesting sale of unclaimed items left behind in the railroads’ storage, but it raises some really interesting questions, since for most of the items, they knew who owned them and listed the names right here in the notice. So could the owners just come and claim these things, or had they already forfeited them? We don’t know.

So what were people leaving behind in railroad storage just a bit more than a century ago?

Barrels of empty bottles, boxes of bricks, a bag of sand. A bale of waste asbestos fibre, and a bale of shoddy. Four crates of typewriter stands. Boxes of groceries, cases of farina, packages of hominy grits. Ten drums of sweeping compound and a case of embalming fluid (accompanied by “1 Package,” contents unidentified but hopefully innocuous). Cots, mattresses, chairs and bed rails. Gas water heaters, various castings, machined wheels, and hogheads of crockery. Several stoves and bundles of tents.

We can’t determine if M.J. Collins of 180 Franklin Street was ever reunited with a couch, sent by the Standard Publishing and Premium Co. of Scranton, Pa. (perhaps a prize or redeemed trading stamps?). We will go to our grave now knowing if John McGinn of 20 Lark Street ever got back is box of paint from the Waterproof Paint Co. of Watertown, Mass. And the Woodward Co. may never have gotten the use of its “1 Spring” that had been left behind.

Edward Boom, Homeopathic Vet

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Edward Boom, Homeopathic Veterinary Surgeon

For this ad from the 1893 Albany Directory, Hoxsie has no answers, only questions. Such as:

  • Dr. Boom?
  • Homeopathic Veterinary Surgeon?
  • Does “and Dentist” refer to veterinary dentistry, or was he a people dentist as a sideline?
  • His reference was a brewery? (This one actually makes sense, as the breweries had large teams of horses to pull the beer wagons.)

The World’s Fair Excursion and Hotel Association

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World's Fair Excursion and Hotel AssociationIt’s 1893, and you want to visit the Columbian Exposition, the massive World’s Fair being held in Chicago to celebrate the 400th anniversary (plus a year) of Columbus’s stumbling upon what was not quite the Americas (among other things). But how are you to make your travel arrangements? There’s no internet, no 800 phone numbers, not even any AAA guides  for finding lodgings (and, as it turned out, that was something you wanted to be selective about).

Into this void stepped the World’s Fair Excursion and Hotel Association, incorporated sometime early in 1893 with its principal office in Albany. It was to “conduct and manage excursions and to furnish transportation for tourists and their baggage, to furnish hotel and boarding house accommodations, and to do other business which will assist tourists in reaching the World’s Fair.” Directors of the company (and most of the backers) were Willis J. Brewster, Emily E. Brewster, and T. Gordon Lilico of Albany.

Later that year the Saratoga Sentinel reported that Dr. W.J. Brewster would be in Port Henry on June 5, “and parties contemplating a visit to the World’s Fair now, or later, will do well to make their arrangements with him and save money.” The paper also put in a plug for traveler’s checks, only recently developed in their familiar form by the American Express company (another one with Albany roots): “Travelers and parties who contemplate visiting the World’s Fair should procure of the American Express Co. one of their travelers’ check books. They are accepted all over the globe for their face value. Agent Neide will explain its working by calling at his office.”

Doctor Willis J. Brewster was listed in the 1893 directory as “physician and president, World’s Fair Hotel asso.,” with offices at 496 Broadway, and his home at 71 Jefferson St. He was 30 years old at the time; Emily Brewster was his wife, 10 years younger. T. Gordon Lilico was a veterinary surgeon (member of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons of London), offices 231-237 Lark Street (next to Trinity Church), who boarded at Woodlawn at the corner of Lake Ave.

We don’t learn any more about this new Albany enterprise, so we don’t have a sense of whether it was successful. How the people doctor and the horse doctor came together to make travel arrangements for their fellow Albanians who wanted to visit Chicago, we probably won’t know.

Fastest Typesetter in the East (or West)

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George Dawson portrait, from A Collection of Family Records

George Dawson

Was Mr. George Dawson, eventually editor of the Albany Evening Journal, one of the fastest typesetters of his day? Well, the Printer’s Circular seemed to think so. Though he was much much more than that.

In order to understand this, readers will need a little familiarity with the terms. At the time, all type was set one character at a time. There were no keyboards, no machinery. Typesetters (sometimes called compositors) picked individual letters from trays (job cases, the staple of antiques stores for the last 40 years) and arranged them in forms called chases. And because it was direct impression printing, they did it all backward. Therefore, the size of the typeface mattered (technically, though we’re giving up on this distinction, a font is both the typeface and its size) in determining speed for reasons of dexterity. An em was a measure of type equal to its point size (named for the letter ‘M’ which was usually the largest letter). And while we use point sizes today, it was common in the 19th century to use the English names, so that Agate is 5-1/2 point type; Brevier is 8 pt.; Pica is 12 point. (Those old enough to have grown up on typewriters will remember Pica vs. Elite.)

The American Encyclopaedia of Printing reprinted an account from the Circular from February 1870 by a correspondent who had kept a record of newspaper accounts of fast typesetting, in which Dawson’s extreme level of skill was noted:

“There is a long list of compositors who would set 2000 ems an hour, as they claimed, and their friends have asserted. Rapid compositors for an hour, however, do not always possess endurance. Yet there are not wanting instances of extraordinary endurance combined with great speed. For instance, in 1845, John J. Hand, deputy foreman of the American Republican, of New York, undertook, upon a wager, to set up 32,000 ems of solid Minion [7 pt.] in twenty-four hours. He failed by 32 ems only. Mr. Robert Bonner – now the mighty man of the New York Ledger – was employed on the American Republican also, and is said to have set up 25,500 ems in twenty hours and twenty-eight minutes, without a moment’s rest.

Mr. George Dawson, now one of the proprietors of the Albany Evening Journal, was reported in the Rochester papers, where he was an apprentice, to have set up 27,000 ems of solid Brevier [8 pt.] in ten hours. This being so incredible a performance – although published in the newspapers – I inquired of Mr. Dawson (begging pardon of the newspapers that published it), who asserts that it was an honest 22,022 ems, done in a day of something more than ten hours; he thinks thirteen hours. As Mr. Dawson has been ever since – probably about forty years – employed upon newspapers as compositor, foreman, editor, and proprietor, his assertion cannot be gainsaid.”

George Dawson was born in Falkirk, Scotland in 1813, and was brought to this country at the age of five. At 11, he was placed in the printing office of the Niagara Gleaner, and moved to Rochester in 1826 where he was employed by the Anti-Masonic Inquirer, edited by Thurlow Weed. He came to Albany with Weed in 1830 and became foreman of the Evening Journal. He went back to Rochester, then to Detroit, back to Rochester, and then returned to Albany in 1846 as associate editor. When Weed retired in 1862, Dawson became senior editor and proprietor, which he remained through 1877. He was also postmaster of Albany from 1861-67. (Most of this from Appleton’s Cyclopaedia of American Biography, 1887.)

Howell (in his Bi-Centennial History of Albany) says of Dawson,

“it is said by those who knew him in the printing-office, that he was an accomplished, practical printer – at the case, a rapid and correct compositor; as a foreman, perfect in order and discipline; courteous and amiable in his intercourse with the employees of the office. It was not long before he began contributing to the columns of the Journal, and his contributions bore the impress of a master hand, adding largely to the ability and influence of the paper.”

This, of course, was at a time when newspapers, particularly Albany newspapers, were beyond political. Thurlow Weed was a kingmaker, and the Evening Journal dictated party politics not only in New York but frequently nationally. Dawson, when he went to Detroit, was a founder of the new Whig party, which absorbed elements of the Anti-Masonic Party. When he was enticed back to Albany by Weed, the Journal was still an absolute authority in its politics, as Howell relates:

“It gave the word of command and the lesser organs made haste to regard its behest. The orders which all obeyed, came from the capital. The Journal spoke with authority. It dictated party policies, controlled appointments, and marshaled all the forces of political campaigns. In the management of the Evening Journal, Mr. Dawson shared with his senior the enjoyment of the ‘power behind the throne;’ was thoroughly acquainted with his plans, proved an able lieutenant in his political encounters, and fully indorsed his political and journalistic views.”

Dawson sold off his interest in 1877, but came back a few years later when he had apparently “got reform” and sounded off against political machines and boss rule. If we believe Howell, Dawson was no demagogue, and did not unduly profit from his position. He was an avid angler who weighed the better fishing in the Rochester area against the opportunity in Albany when he was asked to come back, and indeed wrote a book titled “Pleasures of Angling with Rod and Reel for Trout and Salmon.” He was instrumental in the building of the 1877 Tabernacle Baptist Church at the corner of Clinton Avenue and Ten Broeck Street, which he both contributed to and supervised in its construction. So, by all accounts, George Dawson led an extraordinary 19th century life. But we have a soft spot for the old printing industry, so we hope that Dawson remained proud of his typesetting capabilities until the day he died, in 1883.

Need we say it? Like all good Albanians, he is buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.