Category Archives: local history

So where was celluloid invented?

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First Plastic Marker DSC_6413

For years I’ve meant to get a picture of this marker, located next to a defunct Friendly’s restaurant not far from our old Albany neighborhood, where Southern Boulevard meets Delaware Avenue. The shopping plaza and the Friendly’s were brand new then, back in 1990, and I even had some vague memories of the big brick factory building that had been on the site just a couple of years before. home to the Albany Hyatt Billiard Ball Co. The marker proudly proclaims one of the least-known historic facts about Albany – that it was here that the first practical plastic, celluloid, was invented and developed into commercial products.

First Plastic
Celluloid – Invented 1868
by John Wesley Hyatt
First Use – Billiard Balls
Albany Billiard Ball Co.
The Plastics Pioneers Assoc.

While it has the appearance of an official Education Department historic marker, this was most likely a privately placed marker, perhaps installed when there was some controversy over the possible redevelopment of the site in the mid-’80s. Thanks to this marker, I’ve always been proud to know the location of the development of celluloid. Except, of course, that it’s wrong.

While the final version of the Albany Hyatt Billiard Ball Company manufactured at this distant location, in the late 1800s this was farmland, part of the town of Bethlehem and served by the Normansville post office. The closest thing to industry was a paper mill on the Normanskill. And the location of the factory isn’t the only cloudy part of this story.

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Corruption at the Capitol, 1910-style

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Lewis Hine Schdy newsies 1910 halfton
Tne New International Year Book, “A Compendium of the World’s Progress for the Year 1910,” provides a neat little summary of the complicated dealings of Senator Allds, highlighted yesterday when I wondered about the headlines being displayed by Lewis Wickes Hine’s Schenectady Newsies of 1910. The Allds scandal had it all: bribery, bridge and sugar beet interests, thousands stuffed into envelopes, uncovering of additional corruption, and guilty legislators who had the good grace to die before all this came to light. So, from precisely a century ago, the New International Year Book’s summary of the Trial of Senator Allds:

The death of Senator John Raines in 1909 made it necessary to choose a new leader of the Republican majority in the Senate. This leader, according to custom, is made president pro tempore of the body. In January the Republican caucus selected Senator Jotham P. Allds from Chenango county in the middle of the State. A small group of Republican Senators refused to act with the caucus on the ground of personal objection to Mr. Allds. The caucus selection was, however, duly chosen and installed. Shortly afterwards, a highly sensational statement appeared in the New York Evening Post charging Senator Allds with having received bribes, the statement being based upon accusations made by another Senator, Mr. Conger. The latter was connected with bridge companies . . .

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Schenectady newsies, Albany corruption: 1910

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Lewis Hine Schdy newsies 1910.jpg
It’s Schenectady’s turn. Apparently during his documentation of child labor in 1910, Lewis Wickes Hine visited the Electric City, too. Unfortunately, if he recorded the names of the boys he photographed, their names have been lost. These proud newsies, none of whom looks much older than 10, are hawking the Daily Union and the Evening Star. The Daily Union began in 1894; the Evening Star began in 1886. They would merge in 1911, not long after this picture was taken, as the Union-Star. The Union-Star, published evenings in a building on Clinton Street just behind the Schenectady Savings Bank, survived until 1969, when it moved out of town to Albany, merged with the Knickerbocker News and given a short lease on life.

I’m not sure of the location; it could be a lot of places, though I wouldn’t be surprised to learn it’s Jay Street. The upper story is taken up by an optical shop (perhaps an optometrist), offering lens grinding, “eyes tested” and “glasses fitted”. They’re also selling automobile goggles, still a necessity in the open top days. The lower story is a barber shop and shoe shine at which all shines were 5 cents. The news of the day included details on the loss of the French steamliner General Chanzy, which exploded off Minorca February 9, 1910, just over one hundred years ago, with a loss of 200 lives.

The headline on the Daily Union, “General Legislative Investigation,” gives both comfort and despair that nothing ever changes. This likely relates to investigations into the strange case of Senators Allds and Conger, who briefly occupied headlines across the state in early 1910. To judge from articles in the Times, Sen. Jotham P. Allds of Norwich had accepted a bribe from Senator Benn Conger of $1000 to kill a bill some nine years earlier, when he had been an Assemblyman. Apparently this emerged when Conger, notable as the president of the Corona Typewriter Company and holder of stock in a bridge company that would have been affected by the bill, was called upon to give his reasons for refusing to support now-Senator Allds for the position of President pro tempore of the Senate in 1910. Sen. Conger expressed the opinion that “that little business between ‘Jo’ and me was merely a flea bite compared to some of the things they pulled off in Albany in those days.” The New York Times would report that Speaker James W. Wadsworth, Jr., said, “The earnest hope was expressed by all that the Senate should so conduct the pending investigation as to free it from any suspicion of attempting to apply whitewash or of being influenced in the slightest degree by political pressure.” See? They don’t even have to change the copy from a century ago. Allds was found highly guilty and resigned to avoid expulsion. Conger resigned as well, so the politicians of the brave new century either had a little more class or some sense of shame once caught in their misdoings. The 21st century has little use, apparently, for such antiquated notions.
I’ll have more newsies soon, and Alco boys, too.

If you want more on Senator Allds, it’s here.

Albany Newsies, 1910

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This photo by celebrated photographer Lewis Wickes Hine shows a group of newsies selling evenings in saloons and stores. It was taken in an alley in back of the City Jail at 10 P.M. Left to right: Dominick Mardilo, 28 1/2 Fulton Street; Roderick Towle, 44 Sheridan Ave.; William Towle, brother, 44 Sheridan Ave.; Louis Strasburg, 40 Mulberry Street; Max Erlich, 101 Dallius Street.

Lewis Wickes Hine was a sociology professor who used photography as a tool for reform; this picture and many others that preserve bits of Capital District and national history were taken for the National Child Labor Committee; Hine’s work was some of the earliest documentary photography. His work helped bring about child labor laws but, more importantly to me, he preserved images of people and places that would otherwise never have been documented.

Four daily newspapers are captured here – the Evening Journal, the Times-Union, the Evening Sun, and the Evening Telegram. Although Albany probably had at least seven daily newspapers then, I think the Sun and the Telegram may have come upriver from New York City. If there’s an afternoon newspaper alive today, I’m unaware of it; Albany’s last, the Knickerbocker News-Union Star, died in 1988. Officially, it merged into the Times-Union, which had long since switched to morning production.  Lincoln’s image is prominent because it was his birthday, then celebrated on his actual birthday, February 12, because the mattress sales interests hadn’t yet gotten hold of Congress and merged Lincoln’s and Washington’s birthdays into a single day of weak remembrance.

There’s more . . . .

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Know your Presidents!

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Martin Van Buren

Image by carljohnson via Flickr

In honor of Presidents’ Day, our generation’s way of efficiently ignoring our country’s heritage of leadership by lumping two national heroes together, I thought I’d share with you some little-known presidential facts.

  • James A. Garfield never wore a tie. His assassination, often ascribed to a crazed anarchist, was in fact a calculated commission by the cravat cabal.
  • William Howard Taft was the only William Howard Taft ever to become president.
  • Franklin Pierce, although he came from New Hampshire, was the first future U.S. president to be born in the nineteenth century.
  • Chester Alan Arthur, buried right here in Menands, despised Martin Van Buren for being buried right here in Kinderhook. He also never hugged his mother.
  • Benjamin Franklin was the only president of the United States who was never president of the United States.
  • Millard Fillmore ran a small tailoring shop in the East Wing of the White House to supplement his income and, as he put it, “to keep my hand in.”
  • James Buchanan, who allowed the Confederate secession and the loss of Federal arsenals, forts and troops, often referred to himself as “the worst president in history.”
  • Calvin Coolidge enjoyed riding with the top down.
  • William Henry Harrison had no idea who “Tippecanoe” was, and John Tyler flatly refused to tell him.
  • Although historians and academics rarely acknowledge it, both Washington and Lincoln traditionally bought new bedding on their birthdays. Combining their birhdays into a single Federal holiday was meant to put an end to the Mattress Wars and ease the consciences of loyal Americans who fretted over which president to honor with a new mattress purchase.
  • There was no 24th president.
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A Tourist’s Guide through Albany

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Among the delights and pleasures of the worldwide web, Google Books, and public domain is the ability to discover, dissect, and disseminate tomes from yesteryear that were otherwise moldering in the locked “local history” room of the public library, available only to those willing to submit to the suspicions of the collections librarian and able to copy it all out in longhand. Thank you, computer age, for making it easier to connect to the past.

One of those discoveries has been “The Tourist’s Guide Through the Empire State,” edited and published by a Mrs. S.S. Colt in Albany in 1871, and, in the manner of the time, bearing even more title: “Embracing all cities, towns and watering places, by Hudson River and New York Central Route, describing all routes of travel, and places of popular interest and resort along the Hudson River, Lake George, Lake Champlain, the Adirondacks, Saratoga, Niagara Falls, etc. etc.” No small feat, but Mrs. Colt is quite up to it. There is way too much about Albany (or, as she titles it, The Capital City) to post in one stroke; there will be more. Enjoy this for openers. (All emphasis is, I assure, original to Mrs. Colt.)

The oldest city in the United States, excepting St. Augustine, is Albany. As such, it claims the reverence, not only of every true-hearted Dutch-man, but of every member of the universal Yankee nation, which has no geographical limit this side of Saturn’s rings. Until within a few years, Albany was, in every sense of the word, an old-fashioned town. The Present is still linked with the Past more inseparably here than in any other city in the State. To write of Albany, and disregard that conservative element which once admitted outsiders to a position in “good society,” under this protest –

“Take, take the Yankees in,
   And end this fuss,
Or be assured, my Lords,
   They’ll take in us!

would be to present but a dry narrative of dates and directory of Public Buildings.

Oh, there’s more . . . .

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Albany’s only “garage-IN” hotel!

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Wellington Hotel postcard.jpgMuch has been written about the demise (and hopefully redevelopment) of Albany’s Wellington Hotel. Saving the facade of the Wellington, the completely forgotten Berkshire Hotel, and the more glorious Elks Lodge turned out to be the best that could be hoped for after a couple of decades of not entirely benign neglect by speculators. While there seem to have been many stories of Albany history, political and personal, attached to better known landmarks like the Kenmore and the DeWitt Clinton, stories and images of the Wellington are scarce. But somewhere in my hoovering of the web, I came across this delightful old postcard from better times, unfortunately undated, that shows the forgotten extent of the Wellington. Its second building is forgotten but, as far as I can tell, still standing, and not part of the current redevelopment. Whether it connected to the State Street building underground, or if patrons were obliged to slog across Howard Street, I simply don’t know, though the attraction of a “garage-in” hotel would certainly be limited if the main part of the hotel wasn’t accessible from the garage. Anyone who knows more about how the Wellington was laid out, please feel free to comment.

(Like most typographical oddities, the odd emphasis on “Garage-IN” leads one to wonder if, hidden somewhere in Albany, there was a “Garage-OUT” hotel, making a similar claim.)

(Oh, yeah – click on the postcard to see it large!)

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The city gone by

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It’s hard to imagine how different the Albany of the past was from the Albany of today, how different the character of community and everyday life. I look at the old buildings as I walk or bike through town and imagine a time when things were very different. All 16 floors of the State Bank building were full (full!) with every kind of venture imaginable – a beauty salon on the 9th floor, offices of sand and gravel companies, the Buckeye Ribbon and Carbon Company, and more lawyers than you could shake a stick at. But Albany, like every other city, was filled with ventures that have been lost to globalism or time. Once it was home to a handful of piano makers, which is about how many there are in the world now (and the piano makers of Albany supported the felt makers of Dolgeville). But the city was home to all kinds of things that strike us as strange today, as evidenced by these clippings from the Sampson & Murdock 1907 Directory of the Cities of Albany and Rensselaer.

Harry Wild 1907.pngFor instance, lambs’ tongues. It’s hard to imagine a food supplier today who would highlight, of all the things in their inventory, the availability of lambs’ tongues. But Harry E. Wild apparently thought that was a major selling point in 1907.

But yes, there’s more . . . .

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