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.”

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
know.”

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.

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http://alloveralbany.com/archive/2009/05/12/legs-diamond-and-the-kenmore-hotel

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.