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.

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.