Category Archives: Albany

Cheap Publications

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Pease bookstore.png“Cheap” tends to have a pejorative connotation these days that it did not in 1844, when Erastus H. Pease was happy to let Albanians know that his book store dealt in cheap publications. But he also dealt in classical and school texts, maps and globes, blank books, paper and stationery of all kinds, and drawing materials.

Pease was also the publisher of a number of noted works dealing with history, and a much cleaner version of this lovely cut of his store at 82 State Street can be found adorning a receipt for goods (specifically, “4 cap alphabets”) purchased by the Canal Department in 1845. As the receipt notes, 82 State was three doors below Pearl, on the south side. Probably just about where the bus stop is today.

It is to weep

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Albany Savings Bank 1940.png

That this gem was replaced by the ’70s-era pile o’ bricks plaza just makes me want to cry. That we lost all our local banks in the frenzy to make everything bigger, more competitive, and just super-duper swell makes me feel even worse. The founders of these institutions that were absolutely central to the creation of our cities would not begin to fathom that we now put our money into banks with roots in New York City, let alone Hong Kong, banks that have no connection or obligation to the cities and businesses that depend on them, and no particular stake in the success of the community.

As good coal as I can buy

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Albany Citizen coal ad 1909.png

Ah, for the bronze age of advertising, when advertisers begged your leave to inform you of something, and then politely stated their case John T.D. Blackburn of 108 North Pearl Street in Albany wanted you to know he wasn’t holding out the good stuff: you would get as good coal as he could buy. And that you would get as good service as could be had. And that you would be doing business with a progressive, up-to-date concern. If someone in the coal business tried to present himself as progressive today, it would have to include carbon capture and sequestration. I suspect when this ad ran in 1909, it simply meant he didn’t whip the hired help or the horses, and that the 12-year-old boys working in the coal yard were given half of every Sunday off, and all day Christmas.

“Tepidarium”?! I want to go to there!!

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Turkish Sulphurous Vapor Baths.png

There’s been a lot of press lately about the closing of the last of Albany’s public baths (which by now is truly just a swimming pool). Once, the baths were so much more. In 1870, you could have walked just one block (or “square”) north up Broadway from Delevan House, one of Albany’s biggest hotels, and treated yourself to Turkish, electro-chemical and sulphurous vapor baths. Easily reachable by horse cars from all parts of the city, the bath house was open until 9 every night and until midnight on the Sabbath. Calculated against unskilled wages, that $1.25 for a single ticket would be about $148 today, so it’s likely this place wasn’t for the hoi polloi.

The Modus Operandi of the Turkish Bath: “The Bather enters the Reception Room, registers his name, and is there shown into a Dressing Room, where he disrobes, each bather having a separate apartment. A sheet is then provided for him, and he is now ready for the ‘Tepidarium,’ or warm room. There his head is wet with cold water, also drinks freely of water, and reclines or sits on a resting chair for ten or fifteen minutes, until the skin becomes soft and moist. He is then ready for the “Calidarium,” or hot room, until profuse perspiration takes place, the head meanwhile being kept with wet with cold water. He is then taken out and shampooed from head to foot with perfumed Glycerine Soap, which leaves the skin ‘soft as velvet.’ Then comes the Spray Bath, warm at first, then cool, then cold; and so gradual is the change of temperature that no shock is given to the system. When the bather is sufficiently cooled, a hot dry sheet is thrown over him, he is ushered into the ‘Frigidarium,’ or cooling room. Here, reclining or sitting, he remains until thoroughly cool and dry, when he is ready to dress, a wiser, cleaner and happier man.”


Funny how the Modus Operandi of the Sulphurous Vapor Bath isn’t given.

Two cities can play at that game

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Albany Paper Collar Company.png

In the old days, cities took their reputations as manufacturing centers very seriously, and so did the companies. When inter-company (and intra-family) rivalry broke out in the burgeoning bell industry, one company took pains to point out that only their bells were actually made in Troy; that other pack of scoundrels (who dominated the industry) were in West Troy, across the river in what is now Watervliet. And to some extent it still matters today; I won’t ever buy a Troy-Bilt product again, simply because they’re no longer built in Troy, or anywhere near. They decamped for Michigan years ago.

So I can’t help but feel that the Albany Paper Collar Company, a few miles south of the Collar City, must have always been thought of as putting out a second class product. Not because their collars were paper; don’t forget that celluloid (an Albany invention) hadn’t yet been applied to the collar business. Paper collars were considered a breakthrough. If they were made in Troy.  Oh, sure, those Albany collars’ll cover your neck, but they’d never make it in the big town. Nevertheless, they had a very large factory on Broadway, right where the DEC building is today. One guide to Albany claimed it was the sixth largest company in an industry of 70, employing from 40 to 50 persons, “mostly girls,” and that this business also supported the box factory of George Cozine at 283-285 Broadway, “which is fitted up with all the latest improved machinery, and devoted expressly to making the little box into which the collars are put, each box containing ten collars systematically rolled in the least possible room.” The covers of the boxes were ornamented with a fine representation of our new State Capitol.

Scientist, Practical Dyer.

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Robert McFarlane dyeing and scouring.png

In the 1850s and 1860s, Robert McFarlane was the editor of Scientific American. “A genuine Scot, from Rutherglen, near Glasgow,” he was instrumental in promoting the benefits of Gail Borden’s invention of condensed milk, and wrote an important treatise on dyeing and calico printing. By 1870, he had left the big city life and editing behind, and was in charge of The Old Dyeing and Scouring Establishment at 24 Norton Street in Albany. How did the editor of the premiere scientific magazine of its day (in a day when science was held in high regard) end up running a high-end laundry? I don’t know. Perhaps he just really liked dyeing things.

Norton Street, by the way, is gone.  Formerly called Church Street and, until 1835, Store Lane, it ran east from South Pearl Street and ended at Green Street. It is shown as “Nail Street” on the Simeon De Witt maps from the 1790s.

Fix that umbrella!

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Daniel Weaver Umbrellas and Parasols.png

Daniel Weaver of 49 Green Street was not only a manufacturer and dealer in umbrellas and parasols, he also re-covered and repaired them. An Albanian from 1870 was likely hard pressed to imagine why you would throw away an umbrella when it could be repaired; today we can hardly imagine how you could repair one when new ones at the Target are $14. (Or, on the streets of New York, fi’ dolla — though sometimes the price goes up with the rainfall.)

Also, he always had corset bone on hand, sold in quantities to suit purchasers — not like the whole corset bone dealers who required you to take an entire whale’s worth of bone at a time.

Not enough galvanized iron cornice these days

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Galvanized Iron Cornice.png

In fact, to say there’s not enough galvanized iron cornice these days is a sad understatement. While I’ve seen some lovely, graceful buildings with nice decorative elements put up in other cities (look at all the handsome new construction in Washington, D.C. over the past decade and change), here we settle for the quickest, cheapest, ugliest, least decorative econoboxes available. Not that I’m bitter. But Albany is a beautiful city of graceful historical buildings, and J.W. Osborn and Bradley Martin had to have at least a small hand in that. If you know where to look, there’s still a fair amount of galvanized iron cornice, window caps, &c. around for the viewing, 140 years later. That they were selling these items from James Street, right off of State in the heart of downtown, rather than the distant lumber district, suggests they were appealing to the upper class of citizens who appreciated the makings of a fine home. Where would you go for galvanized iron cornice today? Not Google, that’s for sure – all references are to that past.

Yeah, I’m just gonna wait until they invent foam

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Mattresses of Curled Hair.png

No doubt that H.R. Watson used the finest curled hair, husk &c. (and if you have already covered hair and husk, just what could that “&c.” be?) in their mattresses, and no doubt that “spring under” was a major innovation, even though today it seems logical that you wouldn’t want the springs on top of the mattress. (Unless of course you really wanted to be separated from the curled hair.) And honestly, I don’t know how “live” I want my geese feathers to be. But maybe it’s best that Watson had some French lace curtains on hand to fancy up the place.

Plain Street, which once ran west from South Pearl between Hudson and Hamilton, is no more, destroyed by the South Mall Arterial.