C.W. Billings Slate & Wood Mantel Works

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Another magnificent billhead from the Biggert Collection. C.W. Billings was the proprietor of a factory that made slate and wood mantels, as well as tile  hearths, brass fire plates, and fine finish grates. In the age before central heating, when every home had a fireplace and the well-to-do might have several, being in the mantel business was not a bad gig. And being that marble was expensive, being able to fake it with slate was an even better gig.

Billings operated at North Third (now gone) and Hutton Streets, somewhere just south of where the Collar City Bridge and Route 7 connect to Hoosick Street today. In 1893, you (presuming you were William Van Vleck) could procure an antique oak mantel, a tile hearth, an aldine grate of antiqued brass, a special damper attachment, a spark guard, a second mantel and a bronzed frame all for the low, low price of $135.75. (The average wage for a worker in New York in 1893 was $460.41.)

Arthur Weise, who in his “The City of Troy and Its Vicinity” was, we must admit, given to gushing, gushed over C.W. Billings:

C. W. Billings, manufacturer of marbleized slate mantels, southeast corner of North Third and Hutton streets. The art of counterfeiting the handiwork of Nature has been attained to such perfection as to cause no little astonishment to those who for the first time inspect the excellent imitations made by man. By mechanical and chemical processes a marbleized slate is made at the manufactory of Charles W. Billings which seems not only to possess the varied tracery of veined marble and all the effects of the natural stone, but, singular, as it is true, it preserves its lustre longer and is not discolorable as the latter. The slate is obtained from quarries in Vermont, and is subjected at the works in Troy to the tools of the pattern designer and afterward to the processes of undertoning and marbling, and finally to the action of heat. The marbles of Spain, of Egypt, and of this country are so faithfully imitated that it is difficult to detect the dissimilarity existing between the real and the manufactured specimens. The imitations of rosewood, walnut, and other ornamental wood also manufactured at the establishment, are very attractive and beautiful. The mantels constructed with them and the marbleized slate are very elaborate and artistic. Mounted in brass or other metallic frames, with fenders of the same metal, they ornament a parlor, sitting-room, or library in a handsome manner. Besides manufacturing marbleized slate and wood mantels, C. W. Billings also employs his skilled workmen in making marbleized bureau, wash-stand, and table slabs, hearth tiles and facings, floor-tiles, improved grates, and many other useful and decorative specialities.

The manufactory is a large, three-story, brick building, fronting seventy-eight feet on North Third Street and extending one hundred and thirty to North Fourth Street. The business was begun, in 1860, by Edwin A. Billings, the father of the present proprietor of the works, at No. 421 River Street. In 1861, he moved to the building on the southeast corner of North Third and Hutton streets, previously the Pond Brothers’ foundry. In 1866, his son, C. W. Billings, succeeded to the business, who afterward renovated and enlarged the building to meet the demands of the rapidly increased patronage which his enterprise and productions had obtained.

I wonder how many of the grand homes of Troy still have a Billings slate mantel, looking just like fine marble?

Troy Stove Works

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From 1864, the Biggert Collection has preserved this wonderful billhead from the Troy Stove Works of Burdett, Paris & Co. The office and showroom were at 253 River Street, a building which still stands on Monument Square and is known as the Burdett Building. (Curiously, “Burdett, Son & Co. also operated a wholesale wine and liquor business from the same address, circa 1870.) The factory location is harder to discern, as North Fourth Street is lost to time. As might perhaps only have been possible in Troy, North Fourth Street ran parallel to, and between, Sixth Avenue and Eighth Street. No, I have no explanation.

As you can see, Mr. Paris must have worn out his welcome but there was plenty of billhead left, and the clerk of the works was obliged to cross out “Paris” and replace it with “Potter, Smith,” as the firm was now known as “Burdett, Potter, Smith & Co.” (Daniel Paris, down but not out of the stove biz, could be found at 277 River Street, serving as the manager of the Double Reservoir Stove Co., in 1870.)

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Avery, Snell & Co.

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Avery, Snell & Co. began as a crockery store in Amsterdam, NY known as Avery & White in 1874. Mr. Snell bought out Mr. White, and removed the wholesale department to Schenectady, leaving the retailing in Amsterdam. Presumably they branched beyond crockery; in 1878 they were listed as a dealer in bicycles as well. The building must have been about where State and Church intersect; given the appearance of the little hill I’d say it might even have been at Mill Lane, but maybe it was further west. Another great image from The Biggert Collection.

The Argus Company

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Argus.jpgThe Argus was one of Albany’s prominent newspapers and publishing houses for decades. In addition to publishing The Argus since 1813, they printed numerous other publications and provided general printing, binding, electrotyping and stereotyping service. (How many people refer to a “stereotype” every day without knowing what one is? And without knowing that “clich√©” shares the same printing heritage?)

This May 28, 1880 invoice to John A. Mapes, Esq., of 24 Park Place, New York City, was for a “trading notice”. Coming again from The Biggert Collection, it features a lovely rendering of the Argus Building. While the successor to this building, Argus Litho on Broadway, appears to be left for dead, the original is still intact and a lovely part of lower Broadway. Its prominent clock was not yet in place when this cut was made, but the building is still there.
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Albany Agricultural and Machine Works

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Peter K. Dederick’s Albany Agricultural and Machine Works was one of the first major agricultural implement factories. Dederick held several patents, beginning in 1843, and his works made the first commercial hay press. The works in Tivoli Hollow were massive, and a significant chunk of the old factory remains. The train tracks seen in this view to the south of the factory are still there today. A Google search for P.K. Dederick will turn up a significant amount of ephemera and memorabilia.

Aerated Bread

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Albany Aerated Bread Co.Some academic collections serve a maddeningly singular purpose, but in this case that purpose serves Hoxsie well. Within Columbia University’s Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library resides The Biggert Collection of Architectural Vignettes on Commercial Stationery. Luckily for us, this fascination with architectural vignettes produces some magnificent reminders of historical buildings in the Capital District.

This is the billhead of the Aerated Bread Co. of 193, 195 and 197 North Pearl Street in Albany. Sadly, the location near the corner of Wilson Street is no more than a vacant lot today, but once it housed a graceful old building in which E. J. Larrabee & Co. (successors to Belcher & Larrabee)¬† made “Egg, Cream, Milk, Graham and Lemon Biscuit, and every variety of Crackers” as well as “Holmes’ Patent Ginger Snaps, Lemon Snaps, Jumbles, &c.” They were also the sole local agents for Holmes’ Patent Snap Machines.

The Larrabee companies were prominent in the development of the cookie and cracker business nationwide; Belcher and Larrabee was formed in 1860, becoming E.J. Larrabee in 1871. In procuring the newest dough-mixing technology from England, they also procured the services of John Holmes, creator of the aforementioned “snap” machines, who went on to build one of New York City’s most prominent cracker factories, Holmes & Coutts, manufacturer of the “Sea Foam” biscuit.

The billhead was printed by the prominent Albany printer Weed, Parsons & Co. It was made out in 1871, and though the handwriting is hard to follow, it would appear to be to a Joseph (?) Gibbons for one bushel of oyster crackers.

City and County Savings Bank

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Once upon a time, banks had a single location. When we didn’t get around much, and lived pretty close to where we worked, that really wasn’t much of an issue. As cities spread, banks were eventually allowed to charter additional branches, each of which I believe required government approval. So we find in 1935 that City and County Savings Bank had branched out, having not only its elegant headquarters at 100 State Street (still standing, still elegant), but also a homey little branch office way out on New Scotland Avenue. That’s still there and still a bank.

City and County started as the Albany City Savings Institution in 1850. It changed its name to City Savings Bank of Albany in 1922. In 1935 it merged with Albany County Savings Bank and became, sensibly enough, City and County Savings Bank. Things stayed stable until its merger in 1981 with Home Savings Bank, at which point the “County” would be forgotten and Home and City Savings Bank was created. 10 years later it was merged with Trustco, the former Schenectady Trust Company. While the downtown Trustco branch is a few doors up from its legacy headquarters, the uptown branch remains a Trustco.

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Where’s your fingers, Gramps?

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My grandfather, who was a carpenter among other things, was always missing his right thumb and forefinger. They were just stubs. He always said it was from playing with firecrackers, and he said it as an angry admonition that was supposed to instill fear. And it did — I never lit firecrackers in my fingers, which in the ’60s and ’70s made me something of an oddity I suppose. But Grandpa, there’s a bit of a difference between firecrackers and blasting caps.

This article from the Gloversville Morning Herald, July 17, 1926, details how my 15-year-old grandfather (the “aged 16” in the article is either erroneous or, more likely, a lie) blew his thumb and forefinger off by applying flame to a dynamite blasting cap, the device that detonates a stick of dynamite. He was up to no good, probably stole the caps from another boy, and this would hardly be his (or his father’s) only trouble in the rough-and-tumble immigrant city of Amsterdam, New York in the 1920s and 1930s.

The article reads as follows:

Dynamite Cap Injures Three
One, John Crisalle, Loses Thumb And Finger Of Right Hand In Explosion.
John Crisalle, 140 Forbes street, Amsterdam, aged 16, had the thumb and finger of his right hand blown off shortly before noon yesterday by the explosion of a dynamite cap, to which he was applying the flame of a match. His left hand was mutilated and his face gashed also, while Dominick Severa, 268 East Main street, and Edmund Carbonelli, 9 Eagle street, who stood near, received puncture wounds and gashes in the face, neck and chest.

The dynamite cap which exploded was one of several which Crisalle had, three others being found in his pocket after the accident. The explosion occurred in a yard between St. Casimir’s church on East Main street and the residence of Raymond J. Gilston. This yard is often used by the boys of the neighborhood as a playground. There were several there at the time of the explosion, the three who were hurt being close together watching for the results of fire applied to the cap. The explosion was heard throughout the neighborhood, and four or five men were on the scene within a moment or two. Fragments of bone and flesh blown from Crisalle’ [sic] hands were discovered lying on the ground. He was taken to the office of Dr. Lombardi and thence to St. Mary’s hospital. The stumps of the thumb and fore finger of the right hand were amputated, but the wounds to the left did not indicate that there will be any loss of fingers to that hand. His face was cut, a gash under the left eye being very deep. The other two boys were attended by Dr. Tomlinson at his office.

The cap which exploded is one of the kind used in quarries. The caps are metal cylinders only about an inch and a half to two inches in length and hardly the diameter of an ordinary pencil. They are used to communicate the spark from the battery to the dynamite charge proper. It is not quite certain how Crisalle obtained them. He spoke of having received them from a lad named Joseph Bucci of Lark street. Bucci was summoned to police headquarters. He admitted having had quite a number of similar caps for some time. He got them, he says, from a bunch of rags, part of a collection of his grandfather, who is a dealer in rags and junk. He had a box full, he said, and has played with them himself now and then and thrown them around, but they never went off.

He had no idea that they were dynamite and had evidently been under the impression that they were some ordinary sort of cap or blank cartridge. He denied having given any of them to Crisalle, but he did say that he was throwing them about in the neighborhood of his home, and that Crisalle was there and must have picked some of them up, or somebody else did and then gave them to the injured boy.

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War stories

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In journalism school, we always referred to tales of ink-stained wretches and newspapers gone by told by our professors as “war stories.” But a teacher of French at the Albany Female Academy in the 1830s had some real war stories to tell: General Henri La Fayette Villaume Ducoudray Holstein.

He was a native of Germany who entered the French service and acquired the confidence of Napoleon and had a relationship with Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette. Joel Munsell reports that on the restoration of the Bourbons, he went to South America, “where he found scope for his military skill.” That’s shorthand for a plot to liberate Puerto Rico from Spain, establish it as the Republic of Boricua, and turn a profit. This became known as the Ducoudray Holstein Expedition. The Spanish got wind of it, asked the Dutch government of neutral port Curacao to intercede, and Ducoudray Holstein found himself under arrest in Curacao. Over a series of trials and appeals, he was found guilty of mercenary acts and sailing under false Dutch papers, and sentenced to death. It is said that Lafayette and the government of the United States interceded with the Netherlands on his behalf, and Ducoudray Holstein found himself sailing for a new home in the United States. After a time teaching military tactics, he settled his family in remote upstate New York, where he became a professor of the French, Spanish and German languages and literature at Geneva College in Ontario County.

The General taught there for a number of years and then came to the Albany Female Academy (now known as the Albany Academy for Girls), where he taught French for six years until his death, and (again according to Munsell), “won the esteem of all who knew him.” While in Albany he wrote “The New French Reader, for the use of Universities, Colleges, Academies and Schools,containing original and selected anecdotes, biographical sketches and character portraits of persons distinguished by their genius and their knowledge.” And that was just the title. Luckily, the rest is available to us through Google Books.  He also contributed to a periodical called “The Zodiac.” He died May 23, 1839, at the age of 76, and was buried in Albany Rural Cemetery.

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At the intersection of science and art

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James Eights.pngA couple of weeks ago, I wrote about all the other Albanies that were named for our Albany. One of the most distant places on the planet was named, not for Albany, but for a prominent Albany native: The Eights Coast of Antarctica was named for prominent scientist and artist James Eights.

His exact year and place of birth are in question, but it’s fair to say he was born around 1798. The son of a physician (and possibly a physician himself; he was often referred to as “Doctor”), Eights was early associated with Amos Eaton‘s exploration and collection of the geology of the Erie Canal, and was on the board of the Albany Lyceum of Natural History, formed in 1823. He showed great skill as a draftsman, contributing detailed drawings of Lyceum specimens. He also helped in the development of the Albany Institute of History and Art.

He moved on to New York City, where he was involved with the Sketch Club, an artists’ gathering, and the New York Lyceum. With the support of Stephen Van Rensselaer (Amos Eaton’s partner in the creation of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute), Eights was appointed as naturalist on an expedition to explore the South Seas that set out in October, 1829. While this was a time when the continent of Antarctica was still hypothetical, his investigations in the South Shetland Islands turned up the first fossils from that region. In honor of that early exploration, the Eights Coast of Antarctica was named in his honor more than a century later.

His South Seas exploits hardly registered here in Albany, but he is remembered for the paintings he made of Old Albany. Later in his life, around 1850, he made a series of paintings from memory of how Albany looked when he was a boy. These beautiful watercolors are in many instances the only references we have for the long-lost old Dutch city.

A very detailed life of James Eights by Daniel McKinley is available here.

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