It was one of those things that happens sometimes, a random comment that, when thought through, makes me realize how little I know about something. Some local urban explorers have gone through the Central Warehouse, a hulking old cold storage facility and urban eyesore anchoring the north end of the waterfront district at Colonie and Montgomery streets. I had always wanted to see what was inside this old mess and of course had been afraid to find out, but a building that has a rail line directly into it – and not on the ground floor – is inherently interesting to me. Their efforts were noted over at the All Over Albany site, and I suggested, not entirely in jest, that they should put the old Bab-O factory next on their list. This instigated a little bit of back and forth, as the younger generation apparently has no idea what Bab-O is (and reaching for a similar product, I could only come up with just-as-antiquated Ajax, Comet or Old Dutch. I guess they still make Cameo because that’s the brand at my sink). Bab-O was a nationally known brand of kitchen cleanser, an abrasive scrubbing powder. Still not a surprise that folks don’t remember it, as I was recently shocked to learn that you can’t find Spic ‘n’ Span anymore – at least not in the powder form that actually cleaned things. Listen, Swiffers are convenient, but they don’t clean much.
Then I had to ask, how did I know that old hulk was the Bab-O factory? It wasn’t a memory from my youth; I didn’t grow up in Albany, and there was no signage that I could see anywhere (unlike the effusive, and mislocated, Greenbush Tape & Label building next door). Did some digging through the hard drive and found a reference to a plan for a living history site in that section of Albany, which I vaguely remembered as having some industrial history of the building. Unfortunately, the link is broken, and the report gone, as far as I can tell. But I specifically remember that it identified the building as the former Bab-O factory. That alone should have been enough to set off a firestorm of Googling that will unlock the history of the building in about five minutes. But it didn’t. There’s a lot of interesting history associated with Bab-O, but little of it to do with the building on Broadway.
Bab-O was one of many products of B.T. (Benjamin Talbot) Babbitt, a soap manufacturer who established his company in New York City in 1836 (after a previous stint as a engine and pump manufacturer in Little Falls). A quick run through the New York Times archives shows a run of articles involving a major embezzlement from his company around 1877, and a further swindle at the hands of a “lady detective” a short time later.
Because I love nothing more than 19th century industrial boosterism, I have to quote from Bishop’s “A History of American Manufactures, from 1608 to 1860,” p. 615, in the chapter titled “Remarkable Manufactories of New York”:
“The Soap and Candle Makers of New York are among the most enterprising of her manufacturers. Believing, as Leibig asserts, that the quantity of Soap consumed by a nation is no inaccurate measure whereby to estimate its wealth and civilization, the firms of J. C. Hull’s Sons, Colgate, Enoch Morgan’s Sons, Babbitt, Hay, Pyle, Brown, and Fay, are doing their utmost to place America in the first rank of the wealthy and highly civilized nations of the globe. One of these houses (B. T. Babbitt) has a gigantic Soap Kettle 63 feet in circumference and 15 feet deep (said to be the largest in the world), which has a capacity to make 250 tons of curd soap at one time. The cost of the grease alone for a single charge is about $20,000.”
Alas, I know that Babbitt himself died in 1889, that he left his wife and daughter quite well off, and that the company was sold to the Mendleson Corporation in 1918. I know that their New York property, 46-50 West Street and running through to 76 to 82 Washington Street, was made available for “modern skyscrapers” in 1910; the corporate headquarters moved uptown and the factory to, of course, New Jersey. Indications of the Albany factory are scant – an officer who was a president of the Albany chapter of the National Assn. of Cost Accountants in 1927, a Times headline from 1964: “B.T. Babbitt Set to Move Business Unit to Albany.” Not much else. Babbitt himself is buried in scenic Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx. His Albany factory, most likely built long after his death, still stands. Anybody else know anything about it?
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