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.

Blood in the snow

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It was a cold February night, 322 years ago, that 200 French, Sault and Algonquin warriors descended on the stockaded village of Schenectady. It’s unlikely that the story of the stockade being guarded by snowmen was true, though that would be a lighthearted element of an otherwise heartrending story of death by musketball, hatchet and bashing on the frontier. It was a lesser event of a forgotten war, retaliation for an earlier massacre in Lachine, near Montreal. There were no snowmen or any other guards, and the attackers found the gate ajar. The massacre began about two hours before dawn, catching the villagers in their beds. In the next hours, 38 men, 10 women and 12 children were killed. Simon Schermerhorn, wounded, mounted a horse and rode the path through the woods to Fort Orange (Albany) to raise the alarm, but by the time they could respond prisoners were already being marched north.
Survivors were rounded up and marched across the frozen river to the home of Johannes Glen in what is now Scotia, whose previous kindnesses to the French were repaid as he was allowed to save his relatives, and the legend is that he claimed far more than were related by blood. The rest were marched to Canada; some escaped or died along the way.
A Van Eps family genealogy page has a complete list of the dead, here.
Prof. Pearson’s colorful recitation of the events of the massacre is available at the Schenectady County Historical Society page, here.
The village was rebuilt before long, despite on-going tensions with the residents of Albany, who were fiercely protective of the fur trade and did not want the residents of this agricultural outpost on the Mohawk River to cut into their trade.

Cluett, Peabody & Co.

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Cluett Peabody PostcardFor some time, Hannah Montague was forgotten, even as the industry she is now credited with creating boomed. Detachable collars (and then cuffs) proved all the rage, making laundering simpler, allowing shirts to last longer. In today’s world of cheap textiles, we don’t appreciate how few garments a denizen of the 19th century may have owned. Individual items of clothing were often listed in wills; even the wealthy didn’t have an overabundance of clothing. Hannah’s invention, along with the subsequent development of the industrial sewing machine, helped to change that, but for many years her contribution was forgotten.

As late as 1908, the advertising manager of Cluett, Peabody & Co., perhaps the largest shirt manufacturer in the country, was suggesting that there should be a memorial to “the revered memory of the founder of the collar industry, the Rev. Ebenezer Brown, who is said to have made the first collar ….”

Cluett, Peabody & Co. was the  company that lasted the longest. It produced a number of brands, of which Arrow Shirts was probably the most famous. For the longest time, Arrow Shirts were synonymous with Troy. the Troy plant was thought to be the largest shirt factory in the world, and it sprawled along the river. In 1912,  the New York Times would report that Cluett, Peabody & Co., “the largest manufacturers of collars, shirts, and cuffs in the world, is to become still larger.” At that time it had factories at Troy, Rochester, Corinth, and Waterford, NY; Leominster, MA; South Norwalk, CT; and St. Johns, Quebec. The combined annual output of those plants was then 7,000,000 dozen collars and 500,000 dozen shirts.

The company endured patent suits (John Van Heusen accused them and others of stealing his unstarched collar), and Asian-made counterfeits (in the 1960s, proving nothing is new). They navigated re-attachment of the collar and the move into synthetics. But local plants couldn’t survive the trend that moved manufacturing out of the Northeast. As all the local textile business moved south (before moving out of the country), by the late ’80s the only vestige of Cluett, Peabody was the Technical Services Headquarters of the Sanforized Company, and that was soon gone. (Sanforizing, a technique for preventing shrinkage, was developed by Sanford L. Cluett.) Most of the sprawling factories have been demolished, though a section has been preserved as Hedley Park Place.

In 1989, Cluett & Peabody moved its last offices out of Troy. Some smaller manufacturers remained, but the heyday of the Collar City was gone. Arrow Shirts still exist, a subsidiary of Phillips-Van Heusen, though I honestly haven’t seen one in some time.

How the Collar City got its name

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We now believe that Mrs. Hannah Montague of 139 Third Street, Troy, invented the concept of the detachable collar in 1827, snipping the collar from one of her husband’s shirts in order to wash it separately from the shirtwaist, stitching it back in place when she was done. At the time “The Americana” reference library was compiled in 1912,  Hannah’s name was thought lost to time: “It is unfortunate, from the point of view of the historian, that the name of this clever woman should have been lost, and it is to be hoped that her inventive genius was financially rewarded.” We don’t know whether she made any money from her invention, but we do know who got the credit: a man.

As “The Americana” reported, in 1829, “Rev. Ebenezer Brown, who had retired from the Methodist ministry to establish a dry goods store in Troy, opened a small factory that he might manufacture such collars in greater quantities.” It may well be that Brown came up with the idea of re-attaching collars with collar buttons, but no one seems to have recorded this important innovation’s first appearance. With his wife, Brown began turning out collars from his shop at 285 River Street, and soon engaged a number of additional women in the work.

Hannah did benefit in some way at least. By 1834 her husband, Orlando Montague (who was previously said to be either a blacksmith or a shoemaker) went into the collar business with Austin Granger, at 222 River Street. Other collar factories started popping up, and suddenly Troy had a booming business and a large, well-trained female workforce. Around 1845, someone thought to have the cuffs match the collar, and detachable cuffs were added to Troy’s manufactures. Sewing machines began to be used in the 1850s, despite initial resistance; the firm of Wheeler and Wilson focused its efforts on the industry and eventually provided perhaps thousands of machines, driven by steam. Far from putting women out of work, historian A.J. Weise reported that “The women who, before the use of sewing machines in the factories, had been earning fifty cents a day in stitching collars and cuffs by hand, were enabled to earn with sewing machines, from two dollars to two dollars and fifty cents a day.” Once a machine could make a button-hole (1875), the entire operation could be done by machine. In addition to collars and cuffs, Troy manufacturers made shirtwaists as well, beginning in 1845.

There were many, many collar and shirt manufacturers in Troy. You couldn’t have thrown a rock on River Street without hitting one. Arthur Weise, writing in 1889, said that seven thousand girls and women obtained work from 22 manufactories in Troy, including Earl & Wilson; Cluett, Coon & Co.,; George P. Ide & Co.; Miller, Hall & Hartwell; Corliss Brothers & Co.; United Shirt and Collar Company; H.C. Curtis & Co.; Holmes & Ide; Tim & Co.; Tim, Wallerstein & Co.; Joseph Bowman & Sons; William Barker; Wilbur, Miller & Wilbur; Fellows & Co.; Gunnison & Marvin; Ball Brothers; Wood & Lewis; C.H. McClellan; J. Stettheimer, Jr. & Co.; J.H. Osterhout; Emigh & Lobdell; and Van Zandt, Jacobs & Co.

Tomorrow we’ll look at the most famous of them all, Cluett & Peabody.

Second floor, ladies’ underwear!

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Shout that out on an elevator today, and the kids won’t understand what you’re talking about. Literally. I’ve done it with my kids, and they thought I was insane. So, here’s the deal: We used to build up, instead of sprawling across the earth. The invention of stairs allowed this. Mr. Otis’s invention of the elevator let us build a little higher. This allows stores to have multiple floors. Elevators used to have operators, people who pulled levers, aligned the car with the floor and worked the doors. In department stores, these operators were also responsible for telling you what floor you were on, and what was available on that floor. And so if, for example, you were in Schenectady’s H.S. Barney store in, oh, say, 1935, when the elevator achieved the second floor the operator would open the doors and cry out, “Second floor! Women’s wear, children’s apparel, ladies’ underwear! Beauty parlor on your left! Watch your step! Coming out!” And so on. Nowadays, if you can find an elevator in a department store, it’s usually tucked into the scariest corner of the store, is self-operating, and does not warn people that you’re coming out.

The last elevators with operators that I knew of were in the New York State Capitol, but even they were automated sometime in 2006. As a result, “elevator operator” is no longer on the PSAT career aptitude list.

Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy

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Many of us who grew up in the Capital District in the 1950s and 1960s remember our class field trips to the Norman’s Kill Dairy, right down on the Normans Kill just on the edge of Albany. (The dairy favored the possessive apostrophe; the creek does not.) The school bus had to stop and we walked across the Whipple truss bridge that crossed the kill; the bus was too heavy. And so, knowing where the farm was, I was surprised to run across this ad in a mid-1930s city directory, with delightful mascot Normie saying something that could have stood a little punctuation, and to see an oddly familiar and yet out-of-place address: 120 S. Swan Street. That’s not on the edge of town, that’s right in the middle of it, just a block or two from where I work. Well, then, it turns out that Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy actually had its processing operations right downtown. Where is 120 South Swan? Today you’d recognize it as the mysterious Empire State Plaza turnaround, a legacy of the South Mall Arterial’s planned connection to a highway under Washington Park, which I wrote about last year at All Over Albany.

Having a dairy in the middle of a highway wasn’t really going to work, so as it did with hundreds of other buildings that were in the way of the South Mall (eventually re-monikered as the Empire State Plaza), the State used its powers of eminent domain to take the dairy’s property. The State tried to get the property on the cheap, claiming the plant was obsolete and demolition was imminent. A court did not agree, and granted the dairy $1.16 million for the property in 1966, which was quite a chunk of change. Whether the dairy ever really replaced the sizeable and apparently very profitable operations it had on Swan Street, I don’t know. If you take a look at eBay, you will find Norman’s Kill Farm Dairy milk bottles from time to time.

The Norman for whom the Normans Kill is named, Albert Andriessen Bradt (“Norman” refers to his place of origin, Norway, rather than a name), is my 10th great grandfather.

Troy, Before and After (the fire of 1862)

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Troy from photographic room windows

Here is another view of Troy, taken from the photographic room windows (presumably within the main building of the short-lived Troy University, though perhaps in another building) by the Rev. Edwin Emerson, professor of English literature and avid amateur photographer. This is one shot of a stereograph (“lenses 9-1/2 feet apart) that Prof. Emerson of the Amateur Photographic Exchange Club took on Nov. 17, 1861. In the distance you can see the Hudson River and the extension of Starbuck Island, where the Starbuck brothers had their iron works. Few if any of the buildings in this view still stand today, at least not in their original form, for in just a few months fire would sweep this section of Troy.

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Troy, NY after 5-10-1862 fire

While not identified as such by the Library of Congress, this photograph is almost certainly another work of Prof. Emerson. In this his stereographic camera was pointed just to the north of the 1861 photograph; the ruin of the building in the foreground, the original Troy Union Station,  is just at the right edge in the earlier shot. (The railroad tracks, from the days when trains ran through the streets, were along what is now Sixth Avenue.) This was taken shortly after the May 10, 1862 fire that burned most of Troy.

The fire began from a locomotive spark on the covered wooden railroad bridge over the Hudson to Center Island on Saturday, May 10. Driven by a strong wind, more than 500 buildings were destroyed, though it is thought that only eight lives were lost. Pretty much everything between Jacob Street to the north and Congress Street to the south was destroyed. Among the structures lost were the Troy Union Depot, which had been built in 1854, the Sixth-street Presbyterian Church, the Fifth-street Baptist Church, the Scotch Presbyterian Church, the Methodist Free Chapel, the Troy Orphan Asylum, the Children’s Asylum, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (which had not yet moved up the hill), the Troy Academy, Mrs. Warren’s Female Charity School, the Union House hotel, the Washington Hall hotel, the Fulton House hotel and Troy City Bank, as well as the W. & L.E. Gurley company and the Sheldon & Greene stove works. Among the dead were “Dr. Carey, physician; Ransom Haight, merchant; Mrs. Dunlap and child, aged 20 months; Mrs. Catharine Murray; Mr. O’Donnell, a blind man; a child named Dooley.”

Troy had burned before, in 1820 and 1854, and would suffer a number of smaller fires in later years, but 1862 would be the fire that most changed the city.

 

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