City Halls

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Nowadays, if you want to put on a special event, a lecture or a dance, your choices are limited to the local hotels or perhaps a school auditorium. Back in 1905, the city of Albany was lousy with public gathering places, as evidenced by this list of buildings and halls. Every fraternal order and trade association had its own meeting place with an assembly room. While not every one on this list was open for public speechifying or lantern slide shows of adventures in the Congo, most of them were. Throughout histories of the city, we find endless references to education and entertainment at places like Jermain Hall, Tweddle Hall (which I simply must write about soon), and Centennial Hall. Odd that out of all these buildings, Public Bath No. 2 would be one of the longest survivors.

Mr. Lincoln in the Collar City

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One hundred and fifty-one years ago, on his way to inauguration as President of a not-very-United States, Abraham Lincoln made a visit to Troy. Arthur J. Weise recounted the visit in “Troy’s One Hundred Years”:

“One of the memorable incidents of the year was the passage of Abraham Lincoln through the city, on Tuesday morning, February 19th, when going to Washington to be inaugurated president of the United States. In consequence of high water in the river great danger attended the plying of the ferry-boat between Albany and Greenbush, and as there was no other way of crossing the Hudson at that point it was deemed prudent to convey the president elect, his suite, and the delegations escorting him, by a train of six cars to Waterford Junction and thence on the Rensselaer and Saratoga Railroad to Troy. Not less than thirty thousand people were in and around the Union Depot to welcome the eminent statesman. While the train was crossing the bridge between Green Island and the city, a detachment of the Troy City Artillery fired a salute of thirty-four guns. As soon as the cars entered the station, the cheering multitude began struggling to get near the coach in which Mr. Lincoln was seated. It was the last car of the train. A plank was laid from the rear of it to a platform car that was covered with matting and guarded by the Troy Citizens’ Corps. Mr. Lincoln crossed on the plank to the open car, and on it, the Hon. Isaac McConihe, mayor of the city, in a brief address, welcomed him to Troy and tendered him its hospitalities. The president elect, having courteously expressed his thanks for the honor paid him, was then conducted by D. Thomas Vail, vice-president of the Troy Union Railroad Company, to the Hudson River Railroad train; the rear car of which was entered from the one on which the addresses had been made. As the train left the depot, Mr. Lincoln, standing on the platform of the last coach, bowed with uncovered head to the multitude of cheering people.”

And how did the president-elect courteously express his thanks? With the brevity, humility and grace that would come to characterize his public speeches. The Troy Daily Budget reported his remarks as follows:

Mr. Mayor and Fellow Citizens of Troy, New York:—I
am here to thank you for this noble demonstration of the citizens of
Troy, and I accept this flattering reception with feelings of profound
gratefulness. Since having left home, I confess, sir, having seen large
assemblages of the people, but this immense gathering more than exceeds
anything I have ever seen before. Still, fellow citizens, I am not so
vain as to suppose that you have gathered to do me honor as an
individual, but rather as the representative for the fleeting time of
the American people. I have appeared only that you might see me and I
you, and I am not sure but that I have the best of the sight. Again thanking you, fellow citizens, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

The night before, at Albany’s Gaiety Theater, Don Rittner reports that Mr. Lincoln first laid eyes on John Wilkes Booth.

Albany’s Best Grocers’ and Bakers’

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In 1898, J.J. Guiton & Co. wanted to assure us that when we saw that label on a bottle, it was not poison. They also claimed to be Albany’s greatest grocers.

In 1870, a Mrs. Catherine Guiton was running a grocery and saloon at 70 Canal Street, which is now Sheridan Avenue. I presume John J. Guiton was her son, who built the business up to the claim of being Albany’s greatest grocers  and, in 1907 at least, was located at  144-146 South Pearl Street, in business with Patrick C. Reilly. John and Patrick helped make legal history in 1911 in the all-important butter versus oleo debate.

Seriously, whether oleomargarine could be yellow or not was a raging battle. In “People of New York vs. John J. Guiton and Patrick Reilly,” the State contended that the grocers sold two packages of oleo to state inspectors, “honestly represented, but having a yellow color and that otherwise ‘resembled’ real butter. It was not contended that there was any misrepresentation, but the dairy authorities claimed that the law prohibits the sale, even if the product resembles genuine butter in any way.” This recounting of the case comes from “The National Provisioner,” which with a straight face called itself the “Official Organ of the American Meat Packers’ Association.” (I’d have thought kidneys, perhaps, or liver.) In its exciting coverage of the case, the official organ said, “Here was where the court dealt the butter argument a death blow. Getting at the bottom of the whole controversy at one stroke, Justice Cochrane declared that oleomargarine had as much right to a yellow shade as butter, provided its ingredients were natural, and provided it was sold under its own name.”

A search of the auction sites will turn up the occasional crock or jug from Guiton, declaring “Albany’s Best Grocers’ and Bakers’.” (The apostrophes to indicate plurals are Guiton’s, or Guitons’, not mine.)

American Seal Paint

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american seal paint.pngWilliam Connors established a paint factory in 1878 at Hill and Ida streets, close to the Poestenkill in Troy. Eventually called the Troy Paint and Color Works, the firm manufactured American Seal brand paint in “any desired shade or color.”

In 1889, “Carpentry & Building” magazine noted that “We have received from William Connors, 171 Hill street, Troy, N.Y., a circular, sample cards and other advertising matter relating to the American Seal Ready Mixed Paints. One of these relates to family colors for inside and outside work; another to floor paints, and a third to wall paints. A larger circular relates to regular house paints for inside and outside work. The colors shown are brilliant and are prepared and put up in a very attractive form.”

On January 1, 1889, the factory moved up to 677-679 River Street, “on the Hydraulic Canal.” According to the Rensselaer County Historical Society, “The company changed ownership several times over more than a century and has operated under several different names. The Connors Company built a building at 669 River Street in Troy in 1898. In 1971 the company was acquired by Monsey Products, and it moved from its long-time home on River Street to facilities in Waterford in 1979.”

There is, perhaps, a vestige of the American Seal brand name left on a decorating business in the north end of Troy.

An image search for “American Seal Paint Troy” will turn up some illustrations, posters and calendars linking the company’s product with Troy’s nationally known symbol, Uncle Sam.

Connors Paint Building

Photo by Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway of the Connors Paint building at 669 River Street in Troy.

In 2016, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway posted that the Connors paint building has been recommended by the New York State Board for Historic Preservation for inclusion on the State and National Registers of Historic Places.

Things that never will be settled

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1898’s “Illustrated History of the State Federation of Labor” is far more than its title implies, and it carries much more than the stirring stories of the formation of the Brotherhood of Bookbinders or the strikes of the Stove Mounters Union. In a section titled “Miscellaneous Laws,” it offers the turn of that other century’s equivalent of things that make you go hmmmn:

Things That Never Will Be Settled
“Engineer” says that among things that never will be settled are the following:

  • Whether a long screw driver is better than a short one of the same family.
  • Whether water wheels run faster at night than they do in the day-time.
  • The best way to harden steel.
  • Which side of the belt should run next to the pulley.
  • The proper speed of the line shafts.
  • The right way to lace belts.
  • Whether compression is economical or the reverse.
  • The principle of the steam injector.



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I suppose there are still folks named Vageline, as there were in 1898, but somehow that just strikes me as an unfortunate name for commerce. C.F. Vageline was a dealer in butter, eggs, cheese, sweet milk, cream, etc., and his milk depot was at 292 South Pearl Street. That was probably between Morton and Schuyler, about where Giffen School is today.

A grand building

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Helmes Bros Ad 4 Central 1898.pngI’ve always admired a rather grand commercial building at 4 Central Avenue in Albany, but never thought to figure out its original purpose. Then I ran across an 1898 ad that showed it in its relatively new glory as the home of Helmes Brothers Furniture Warerooms. The numbers on the eyebrow indicate that it was built in 1872. Today, 140 years later, it looks pretty much the same, although it has lost the “Helmes Bros.” marking at top. At the time it was built, this building was wildly uptown. In later years Central Avenue would become Albany’s big commercial strip, and then of course from the 1950s on it declined as the population and stores moved to suburbia.

Rolling east in this picture is the West Albany horse trolley.

Helmes brothers.pngThe Helmes brothers, by the way, were Lester and Leslie, who were engaged in a friendly fraternal contest to prove which of the brothers had the most elegant mustache.

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The Collar City, as seen from the Hudson River

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Just a couple of days ago we had the River Street view of the Cluett, Peabody & Co., factory, home of Arrow shirts and once the largest shirt factory in the world. Today, from the Library of Congress, a Haines Photo Company image of the Hudson River side of the complex. It’s a broad panorama, and should open up large if you click on it. The Cluett, Peabody buildings on the right are easy to identify, as are the George P. Ide collar factory buildings to the left, but no, I have no idea what the Little Indians Home was. This panorama was made in 1909, when the free flow of industrial effluent into the river was regarded as quite a good thing.

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Albany Type Foundry

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All Over Albany had a post yesterday about what an Albany typeface might look like. These days just about anyone with a computer can try his or her hand at designing a typeface, but for centuries it was a highly specialized craft. Individual characters had to be cut into matrices from which metal type could be cast, or adapted to a pantograph from which wooden letters, often used for larger type, could be routed. As an early center of printing in the United States, Albany was also an early center of typography.

In 1826, Richard Starr of Albany Type Foundry issued the largest selection of display types yet seen in the United States (according Kelly’s “American Wood Type: 1828-1900”). Shown here are a few samples that would have been in that early catalog. Starr’s selection included Romans in Open, Double and Meridian Shade, in sizes up to 16 points. Outlined Antique and Italic, and Tooled Antique and Italic were available up to 5-line (display) sizes. A 14 line Roman was the largest in the book.

Richard Starr was one of five brothers who worked in type in various cities in the U.S.; his brother Edwin is said to have been the first person in the country to regularly engage in punch-cutting (the creation of a typeface for reproduction) as an occupation. As early entrants to this craft, their type-making ventures frequently went out of business, and they would move on to another town. In 1824, Richard Starr set up in Albany with Obadiah Van Benthuysen, who was the first printer in the country to use steam engines to drive his machines. The letter announcing the specimen book of the Albany Type Foundry claimed that “one of this concern has been engaged in letter-cutting for more than fifteen years, and that he has cut more than one-half of all the letter now cast by all the American Founders.” They offered nonpareil (six point type) at one dollar and twenty cents a pound, brevier (about eight point) at seventy cents a pound, and other sizes at proportionate rates. Van Benthuysen exited the foundry, and firm carried on as Starr, Little & Co. It was located at 8 Liberty Street. The partners split by 1833, and Starr appears to have moved on to New York City by 1840; Little ran a type foundry for a few years longer. Various men who had worked for them set up type foundries across the state.

Albany type foundry 002.jpgThe typefaces shown here, while certainly not designed to reflect the capital city, were cut and produced here, and can be seen in any number of publications put out by Van Benthuysen, who in addition to a brisk book and broadsheet-publishing business put out various incarnations of the Albany Argus.

In 2001 a David Peat reproduced the entire catalog of a later Albany operation, the Franklin Letter Foundry of A.W. Kinsley, which I’d love to get my hands on.


Hear your neighbors

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America’s Got What-Now? In 1953, area finalists in a talent contest would compete on a coast-to-coast broadcast. The local portion was to be broadcast live from the Strand Theater, which was at 110 North Pearl Street. There must be a picture of this old theater somewhere, but today there is not trace of it. It survived into the ’60s, and was located somewhere in the area that is now a parking lot for the First Church on North Pearl Street. WGY  was then the powerhouse of local radio (50,000 watts!).

I’d love to find out what the talents were.