Mertens & Phalen

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I don’t think I’ve ever heard of Mertens & Phalen, but to judge by this ad from 1892, they were once a sizeable manufacturer of clothing in the Collar City. You can still find a number of trade cards and even some sheet music advertising the firm on eBay, but all other traces of the only genuine manufacturer of best made, perfect fitting, reliable clothing in Troy or Albany are gone. Where the building stood at River, Grand and Fourth in Troy is now a parking lot across from the Franklin Plaza.

The other corner of State and Pearl

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Hoxsie will have more next week on the Old Elm Tree Corner, where the Livingstons lived it up. Meanwhile, on the opposite corner of State and Pearl streets was the Staats house, which  was built from 1659 to 1667 and survived until 1887. It was originally home to generations of the Schuyler family, and then was known as the Staats house. At the time of this photograph, the streets were commercial and the old Staats house was the site of A.F. Waldbillig’s “Deutsches Photograph Atelier,” the most perfect mix of mongrel nomenclature I’ve ever seen.

It was removed in 1887 to make way for the Albany County Bank. The corner is now home to a nameless glass office building that houses IBM, M&T Bank and others.

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The Albany Post-Boy

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Long-time Albany residents and readers of this page are probably familiar with some of the old newspaper names of Albany: Times, Knickerbocker News, Albany Gazette, Albany Argus. The Post, the Herald, the Evening Journal. But the very first newspaper in Albany? The Post-Boy.

Yes, that was an unusual name even then, and it’s not clear how many editions carried that name. It appears the paper was also known as the Albany Gazette. Isaiah Thomas, in his 1874 History of Printing in America, wrote that “I have applied to several gentlemen in Albany, for particular information relative to this paper; but have not succeeded in procuring it. At this period, very little intelligence respecting it can be obtained. I am, however, told that it was called, The Albany Post-Boy.”

Thomas believed that this paper was begun in November 1771, making Albany the second city in the State of New York into which printing was introduced. “The earliest copy that has been discovered after a search of many years, is No. 8, dated Jan 20, 1772, and there are a few copies of about that date preserved in the collection of the Albany Institute. In one of these the publisher, “from motives of gratitude and duty,” apologized to the public for the omission of one week’s publication, and hoped that the irregularity of the mail from New York, since the first great fall of snow, and the severe cold preceding Christmas, which froze the paper prepared for the press, so as to put a stop to its operation, would sufficiently account for it.”

The Post-Boy, possibly also the Gazette, was published by Alexander and James Robertson, Scots and Loyalists. At least one of them removed to Norwich, Connecticut in 1773, but publication continued until 1776, when the remaining Robertson removed to the relative safety of British-controlled New York.

Thomas also tells us more about the next newspaper, which would be printed by Mr. Webster of the Old Elm Tree Corner:

The next paper here was the New York Gazetteer and Northern Intelligencer, which was first published in May, 1782, by Balentine & Webster. It was printed on a sheet of short demy, with pica and long primer types, at 18s. ($1.62-1/2) a year. Advertisements of subscribers were to be inserted three weeks gratis. Balentine was addicted to intemperance, and Webster separated from him at the end of a year. The former then enlarged the size of his paper, but abandoned it after one year, when Webster returned from New York, and began the publication of the Albany Gazette, which was continued until 1845. The only works printed by Balentine & Webster, that have come to light, are a pamphlet, by the Rev. Thomas Clarke, of Cambridge, Washington county, entitled Plain Reasons, being a dissuasive from the use of Watts’s version of the Psalms, in worship, and an Almanac for 1783. The only work of Balentine’s press, is an Almanac of 1784. Mr. Webster began an Almanac in 1784, for the year following, entitled Webster’s Calendar, or the Albany Almanac, which is still published, and is the oldest almanac extant in the United States.

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Noah Webster

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As noted yesterday, Noah Webster was a cousin to prominent Albany publisher Charles Webster, who set up shop on the Old Elm Tree Corner at State and Pearl Streets. Although he was a Connecticut native and Yale graduate who taught in Glastonbury, West Hartford, and Hartford, Connecticut, Noah was a frequent visitor to Albany and the surrounding area. Noah Webster was a strong advocate of American independence and nationalism. Brought to New York City by Alexander Hamilton to edit the Federalist Party newspaper, he founded the city’s first daily paper, American Minerva. His development of a speller, a grammar and a reader in the 1780s were aimed at providing an American approach to education. His “Compendious Dictionary of the English Language” came in 1806, followed by a 27-year effort to create “An American Dictionary of the English Language.”

A much-sought-after speaker, Webster visited his cousin in Albany with some frequency, at least annually from 1786 to 1792. Far from taking in only Albany, he also visited Claverack, Hudson, Schenectady, Cohoes falls, Lansingburgh, and Bennington. He lectured along the way, but also listened to others. He also witnessed the strange customs of the Shakers: “Visit the Shakers at the evening worship. Monsters of absurdity! But absurdity exists every where under different shapes.”

In planning to lecture in Albany in 1786, his friend Richard Sill told him “A visit from you would be peculiarly agreeable to me and all your friends with us, but am sorry to confess to you that I do not think any pecuniary motive ought to induce you to visit this place. The Inhabitants are all, or principally the descendants of the first settlers from Amsterdam who have been taught to read and write their native language, and as is the case with all nations, are strongly prejudiced in favour of it. The English tongue has ever been disagreeable and the majority of them now speak it more from necessity than choice.” He did lecture, and also went to hear a sermon at the Dutch church: (May 14, 1786: “Hear the Dutch Parson Westils — understand not a word”).

A competitor in early American orthography, Lyman Cobb, wrote a long criticism of Mr. Webster’s dictionary that was originally published in a series of editions of the Albany Argus in 1827-8.  Included in the criticism was the charge that Webster hadn’t written his dictionary himself, but instead engaged a Mr. Aaron Ely to compile it.

After his death in 1843, the rights to the dictionary were purchased by George and Charles Merriam, who developed the Merriam-Webster dictionary series. Those Merriams were the brothers of Homer Merriam, who had a little map- and globe-making business in Troy.

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Websters, printing, and the Old Elm Tree Corner

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More about Albany’s Old Elm Tree Corner, the northwest corner of State and Pearl streets, where the Livingstons had their family home for decades. The two houses immediately north of the Livingston home belonged to the Webster brothers, Charles and George.

Charles Webster and Solomon Balantine set up a printing office on Middle Lane, connecting State Street to Maiden Lane in 1782, their “printing materials consisting of as many types, as Balantine often said, as a squaw could carry in her bag,” Howell reported in his Bi-Centennial History. After a split in the partnership and a sojourn to New York, Webster returned to Albany in 1784, re-established a newspaper called the Albany Gazette, and printed the first edition of what came to be the well-known Webster’s Almanac, a collection of astronomical information, brief histories and odd stories, none too different from the modern Farmer’s Almanac. His twin brother George joined him in the business for a number of years until his death in 1821.The brothers also owned the first paper mill in northern New York, which was built in 1792 on the west side of the Poestenkill in Troy, from which they supplied their own and other publishers’ needs.

When their Middle Lane office was destroyed by fire in 1793, the Websters erected a building on the Old Elm Tree Corner, where they conducted business of bookselling, binding and printing until Charles’s death in 1832. The almanac continued to be published by Joel Munsell for many years. (The same corner had been home to Albany’s first bookstore, a pre-Revolutionary business run by a Stuart Wilson in a Dutch house.)

Charles was a well-known Federalist, and his Almanac and Gazette were widely read and known. His fame, however, was eclipsed by his second cousin, an occasional visitor to Albany and Lansingburgh (Troy) by the name of Noah Webster, whose development of a speller, grammar and reader in the 1780s made him a leader in the movement to create an American approach to education, and also made him a much sought-after speaker. Some years later, he wrote his “Compendious Dictionary of the English Language”, and 27 years after that, his “An American Dictionary of the English Language” rather finished the debate of which of the Websters would remain the best-known.

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Elm Tree Corner

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Old Elm Tree Corner.pngThe corner of State and Pearl streets in Albany is nearly as old as the city itself, and has long been an important historic intersection. The northwest corner was home to generations of the Livingston family. Robert Livingston was a Lord of the Manor from Scotland who came to Albany and gained wealth in fur trading and gained a patent to Livingston Manor, in modern Columbia and Dutchess Counties. He established his home at this corner in 1675. Son Philip was born here and became the second lord of Livingston Manor, married the daughter of an Albany mayor, and became wealthy in the slave trade. One of Philip’s sons, also Philip, was born here in Albany, graduated from Yale College, and settled into the mercantile life in New York City. He had an active military career and became one of the radicals calling for separation from Great Britain. He was the president of the New York Provincial Congress, and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. (This is the Philip for whom the local magnet school is named.)

It is said that in 1735 the younger Philip planted the elm tree that grew to give this corner its name. While in later years elm trees would define the grand boulevards of most American cities (and their loss, to Dutch elm disease, would greatly change the character of those streets), this planting must have been unique in Albany, as there was no question which was the Elm Tree Corner, and it continued to be known by that name even after the tree itself was cut down on June 15, 1877. Sadly, it was cut down to allow paving of the street and sidewalks.

For many years there was a tablet commemorating the corner, which read:

“Old Elm Tree Corner. So named from a tree planted here by Philip Livingston about 1735. Removed 1877. Also the site upon which were published Webster’s famous reading, spelling book and almanac, and the first Albany newspaper, the Albany Gazette, 1771.”

More on Webster and the Elm Tree Corner tomorrow.

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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.”