As I’ve said before, back in the late ’50s my grandfather owned a small restaurant in Aqueduct. Here’s the receipt from his application to the Town of Niskayuna for a restaurant license. Nowadays, everything is printed out on laserprinters and official letterhead seems like a thing of the past, but in the 1950s it was very unusual for any business, especially a government office, to take such a casual approach to its official paperwork. I guess they trusted that no one else could come up with a rubber stamp with the town’s name on it. At the bottom it says “Keep this slip for reference.” And so he did.
I’ve posted this before at the other blog, but it’s been a while and it’s a natural for Hoxsie.
The things you run into when you’re cleaning up your hard drive. I’ve been holding on to this for a long, long time, torn between the campy excitement of a piece of 1904 sheet music that features my hometown (even if any town that rhymed with “me” might have worked) and the embarrassment of a slightly racist piece of ephemera from the era of blackface and exaggerated dialect for comic effect. I’m not sure how this song was originally presented by the singer May Irwin, but I think time wouldn’t be kind. But ultimately, it has to be shared.
I played a three-night stand
once upon a time,
In a town called Albany,
I met a sun-burnt maiden and
I gave her a ticket free.
Oh, well, she seen dat show, I met her den,
directly after matinee,
She caught my eye, now other towns
Ain’t one, two, six wid me.
We correspond, I know she’s fond
Of letters dat she gets from me
And when dis season closes
I’m a going back to Albany.
‘Cause dat’s de only town looks good to me,
It’s on de Hudson Riber and de N.Y.C.,
I’d rather live in dat fine old place,
Where I know I can see ma baby’s face
I’ve been in ev’ry town from A to Z,
Studied all de maps like A, B, C,
But dat is de one and only town
I’m gwine back to Albany.
I’m gwine to tell you more, well,
here I am out West,
In a town called Kankakee
Dese E flat burgs and water tanks, well
dey never made a hit wid me.
I never did four-flush, I’m in a rush,
Dat gal is waiting now for me,
She said she’d meet me at de train
Dat gets dere just a-fore three,
I’ll feel just right if I land to-night
In Rochester at half past three,
I’ll catch dat Empire express train
A buzzin’ back to Albany.
May Irwin, by the way, was a genuine star. She was a Canadian born actress who hit the big time on the New York stage, was featured in the first kiss in movie history (1896), and in 1914 she appeared in a film version of the play from which this song was taken, “Mrs. Black is Back.” She owned a grand home in the Thousand Islands, retired in Clayton, and is buried in Valhalla.
In 1935, Niagara Hudson was offering an innovation in domestic convenience: an automatic water heater. But unlike today’s programs to produce on-demand hot water with tankless systems, this program didn’t involve pesky new hardware. No, for just a dollar a month, NiHud techs would come to your home, slather your tank with a mysterious insulating cream, put a lid on it, and tuck a thermocoupler and burner underneath. At least I think that’s what they were doing, but the whole rig sounds questionable at best.
Want more on the history of Niagara Mohawk? Okay, here.
Once was the time when buildings like Albany’s National Savings Bank building held more business than all of downtown holds today. (More than any of your suburban office parks, either.) So let’s take a look at all the businesses that were housed in one of Albany’s landmark buildings, 90 State Street, in 1939.
This article originally appeared at All Over Albany. It came to a great conclusion that happened to be wrong; shortly after publication, I learned that in fact the oldest business in Albany is Woodward & Hill; the full story can be found here.
I recently unearthed a 1905 ad for Danker Florist, which is still going strong today. And that led to the question: What might be the oldest business still running in Albany?
There are a few contenders.
For many years, R.B. Wing and Son was recognized as perhaps the oldest business in the city. It started around 1854 as a ship’s chandler when Albany was a booming river port, and then transitioned into construction supplies. Unfortunately, it closed in 1996 after 151 years in business, and is no longer in the running for oldest business in Albany. But it left behind one of the more distinctive buildings on Broadway, decorated with reminders of its nautical past.
The stone fabricator Adam Ross Cut Stone, now on Broadway in Albany, seems like the kind of business that’s been around for centuries. But it’s a relative newcomer, dating back only to 1889.
Hudson Valley Paper Company, the wholesale supplier of all kinds of paper and printers’ supplies, was run by the same family from its founding in 1875 until last March, when it was sold to Lindernmeyr Munroe. But even at 137 years, it’s not the oldest business in the city.
Probably the oldest business in the tri-cities would be W.& L.E. Gurley, or as they are now known, Gurley Precision Instruments. William and Lewis Gurley were both engineering graduates of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute who gained an international reputation for creating precision measuring instruments, and were particularly well known for their surveying equipment. Today they primarily manufacture highly specialized instrumentation that is used in the manufacturing, robotics, and medical fields. The firm was founded in 1845 in Troy and they are still there today, which means that for 167 years they have not been the oldest business in Albany.
It’s not entirely clear exactly when the capital city’s oldest business was founded; its current location lays claim to 1867, but that is clearly entirely too recent. An 1888 biographical note on its founder says that he had established himself some 40 years before, so a guess of 1848 can’t be far off.
The founder was “the well and favorably known merchant tailor, whose neat and popular establishment is located at No. 54 North Pearl Street, who is one of the oldest and foremost exponents of the tailoring art in Albany.” That store was a mere 25 x 80 feet in size, “nicely appointed and well ordered,” and presented “a large and elegant assortment of imported and domestic, woolen and worsted goods, including cassimeres [sic, an old spelling], cloths, checks, plaids, serges, stripe cheviot, and fashionable suitings from which the most fastidious may select a full and fine line of ready-made clothing . . . .” In adjacent shops, 20 to 30 experienced hands were employed in garment-making.
This was the establishment of Benjamin Lodge, merchant tailor, who was in 1888 “a gentleman somewhat past the meridian of life, but active and energetic, was born in Scotland, and has resided in this city upward of half a century. He is a man of strict integrity in his dealings as well as a practical and expert cutter and all around workman, and is well-known and highly regarded throughout the capital and environs.” It’s been many years since any of the clothing on offer was produced in-house, and it has long since relocated across the street at 75 North Pearl Street.
At somewhere around 164 years old, it’s reasonable to believe that B. Lodge & Co.’s famous claim to being Albany’s oldest store makes it Albany’s oldest business as well.
Reasonable, but as noted at the top of the page, wrong. Woodward & Hill deserves that honor, though it’s still completely fair to say that Lodge is Albany’s oldest department store, and even its oldest store of any kind.
In 1888, the city of Albany had about 95,000 people living within its borders (already having dropped to 29th place among cities). So what were the newspaper options for those people? “The Empire State: Its Industries and Wealth” took the time in 1888 to list Albany’s press:
- Albany Argus, daily, Sunday, semi-weekly, and weekly, Argus Company, publishers, Beaver Street, corner Broadway
- Albany Evening Journal, daily, semi-weekly, and weekly, The Journal Company, 61 State Street
- Albany Evening Post, daily, M. and E. Griffin, 7 Hudson Avenue;
- Albany Evening Union, daily, 28 Beaver Street;
- Albany Daily Herald, Jacob Heinmiller, Westerlo Street;
- Albany Law Journal, weekly, Weed, Parsons & Co., 39 and 41 Columbia Street;
- Albany Morning Express, daily and Sunday, Albany Morning Express Co., Green Street, corner Beaver;
- Albany Times, daily and weekly, T.C. Callicott, 401 Broadway;
- Daily Press and Knickerbocker, The Press Co., 18 Beaver Street;
- Criterion, weekly, Burdick & Taylor, 481 Broadway;
- Cultivator and Country Gentleman, weekly, L. Tucker & Son;
- Freie Blaetter, daily. A. Miggael, 44 Beaver Street;
- Medical Annals, monthly, Burdick & Taylor, 481 Broadway;
- Our Work at Home, monthly, Albany City Tract and Missionary Society, 9 North Pearl Street;
- Outing, monthly, Outing Publishing and Printing Co., 59 North Pearl Street;
- Sunday Press, weekly, The Press Co., 18 Beaver Street;
- Catholic Telegraph, weekly, Catholic Telegraph Publishing Co., 51 Hudson Avenue;
- The Poultry Monthly, The Ferris Publishing Co., 481 Broadway;
- The Voice, monthly, E.S. Werner, 59 Lancaster Street;
- Weekly Press and Legislative Journal, weekly, 18 Beaver Street.
Astute readers of 2012, when Albany’s population is just about 98,000 (though the metro area, of course, is vastly larger), will note that the only survivors from that list are the combined Times and Evening Union. I’m not sure what else we would include in a current list of Albany based newspapers and periodicals, beyond the weekly Metroland and Legislative Gazette.
Pictured: The Albany Evening Journal building, adjacent to the D&H headquarters now known as the SUNY Administration Building.
According to “The Empire State: Its Industries and Wealth,” published in 1888, the One Price Clothing House was originally established at Rochester, N.Y. by W.H. Spafford, who in 1887 “transferred his sphere of usefulness from that populous trade centre to the flourishing and enterprising city of Schenectady. This house has since enjoyed a well-merited and marked degree of success, owing to the general excellence and reasonable price of all goods dealt in. In July, 1888, Mr. H.F. Smith purchased the establishment. The premises occupied consist of an elegantly fitted up apartment, 90 x 75 feet in dimensions, in which the stock is advantageously displayed, and every convenience is at hand for the prompt and satisfactory execution of orders, three clerks being employed. Here can be found a full line of ready-made clothing of novel design and excellent finish, hats, caps, neck-wear, hosiery, underwear, and everything usually included in a complete assortment of men’s clothing and furnishing goods. Mr. Smith gives his close attention to every detail of the business engaged in, and leaves untried no worthy means of pleasing his many customers with the merchandise handled.”
I don’t know how long the One Price Clothing House survived. This ghost sign for the business, or at least one of its successors, is still visible from the Amtrak platform at the Schenectady station.
While we’re looking at Barney’s this week, let’s look across the street. Well, if you look there today, you’ll just see a giant hole where the former Robinson’s furniture buildings were. Before Robinson’s, one of the buildings was the Dan A. Donohue men’s clothing chain; the other was Davidson’s.
According to the 1888 “The Empire State: Its Industries and Wealth,” “Mr. J.E. Davidson, the popular and well-known clothier, hatter and gents’ furnisher, has long been an accepted leader in his special line of mercantile activity. The enterprise was inaugurated thirty-five years ago  by Mr. Davidson, and has under his energetic management been steadily successful from the outset. His patronage is derived from all parts of the surrounding country, and is of an influential and permanent character. The premises utilized consist of a double store, 35 x 100 feet in dimensions, and fitted up with tasteful appointments throughout, while every convenience and accommodation has been provided for the reception of customers and the handling of stock. The counters and shelves are burdened with a very extensive assortment of superior ready-made clothing for men, youths, boys and children, all in the latest fashions and illustrating the current demand. The display of hats and caps embraces the newest styles in men’s and boys’ headwear, while the showing in gents’ furnishing goods is complete in every particular and are marked down at remarkably cheap prices. Mr. Davidson, though a native of Germany, has resided in the United States the greater part of his life, having come here in 1848. He has made his home in this city for the past thirty-eight years.”
In 1903 an edition of “The American Hatter” noted that “The hat and clothing business of the late J.E. Davidson, Schenectady, N.Y., will hereafter be conducted by Mr. Davidson’s sons, David and Frederick, under the firm name of Julius E. Davidson’s Sons.” On February 1, 1905, fire swept the block, causing an estimated $200,000 in losses, with Davidson’s bearing the brunt of it. In 1908, the death of David Davidson resulted in the sale of $85,000 in stock, representing his half-interest in the business. If the photo from the Daily Gazette is dated correctly, Davidson’s went out of business in February 1928. The building died in 2007, unable to be saved from imminent collapse.
Howland Swain Barney was born in Greenfield, Saratoga County, March 23, 1822, to Dr. Zadoc and Eliza Swain Barney. (The Swains were among the original nine families of Nantucket.) His parents moved to Minaville, Montgomery County when he was five. He was schooled there and in 1836 came to Schenectady to work in the dry goods business of Sidney B. Potter. In 1848 he became a partner with John Ohlen & Company; in 1855 he bought an interest in Barringer and Company, buying out his partners in 1858 and establishing the company as H.S. Barney Company.
Cuyler Reynolds, writing in his “Hudson-Mohawk Genealogical and Family Memoirs,” gushes:
“He was a good judge of men and chose his subordinates with rare judgment, rarely making a mistake in his choice of men for certain positions. He rose from the bottom to the topmost rounds of the ladder and each round was gained by active and earnest effort. He was courteous and dignified in manner, somewhat after the style of the olden school. His benevolences were many and were bestowed without ostentation. His acquaintance was very large and he was sincerely honored. His other interests were large.”
The second building to house his store was built in 1872, and expanded again some time later, with substantial changes to its façade. It still stands today. In 1888, its assorted offerings included “full lines of staple and fancy dry goods, hosiery, silks, satins, plushes, blankets, ruchings, napkins, edgings, yarns, antique laces, ladies’ and gents’ furnishing goods, and all kinds of novelties in dress goods, carpets, oil cloths, lace Madras and chenille curtains, shades, etc., and everything appertaining to a first-class carpet room.” Imagine what constituted an “antique lace” in 1888. “The firm make a specialty of fashionable cloak and dress making. All cloaks, dresses and suits are produced after the latest Paris fashions . . . Fifty experienced and efficient assistants and salesladies, etc. are employed, and the trade of the house extends throughout all sections of Schenectady and the adjoining cities.”
Barney also served as a director of Mohawk National Bank, and was active in Republican politics but did not stand for office. He died in 1904.
The store continued for decades, even as Schenectady changed. Slowly the main commercial block moved east of the Erie Canal, to the blocks of State Street above Broadway (once Centre Street). Barney’s former neighbors Kresge’s and Carl Company moved up the street, joined by The Wallace Company, W.T. Grant, and Woolworth’s, leaving Barney’s as the only large department store west of the canal. It survived until 1973, when the spread of malls and suburbanization killed off most of Schenectady’s downtown department stores. Only the Carl Company and Woolworth’s (which wasn’t strictly a Woolworth’s, at least originally) survived, both making it into the 1990s. Barney’s had a very respectable 115-year run.
Image by carljohnson via Flickr