Category Archives: local history

Jobs that aren’t there any more – Bill Poster

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City Bill Poster Troy 1895.png

I suppose that in some of the big cities there might still be the staple-gun crews that run around tacking band flyers to telephone poles, but they are merely diluted descendants of the mighty bill poster of the 19th century. The phrase “Post No Bills” seemed only a curious  relic to me as a youth, something I saw in cartoons and old movie backgrounds but could make little sense of, the old usage of “bill” or “handbill” as a sheet of advertising having all but vanished. Once there was a thriving business in advertising through posting of bllls, advertising sheets that were glued to buildings, fences, and just about anything that would stand still. This ad is from 1895, when Mrs. M.E. Dundon of Troy proclaimed the power of pasted-on advertising: “The Brush A Power In The Land.” And, more to the point, “Cash Buys Paste.” Indeed it does.

How Menands got its name

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(A version of this was previously published at All Over Albany.)

So, what is a Menand?

Well, the question really is, who was Menand?

For the answer, you’d have to look back to the late 1800s, when
everyone from well-to-do collectors of exotic flora, to prosperous
homeowners with gardens, to cemetery visitors who wanted to pay tribute
to a loved one — would go to Menand’s.

Louis Menand.jpgLouis Menand was
the son of a gardener in Chalons, Burgundy, France. As early as he could
remember, he was fascinated by horticulture. “I was eight or nine years
old,” he later wrote, “when I began to try to grow plants from
cuttings. I have always been fond of cutting, properly or figuratively
speaking, except cutting my fingers.”

Eventually Louis became an estate gardener in Paris and later in the
Champagne region. In 1837 he came to New York and went to work at
nurseries in Halett’s Cove, which would later become Astoria. There he
met a young piano teacher from Albany named Adelaide Jackson. They
fell in love and were married in her family home on Park Place in
Albany, and soon took up residence in what they called “the haunted
house” on the Albany-Troy Road (Broadway). Louis began selling
plants. After a rough first year (“more than modest, that is to say
meagre, I might say miserable!!”), things began to pick up.

Menand had a fair collection of “hardy perennial plants,” which had
become pretty popular in the Albany/Troy area. Later he sold Norway
spruces, balsam firs and other popular trees and shrubs. In 1847 he
was able to buy several acres of land on what is now Menand Road, where
Ganser-Smith Park is now located, for his greenhouses and nursery.

Louis Menand Home

He cultivated plants that, no doubt, had never before been seen in
this old Dutch town — camellias, palm ferns,
cacti, and orchids, among others. Forty years later, an article in The
Gardeners’ Monthly and Horticulturist would proclaim:

“It is Mr. Menand’s aim to exhibit at least one specimen of
every known variety ; and whenever a new one is produced in any quarter
of the world, it will not be long before it may be found at Menand’s.
Thus it often happens that persons who search in vain for rare specimens
in New York and elsewhere, are generally directed to ‘a crazy Frenchman
at Albany,’ where they are sure to find what they want and carry it
away, provided their purse is long enough. In fact, it is Mr. Menand’s
aim to furnish anything from a strawberry to a tree.”

He was noted for importing exotic plants from Europe, and commanded
an impressive price for his best camellias: “a little plant four inches
high would sell for $25.”

Menand won significant awards for his plants through the years, and
continued to grow. He bought 31 acres near the entrance to Albany Rural
Cemetery, where he set up his son with a half dozen hot houses devoted
to growing cut flowers, roses, carnations, pansies, geraniums and “an
almost endless variety of other species suitable for cemetery
decoration.” These included all manner of shrubs, which no doubt still
influence the scenery in the cemetery.

His greenhouses were so popular that the Albany and Northern Railroad
added a stop there in 1856, named “Menand’s Crossing,” which the
succeeding Delaware and Hudson Railroad renamed “Menand’s Station.”

Louis set about telling the story of his life in an autobiography,
with the snappy title, Autobiography
and Recollections of Incidents Connected With Horticultural Affairs,
Etc., From 1807 up to this day 1898 With Portrait and Allegorical
Figures. ‘By an ever practical wisdom seeker,’ L. Menand. With an
appendix of retrospective incidents omitted or forgotten

The title is about as direct as the rest of the book, originally
published in 1892 and then updated in 1898. The ramblings of this
“crazy Frenchman at Albany” shed very little light on the actual events
of his life but give an incredible sense of the energetic character of
Louis Menand. There are exuberant paeans to his wife Adelaide (whom he
calls “Phanerogyne,” meaning “remarkable woman,” who died in 1890.
There are rambling thoughts on the various revolutions and republics in
France, a scathing appraisal of his arrival in a free land “where
slavery was flourishing as carnations,” and tales of intrigues at flower
exhibitions, all told in the least linear style imaginable. (The
version available here on Google Books includes several handwritten
notes by Louis.)

Louis Menand died in 1900 at the age of 94. It wasn’t until 1924 that
the apostrophe-free name of Menands became official, when the village
was incorporated.

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Around Cohoes

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They talked about aluminum siding as a technique for making old houses look new again. From a distance, these sheets, which never needed painting, looked like freshly painted wood . . .

“If you’re in aluminum storm windows,” the driver said to Trout, “you must be in aluminum siding, too.” All over the country, the two businesses went hand-in-hand.

“My company sells it,” said Trout, “and I’ve seen a lot of it. I’ve never actually worked on an installation.”

The driver was thinking seriously of buying aluminum siding for his home in Little Rock, and he begged Trout to give him an honest answer to this question: “From what you’ve seen and heard — the people who get aluminum siding, are they happy with what they get?”

“Around Cohoes,” said Trout, “I think those were about the only really happy people I ever saw.”

     — Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Breakfast of Champions

Ride from Corning Preserve to Cohoes Falls

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Among the things that aren’t here anymore

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Tilley ladders 1940, originally uploaded by carljohnson.

When I moved back to the Capital District, I was always pleased when I could buy something from a local manufacturer, a difficult enough task at the time. In the twenty years since, even more local manufacturers have gone by the wayside. One of them was Tilley Ladders of Watervliet, a nationally known maker of ladders that was in business from 1855 right up until 2004, when they called it quits. Unlike so many that have been driven out by cheap foreign competition and the evils of big box retail, Tilley was done in by insurance costs. Unfortunately, people fall off ladders, and even though Tilley didn’t get sued much, their insurance costs did them in.

Albany Fire Department in 1901

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Albany Fire Department 1901 from All Over Albany on Vimeo.

From the wonder that is the Library of Congress’s American Memory project, rare film of Albany as it was in 1901. Or at least of the Fire Department as it was in 1901. This was filmed by the Thomas A. Edison Co., and is described as “A sidewalk crowd on a main street of Albany, N.Y., watches as
fourteen pieces of horse-drawn fire equipment quickly pass by.”

The stately elms and horse-drawn fire engines are long gone, but make no mistake: those Belgian pavers are still there, and they crop up to the surface with astonishing regularity. And some streets in Albany are still entirely paved in granite block.

Click the pic for video! And don’t miss the intrepid cyclist chasing the horse-drawn engine down the pavĂ© on his bone-rattler starting at 1:14.
(Thanks to Greg and Mary at All Over Albany for being smarter about embedding video than I am. Since video is the tool of the devil, I try not to learn too much about it.)

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First Church, Albany

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First Church, Albany, originally uploaded by carljohnson.

First Church, the Dutch Reformed Church in Albany, dates to 1642, making it the oldest church in upstate and one of the very oldest in the country. This building dates to 1799, when the congregation moved from the stone church at Broadway and State Street to the outskirts of town, at Clinton and Pearl.

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You know what you don’t see much of anymore?

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Mimeographing 1940, originally uploaded by carljohnson.

Mimeographing services. For decades, mimeographing reigned supreme as the cheap, easy way to make quality copies of printed materials, and every office of any size had one. A typist would set up a stencil, which would then be attached to a spinning drum. Ink would be squeezed through the stencil and onto the sheet of paper. They’re now often confused in our nostalgic minds with dittos, the fragrant medium of school tests that also went by the name of “spirit duplicators.” Dittos worked more like offset, with a mirror-image wax-coated master that printed where the wax wasn’t, usually in a purple ink. Both technologies suffered a bit from the rise of the Xerox-style photocopier, but were truly put to death by personal computers and printers. They are still in use in the developing world, apparently because they don’t require electricity.

You don’t see a lot of typewriting services, either. And the bottom dropped right out of the multigraphing market.

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Hampton Manor Opens Tomorrow

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Hampton Manor Ad 1927, originally uploaded by carljohnson.

In 1927, Albany’s suburbs were just beginning their boom. More and more people had the means to escape the crowded, dirty, coal-choked city through the spread of trolleys and private automobiles, and outlands like Menands and East Greenbush became attractive alternatives, with the cleaner air of the country yet only a few minutes from downtown Albany, where most of the work was.

The lake is still a beautiful resource, well used by residents and visitors despite the loss of swimming facilities and lack of investment in the scenic park along the shore. On any pleasant evening, dozens of residents will be walking the mile loop around the lake, watching the anglers, geese and the occasional paddler. (You can no longer see the lake from the Pittsfield road, though, and few would call recognize the Columbia Turnpike by that name.)

The promised pure spring water still exists, and while it isn’t quite free, we don’t have water meters. Unfortunately, our water is so mineral-rich that many of us are pining for the day we finally connect to the county water supply. Modern appliances aren’t fond of hard water.

The trolleys haven’t run in quite some time, and bus service is limited but still runs right through the neighborhood. By car it’s still only 7 minutes to downtown, if you hit the lights just right. And it’s still a great neighborhood to live in.

“Don’t mind the ‘Detour’ signs. They don’t apply to Hampton Manor.”

Click here for more articles on Hampton Manor.

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When boats were made of paper

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One of the joys of living near the Hudson River is seeing the rowing clubs plying their sleek craft across the water at dusk and dawn. The Hudson has long been a favorite of rowers, and for a few decades after the Civil War, it was home to a race-winning curiosity: the paper boat.

In the golden age of the inventor, restless creativity abounded. Elisha Waters had a cardboard box factory in northern Troy near the old State Dam. He was always on the lookout for new markets for his products, from match boxes to bra cups.

The story is told that his young son George needed a mask for a masquerade ball, but balked at paying high store prices. He borrowed a mask for a model from which he would mold his own mask, using paper pulp from his father’s box factory. How he made the leap from masks to boats is recorded in the style unique to the age: “‘Cannot,’ he queried, ‘a paper shell be made upon the wooden model of a boat? And will not a shell thus produced, after being treated to a coat of varnish, float as well, and be lighter than a wooden boat?'” Whether his flash of inspiration was actually so articulate, in 1867, George struck on the idea of preparing paper so it could be laid over molds and shaped into rowing shells. The Waterses formed a new company with respected Col. George T. Balch, late of the U.S. Ordnance Department, and set out to prove their paper boats had the fastest lines on the water.

According to an 1871 history of rowing, “The paper sheets are moulded over wooden forms, in a moist state, and when dried, are taken off in a single piece, without joint or seam on either outer or inner surface, and thus causing the least possible friction, for easy and rapid passage through the water . . . The paper skin is finished with hard varnishes, and presents a solid, horny and perfectly smooth surface to the action of the water, unbroken by joint, lap, or seam from stem to stern. This surface can be polished as smooth as a mirror, if desired; it cannot be cracked or split like wood . . . .”

Odd though it may sound, paper then was substantially different from paper today. Rather than being made primarily from wood fibers, paper in the 19th century was made primarily from linen or cotton fiber. Worn out clothes were given or sold to the local rag man, who would collect enough quality fiber to sell to the local paper mill. (Of local note, Kirk Douglas’s father was a rag man in the textile town of Amsterdam.) Long fibers made a strong sheet, and laid up, sealed with resin and varnished, and in that way preparing paper wasn’t so different from preparing fiberglass or other modern boat materials. But even so, convincing the public that paper would float must have been a challenge. The new Waters, Balch & Co. embarked on a very modern public relations campaign, getting their boats placed with some of the top crews of the day, winning races, and being sure the word got out. Robert Johnson’s “A History of Rowing in America” notes that Waters, Balch paper boats “were pulled by the winners of fourteen matched races, in 1868, twenty-six match races during the season of 1869, (their second year in use,) and fifty in 1870 . . . .” As early as 1871, the company was putting out a 400-page catalog, featuring not only its boats and their accomplishments, but articles on rowing, training, setting up a rowing club and even making a boathouse.

In 1878 well-known sportsman Nathaniel Bishop published “Voyage of the Paper Canoe,” his tale of rowing the Waters 14-foot creation “Maria Theresa” from Troy (having arrived there in a wooden canoe from Quebec) to the Gulf of Mexico, which further promoted the virtues of Waters’ lightweight, durable craft: “I embarked in my little fifty-eight pound craft from the landing of the paper-boat manufactory on the river Hudson, two miles above Troy. Mr. George A. Waters put his own canoe into the water, and proposed to escort me a few miles down the river. If I had any misgivings as to the stability of my paper canoe upon entering her for the first time, they were quickly dispelled as I passed the stately Club-house of the Laureates, which contained nearly forty shells, all of paper.”

This was all during a forgotten boom in rowing – according to the New York Times, from 1868 to the end of 1870, boat clubs in the U.S. and Britain increased from 56 to 247, part of one of our nation’s periodic physical fitness crazes. Professional racing teams abounded, and the sporting public took tremendous interest in the outcome of regattas. The Times, crediting Col. Balch with the writing of the catalog, said that he “deserves the thanks of every man in this country who really wishes to see moral and mental health and beauty combined with physical.”

While George focused on the boat business, Elisha continued to search for other uses for paper, including the first paper can for oil, and he hit on the idea of making observatory domes from paper, installing the company’s first one for the Williams Proudfit Astronomical Observatory at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1878. The 29-foot diameter dome was a success, except that a large telescope was never placed underneath it, and in 1900 the dome was replaced with a normal roof; the building was modified several times and razed in 1959. Paper domes were also built for West Point, Columbia University, and Brooklyn Polytechnic Institute.

Every boom turns to bust. The Waters boat factory had a good 30-year run, even as other makers entered the market and gambling scandals in the 1890s killed professional rowing and public interest in the sport. But while preparing a shell for the Syracuse University crew in 1901, George Waters caused a fire with a blowtorch that burned the entire factory. Claiming losses greater than their insurance would cover, the Waters company never rebuilt and George died the following year, followed by his father Elisha in 1904.

(A version of this article was also posted at All Over Albany)

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