Author Archives: carljohnson

Common sense shoe maker

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George Gabriel was a common sense boot and shoe maker located at 98 North Pearl Street. “Any person suffering from a deformity, such as is caused by CORNS, BUNIONS, INJURIES, &c., may by calling, see how the LASTS are fitted up to imitate the feet, thereby removing all pressure from tender parts, or filling up depressions, and yet have symmetrical looking BOOTS and SHOES.”

And, to judge by the ad, roller skates.

Startling, But True!

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Or, The Spring Talks For Itself!

I haven’t previously run across the Lovell Manufacturing Company of 673 Broadway, but in 1886 they provided us with the startling (but true!) fact that “One third our lives we spend in bed (Chestnut).” Chestnut?

In addition to roll-up spring beds whose springs talked for themselves, Lovell also provided clothes wringers, clocks, rugs, bibles, albums, table scarfs, casters, &c., & c.

Agents wanted.

French toe, or London?

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Joseph Fearey & Son was apparently the place to go for fine shoes in 1886, with three locations within the city of Albany: 156 South Pearl, 23 North Pearl, and 651 Broadway. Five dollars was a fair chunk of change in 1886.

Grandma Smith’s autograph book

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Just about this time of year a brief 108 years ago, my great grandmother Hazel Cath went about to family and friends in West Glenville with a tiny autograph book and had them give her messages. I don’t know if there was some occasion, or if this was a custom at the time.
This note from Ida Gifford of Glenville, N.Y., on Feb. 24th, 1904, says: “Let your light shine like blossom on a pumpkin vine.”

18th Century Starbucks?

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If you Google the “Old Tontine Coffee House,” you’ll no doubt find the legendary location at Wall and Water Streets in New York City where the stock exchange is said to have been organized, and where later Alexander Hamilton and the Federalists hung out. It is believe to have opened in 1793.  But there was another well-known Tontine Coffee House that opened around the same time in (say it with me): Albany.

Coffee houses rose in Europe in the mid-1600s, and followed in the colonies soon after. They became popular gathering places for business men. A 1775 letter in the “New York Journal” decried Manhattan’s lack of a coffee house:

“Coffee houses have been universally deemed the most
convenient places of resort, because, at a small expense of time or
money, persons wanted may be found and spoke with, appointments may
be made, current news heard, and whatever it most concerns us to

Albany’s Tontine Coffee House was a prominent public gathering place on State Street. It probably opened around 1799, when stagecoach operator Ananias Platt came to Albany from Lansingburgh. He ran the coffee house, “where so many public meetings had been held and where were organized some of the city’s largest institutions,” for three years until 1801, when it was given over to a Matthew Gregory of Waterford. In the first decade of the 1800s, there was hardly an important meeting in Albany that didn’t take place at the Tontine. Once the steamboats started plying the Hudson, the Tontine was where you went to book passage to New York. Some years later, in 1816, leading citizens with familiar names like McIntyre, Bleecker, Van Schaick, and others met at the Tontine “to urge the subject of a canal upon the people and the Legislature . . . This seems to have been the first organized effort on the part of citizens to promote this scheme.” It was this effort that led to passage of the act that led to the creation of the Erie Canal. Political meetings abounded at the Tontine, and as much as Alexander Hamilton was associated with its namesake in New York, Aaron Burr was known to frequent the Albany Tontine, where he was nominated for governor. (It was in Albany that the Hamilton-Burr relationship came to a boil.) More than just a coffee house, the Tontine was also a first-class hotel, and one visitor in 1803 called it the only hotel worth naming in Albany. It remained the leading hotel until the Delavan opened in 1845.

So was there any relationship between the two Tontines? Was it the first coffee chain? There’s no evidence of that. Albany and New York were closely linked in those days, and it’s just as likely that someone who had visited New York, perhaps Platt, thought it would be a fine name for just such an establishment in the capital city. The name is fitting for a place where capital was raised and banks were formed. A tontine, according to Wikipedia, is “an investment scheme for raising capital, devised in
the 17th century and relatively widespread in the 18th and 19th. It
combines features of a group annuity and a lottery.
Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund, and thereafter
receives an annuity. As members die, their shares devolve to the other
participants, and so the value of each annuity increases. On the death
of the last member, the scheme is wound up.”

Nursing, napkin rings, and plain underclothing

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Albany Homeopathic Hospital.jpgThe Albany Homeopathic Hospital, which provided not only homeopathic medical treatment but also served as a dispensary for the city’s poor,  established a Training School for Nurses in 1903. Originally established on North Pearl Street in 1875 (roughly across from McGeary’s and Clinton Square), the hospital moved a bit further up Pearl Street in 1907, and housed its nurses in a building directly behind it on Broadway. The buildings are long gone, now the site of the current Leo O’Brien Federal Building.

An applicant to the nursing school was required to provide a certificate of good moral character from her clergyman, and a certificate of sound health and unimpaired faculties from her physician, and freedom from “the necessity of nursing the members of her own family during her course of training.”

Accepted students were subject to a number of very specific requirements, and they had some sewing to do before instruction started. The nursing student was expected to bring with her:
•    Three plain blue gingham dresses, like sample, plainly made.
•    Eight aprons of light-weight sheeting, one inch shorter than dress. Side gore twelve and one-half inches at top, bottom one-half width of goods. Selvage on outside gore. Front gore twenty-four inches at top, bottom width of goods. Front gore twenty-four inches at top, bottom width of goods. Gathers to come within one inch of buttons and button holes so that when finished there will be a two-inch space of belt in back without gathers. Hem on bottom five and one-half inches deep, band two inches wide, fastened with two pearl studs.
•    They must be provided with a watch with a second hand, a work box with sewing material.
•    Two bags for soiled clothing.
•    A good supply of plain underclothing.
•    A napkin ring.
•    Everything to be marked plainly with owner’s name on tape with indelible ink.
•    Comfortable boots or Oxford ties, black in color, with rubber heels.
•    Teeth must be examined and receive necessary attention before candidate enters the Training School.

Nurses home Broadway.pngThe school offered a three year course of training; after a probationary period of receiving only room and board, nurses worked themselves up to the sum of $8.00 per month in 1916 (at a time when the average working man’s salary was between $600-$750 per year). Nurses were not allowed out after 10 p.m. without permission from the Principal, who also designated their hours for study and recreation. Among the rules: “Nurses, upon the coming of an officer or stranger into a ward, shall, if seated, rise at once and give all visitors prompt attention.”

It appears that homeopathic methods were never the sole treatment available at the hospital, and in 1923 the hospital was renamed Memorial Hospital of Albany. In 1957 it moved into more modern quarters on Northern Boulevard. Now under the Northeast Health banner, the School of Nursing still exists; its online application process makes no mention of a required napkin ring.

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Adam Blake, hotelier

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Kenmore Hotel

Many know the Kenmore hotel building as one of the handsomest structures on North Pearl Street, and local history afficionados probably associate it with Legs Diamond and the Prohibition-era novels of William Kennedy. Most probably don’t know that the legendary Kenmore, for decades one of Albany’s finest hotels, was built and operated by an African-American named Adam Blake, Jr.

Howell’s “Bi-centennial History of Albany” tells us that Blake was born in Albany April 6, 1830. “He was the richest and best-known business man of his race in this county. Mr. Blake received a Grammar School education. He was a born hotel-keeper. He took to it as a fish takes to water.” His father, also Adam Blake, was probably a slave of the patroon, later a restaurant waiter and was noted as one of the first depositors in the Albany Savings Bank, which opened in 1820. He was also called the Beau Brummel of his day, a noted master of ceremonies for Pinkster, an annual celebration by the African-American community of Albany.

Howell says that Blake Jr. started a restaurant on Beaver Street in 1851, then moved to James Street, and then to the corner of State and Pearl, before taking up the hotel business by becoming proprietor of Congress Hall, a noted hotel across from the old capitol, in Academy Park. That was in 1866, just a year after the Civil War had ended, and Blake ran Congress Hall until it was demolished in 1878 to make open space below the new Capitol. Blake took the proceeds and built the Kenmore Hotel, on the southwest corner of North Pearl and Columbia streets, which opened in November 1878. Blake achieved acclaim not only for his race but for the quality of the lodgings, and the Kenmore quickly and for many decades was known as one of the city’s finest. Seneca Ray Stoddard, whose guides to the Adirondacks were influential in the development of American tourism, listed only the Kenmore for those seeking lodging in Albany, and called it “First class in every particular.”
Blake died early, on September 7, 1881, survived by his wife and four children, and his wife continued to manage the Kenmore for some years.


Long after this was originally posted in 2012, The Friends of Albany History Facebook page presented much more information on Adam Blake, originally posted here and reposted below:

An Albany Family Story; a Rise to Fortune from Slave to Hotel Mogul.

Adam Blake Sr. was born about 1773 in an area south of Albany (possibly New York City) and brought to Albany as a slave by a local merchant Jacob Lansing as a young boy to serve the Van Rensselaer estate. (In the NYS 1790 census, there are 15 slaves listed on the estate.) As an adult, Blake was manager of the household staff at Van Rensselaer Manor, home of the Stephen Van Rensselaer III (the “Last Patroon”). In 1803 he married Sarah Richards in the Dutch Reformed Church (now known as the First Reformed Church) on North Pearl St. (Notably, this was the same church attended by Alexander Hamilton while he was in Albany and there is no doubt their paths crossed.)

The relationship between Van Rensselaer and Blake appears to have been more than slave and master. Blake was a trusted confident, yet Van Rensselaer didn’t free Blake until about 1811 or later, despite the fact that Blake had married a young woman, Sarah Richards, probably another Van Rensselaer slave in 1803. In later years Van Rensselaer confessed deeply regretting his failure to free Blake at an earlier date, but made no explanation.) Nonetheless, when Van Rensselaer died, Adam Blake led his funeral procession.

After becoming a free person of color Blake continued in the employ of Van Rensselaer although his obituary refers to connections with Governor DeWitt Clinton. Blake enjoyed a position of esteem throughout the Albany community, among both White and Afro-Americans citizens; he was, by all accounts, a very elegant (he was called the “Beau Brummel of Albany”, intelligent and charming man.

He and his family lived in the 100 block of Third St. between Lark and S. Swan, on land that was previously part of Patroon holdings (probably given to him by Van Rensselaer) and owned several adjacent lots. Blake was a major figure in the Afro-American community in Albany, involved in the first African school in Albany in the early 1800s. He was immersed in abolitionist activities; he was one of the notable speakers during the 1827 Albany celebration of the abolition of slavery in New York State and was a key figure in the National Colored Peoples Convention held in Albany in 1840.
When Adam Sr. died in 1864 at the age of 94 his obituary said “.. he was in all respects a remarkable man… and ..”always commanded respect by that high order of good breeding and courtesy towards all for which he was proverbial”.

Blake’s son, Adam Jr. was adopted – we know nothing of his birth parents or antecedents. He was raised at the Van Rensselaer Manor, where he received his early schooling by the side of the Van Rensselaer children. He would become one of the most successful businessmen and entrepreneurs in the 1800s in Albany of either race. While in his 20’s he worked his way up to the position of head waiter at the famous Delavan House on Broadway. Blake rapidly built his reputation as a restaurant proprietor with the opening of his own restaurant on Beaver and Green Streets in 1851. Over the next 14 years he opened two more establishments, first on James St. and the next on State St., each one more upscale. His restaurants were favorite haunts of the young swells, NYS legislators, and diverse governmentos of all stripes. He catered private parties, assemblies, balls and picnics. Young Blake appears to have been a naturally genial, gracious and discreet host. We have a vision of a man who could cater an elegant reception for Albany’s society women or organize a back room dinner for politicians with equal ease.

In 1865 Blake secured the lease for the Congress Hall Hotel, adjacent to the Old Capitol on the corner of Park St and Washington Ave. This was a fabled landmark (Lafayette stayed the night during his 1824 Albany visit), but fallen on hard times. . He acquired 3 adjacent buildings (Gregory’s Row) combined them with the Hotel, and spent a large sum furnishing it in a sumptuous fashion, The Hall was a lucrative concession – its location was favored by legislators and other politicians for lodgings, meals, receptions and meetings.

In 1878 the Hall needed to be demolished for the new Capitol building; Blake received $190,000 compensation from New York State. He used the money to open a large hotel on N. Pearl St. that remains today. The hotel was built for Blake by the son of the late Dr. James McNaughton (former president of the Albany Medical Society) on land they owned; it was named the Kenmore after the small village in Scotland in which McNaughton was born. The hotel was designed by the Ogden and Wright, leading Albany architects, and no expense was spared Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, while the Kenmore was under construction, Blake took over the management of the Averill Park Hotel across the river for the summer of 1879.

McNaughton’s willingness to build the Kenmore for Blake to his specifications speaks volumes about the general estimation of his business acumen and confidence in potential for its success. While he benefited greatly from his father’s connections and those of the Patroon, he clearly had natural and innate ability.

The Kenmore Hotel opened in 1880. It was Adam Blake’s dream- a marvel of modern technology and comfort; it was called “the most elegant structure on the finest street in Albany”. It was wildly successful, not only for its convenience, but for its level of service. It included hot and cold running water (and new-fangled water closets), an elevator, telephones and, of course a fine and palatial dining room.

Throughout his life Adam Jr. moved easily among both the Afro – American and White communities, and was as widely respected as his father had been. He apprenticed a number of young Afro-American men who went on to manage major hotels throughout the New York State, including the Clarendon Hotel in Saratoga Springs; Leonard Jerome and family were guests (daughter Jenny would marry Lord Randolph Churchill and give birth to Winston.)

He was known as a generous man “who never turned away a stranger or neighbor in need”. In 1881 beautiful glass window was dedicated his name in the Israel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Hamilton St (the oldest Afro-American church in Albany, established in 1828.) Adam Jr.’s activities in the Abolitionist movement are not documented as are his father’s, but the Blake family house on Third St. was situated directly behind that of Stephen Myers on Livingston Ave., leading figure in Albany’s Underground Railroad. It is improbable to think that neither father nor son was not involved in the Railroad.

Unfortunately, Blake died an untimely death in 1881 at the age of 51. He didn’t really get to revel in his success. At the time of his death his private fortune was estimated in excess of $100,000, an astonishing sum for anyone, let alone the son of a slave. For the next seven years the Hotel was managed by his widow, Catherine, who was equally good at business, accumulating real estate all over the Albany, including 2 row houses on Spring St. near Lark St. that stand today When the lease on the Kenmore Hotel expired in 1887, Catherine left the hotel business, selling the furnishing and the Hotel’s goodwill for a tidy sum to the new owners. While the Blakes were involved with the Kenmore, they lived on Columbia St., but when Mrs. Blake gave up the Kenmore, she moved to First St to an elegant townhouse (that also remains today), between S. Hawk St. and S. Swan St., taking her place among the other wealthy families of Albany, just above the Ten Broeck Triangle.

Thanks to Paula Lemire and her contributions to the research on the lives of both Adam Sr. and Jr.


Steam Soap

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Steam Soap and Candle.pngAs we’ve mentioned before, once steam became a practical means of operating machinery, it was also the byword for everything modern and efficient (as electricity would be some decades later). We’ve written of steam typography, steam crackers, and now a steam soap and candle works.

Clinton Ten Eyck was one of Albany’s venerable Ten Eyck family, who were among the first settlers. His grandfather was a judge and State Senator who was a member of the convention that ratified the United States Constitution in 1787. His father was County Sheriff. Clinton, it seems, caught the mercantile bug and went into the soap and candle business at the corner of Chapel and Canal streets (Canal is now Sheridan Avenue). When this ad ran in 1886, making such products involved rendering animal fat, and his location on the edge of Sheridan Hollow makes sense — close to the downtown trade, but also close to the West Albany railyard, which at that time was still one of the largest stockyards in the country. Nearby were many meat processors (such as the legendary and long-empty Tobin’s First Prize factory), all of which would have made a ready source of raw materials for his modern steam soap manufacture.

No fancy or expensive wrappers to keep adulteration from showing! Adulterating soap with sand and clay was common at the time, to add weight without adding any cleaning value, at very little cost.

Hollywood on the Hudson

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Ironweed Filming

Sure, there’s been a lot of excitement over films being shot in Albany and Schenectady in the past few years, but were any of those film sets deemed worthy of being preserved on a picture postcard? This one was published in 1987, depicting the filming of “Ironweed,” with the following legend on the obverse:

A Break in the Action
The trolley car stands idly by after the strike scene from William Kennedy’s book ‘Ironweed’ has been completed. Three blocks of working trolley line were laid on Lark street for the trolley scenes. Many area items were borrowed for the filming to lend authenticity to the Ironweed era.

Uncle Sam Station

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Uncle Sam Memorial obverse

The United States Bicentennial was a very big deal, celebration-wise. I don’t know what kind of events were involved with the U.S. Bicentennial Philatelic Fair, but they did have a special postmark for Uncle Sam Station that was applied to this postcard of Uncle Sam’s Grave on April 4, 1976. I wish all my snailmail went out with an Uncle Sam Station postmark.

Uncle Sam's Grave