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Of Speaking Tubes and Kalsomining

Dec 29, 2009 2:21 PM | 0 comments

To leaf through our Letterhead Collection is to enter a world that is at once familiar and strange.  Consisting of about 5000 letterheads, bills, receipts, blotters and advertising ephemera arranged alphabetically in looseleaf binders,  this collection is the work of local historian Brian Merlis who gathered the items over the course of 25 years, between 1980 and 2005. Taken together these letterheads form a kind of living directory of Brooklyn businesses, conveying  the flavor of a bygone era through artwork and iconography, as well as the lists of items sold. The letterheads cover the years from around 1860 through the 1950s.

Many of the businesses represented would not be out of place in a directory dated 2009; there are plumbers and locksmiths and lumber dealers, carpenters and builders, general contractors, brewers  and office suppliers. But every now and again you come upon a business or an object that has faded away, replaced by some electronic gadget or other new invention or, in the case of the many horse-related businesses, by the trades relating to the automobile.

Speaking tubes

A sampling of the first and last binders in the series revealed several defunct trades and objects. John Abt, Locksmith and Bell Hanger,  had a sideline in electric bells and burglar alarms. While burglar alarms and electric bells are completely up to the minute, not so another of the services he offered--the installation of speaking tubes in old and new houses.  The speaking tube was a tube with a flared cone at either end. You spoke into one end and then placed the cone against your ear to hear the reply. The sound quality could not have been any worse than the intercom in my apartment building, in fact maybe at the next board meeting I'll suggest we replace the intercoms with speaking tubes. At least they are less likely to break.


Louis Albohn was a painter and paperhanger who disarmingly boasts "Estimates cheerfully given." (A shrewd business practise no doubt, for no one offering an estimate glumly is ever invited back to my house and I'm sure I am not alone.) Louis Albohn had a third string to his bow--Kalsomining.  Kalsomine or Calcimine, sometimes also known as distemper, was a wall coating made of glue, zinc oxide, water and pigment; it was rendered obsolete by the advent of vinyl (and later, acrylic) paint in the 1950s.

I am sure Mr Albohn managed to make the adjustment to vinyl paint perfectly well. I wonder whether the American Auto Motor Locking Device Co, manufacturers of the Automobile Starting Crank (Patented), located at 141-143 Stockholm Street, managed to find another business model after the invention of electric starters.

Automobile starting crank

There are still a few lucky people around who burn wood in their fireplace, but coal seems to have gone the way of whale oil in New York City, a fact one can observe without the slightest regret.  On March 20 1899, Daniel W. Wilkes delivered 15 tons of Nut Coal to the Mount Prospect Reservoir, right behind site of the future Central Library, at a price of $4.69 per ton. Something had to power those water pumps, and now we know it was best quality nut coal delivered 15 tons at a time.

 Delivering coal was and is probably not the pleasantest of jobs, but it might have been preferable to the work of the Night Scavenger.  This is an example of a trade that still exists--septic tanks and the like must still be cleaned out--but the name has fallen into disuse. Andrew Wissel, Night Scavenger,  had the unenviable task of cleaning out a privy at No 44 Skimmerhorn (sic) Street for Mr Burke, agent for the Estate of Peter O'Hara, on August 27, 1860. For this he charged $27.00. It must have been a big privy, because $27 in 1860 was worth about $720 in today's money. Come to think of it, given the choice of a career as a paperhanger or an emptier of privies, I think after examining the relative pay I'd have to follow the example of Mr Wissel, who seems to have been on to a good thing.

Night Scavenger


The Season for Giving

Dec 22, 2009 11:02 AM | 0 comments

As this is the season for giving, it seemed timely to look at  a few of the gifts Brooklynites of yore might have offered to one another. Our growing collection of trade catalogs contains not only lists of screws, greenhouses, surgical instruments and the like, but also catalogs from department stores, furriers and all kinds of other traders. In search of holiday gifts just now I came upon the 1889 catalog of Wechsler and Abraham, the forerunner of Abraham and Strauss, now Macy's on Fulton Street. As this is my year for giving gloves, of which one can never have too many, I turned to that page.  You could get a pair of cashmere gloves for a quarter but they wouldn't be much use in a Brooklyn winter. I'd rather go for the "Women's fleeced gloves in Taffeta silk, plush lined, extra quality" for $0.75 or going further upscale, "cable stitched nutria fur at $1.25."  Gentlemen could have "beaver fur, spring top, cablestitched, embroidered gloves" for $2.00 or rugged-looking Orinoco gloves made from "oil tan stock, English fleece lined," for $0.75.

Gloves from Wechsler and Abraham, 1889

I  liked the look of the Gents Fixings page, but you would have to be rather intimate with a gentleman before offering suspenders I think.

Gents Fixings, Wechsler and Abraham catalog 1889

A less personal but more costly gift would be an umbrella.  These handles could be used for umbrellas, canes or riding crops with prices ranging from $0.75 to $25.  The bottom row in the illustration is "14 Karat gold plate, nicely carved; made up on choice twill silk, paragon frame, best finish etc, 26 inch $3.75." Now there's a bargain if ever there was one.

If you really wanted to impress your girlfriend with an extravagant gift, you might want to go to the Balch Price Company at 376-378 Fulton Street and 14-18 Smith Street. Our catalog for this store dates from 1914, but the company was established in 1832. Some of these coats are so expensive the prices are not shown, but this little skunk set retailed at only $65. I am not sure what a gift of skunk would say about your feelings for the recipient but it's certainly a stylish little outfit (although I am compelled to add that it looks even more dapper on the skunk .)

Skunk Set, Balch Price Co 1914

If all of this is getting a bit rich for you, let's turn to stocking fillers. Silver's and Co of 304-314 Hewes Street put out a lovely undated catalog some time around 1900.  This manufacturer of kitchen furnishing goods and household inventions produced so many gadgets that even the most frugal and practical of cooks would be seduced. 

Who could object to the Brooklyn Egg Timer, for example? I'd consider the gift of a life free of runny boiled eggs to be a very thoughtful one.  The Brooklyn Egg Timer is "made of Bohemian glass with a sifted clear yellow imported time glass sand, that is absolutely reliable, never clogging, never stopping. ...the egg may be timed to a nicety. Each egg timer is very accurately made and tested..."  

And talking of stocking fillers, you know what I really miss? Handkerchiefs. No one gives them any more, but I remember very well being given boxes of seven handkerchiefs, printed with a picture for every day of the week, and how special it felt to tuck your little Monday handkerchief into your pocket and head off to school.  Or a box of three larger monogrammed handkerchiefs was a perfectly acceptable gift for Uncle Jack, who must have had drawers full of them but always acted grateful. Wechsler and Abraham had scores of inexpensive handkerchief designs, hemstitched, embroidered, lace edged, initialled, silk, mourning, with colored borders, scalloped edged, with Mexican work on fine linen cambric and on and on. Thanks to Wechsler and Abraham I now have my handkerchief fix for the year.


Julius Wilcox (1837-1924), Man of Many Parts

Dec 14, 2009 1:33 PM | 4 comments

For a long time the life of Julius Wilcox, one of the outstanding photographers whose collections are housed here in Brooklyn Public Library, was something of an enigma.  Exactly how his album of original cyanotypes came to us is not known, and until recently, precious little could be discovered about his life. But now, thanks to and the remarkable compilation of New York State newspapers online at, the outlines of his life and background are beginning to take shape.

Julius Wilcox--Sugarhouse Prison, 1890s

468 of Wilcox's images are available online via the library's catalog here. (Click on the thumbnails to open a larger image in a new window.) Although they are shown on the web site in black and white, the originals are actually cyanotypes, a format I wrote about in the very first post of this blog. Wilcox's work dates from the 1880s and 1890s and his subjects are mainly in Manhattan, although he himself lived in Brooklyn for much of his adult life. His photographs fall into at least two distinct categories. The city was going through a period of rapid development which Wilcox captured in his photographs of notable new buildings--mansions, churches and apartment buildings--and of old buildings sometimes in the very process of demolition. These well-executed photographs sometimes border on the humdrum, but some of them such as the image of the Old Sugarhouse Prison preserve lost corners of the city for our eyes. The cyanotypes are adhered to a paper backing and all are captioned in Wilcox's flowing hand.

Julius Wilcox--Johnny the Horse

More interesting to me are his images of human subjects, particularly of the working class and their haunts. Every bit as vibrant as the work of Jacob Riis, these photographs speak of hard lives, of tragedy and perseverance, of madness, imprisonment, drunkenness and death as well as the efforts of social reformers to create a more hopeful world. The new Riverside tenement buildings on Columbia Street capture his interest, as do the 16-year old boys penned up in the Tombs, the cadavers in the morgue split open from stem to stern, and the unfortunate inmate of Blackwell's Island, Johnny, who seems to have thought he was a horse. And if you have a spare moment, look at his photographs of the People's Palace, the lodging houses, the "perpetual wash" flying in tenement backyards.

A series of photographs of Sister Irene's Foundling Home speaks of a well-meaning but rigid regime; shoeless waifs play craps on the sidewalk; a child leans against a bar drinking at midnight; and sweatshop workers sit in a pool of light worthy of a painting by Georges Delatour.

Julius Wilcox--Sweatshop workers, Delancey Street 

Julius Wilcox was born in Vermont in 1837, the son of Amon Wilcox, who was engaged in the tin hardware and stove trade.  The family lived in Middlebury and  Julius attended Middlebury College, joining the Delta Upsilon fraternity there in 1858. The Utica Daily Observer notes satirically in 1866 that "Julius Wilcox, formerly of the Utica Herald, is the 'special recorder of fashions and society' for the New York Evening Gazette, the new daily. When W. was in Utica he was so modest and near-sighted that he couldn't tell a bonnet from a hoop-skirt..." Wilcox would have been 29 when he made the move.  The few articles we have found by Wilcox indicate a scattershot practical intelligence. He investigates the making of pencils, the craft of fretwork, the building of pianos, he writes impassioned letters to the editor about the state of the roads, with "potholes the size of an alderman's head."  In the 1890s he became a partner in a bicycle business.  Either by writing or through business acumen, he seems to have attained a certain level of financial security, spending the years after the death of his wife in lodgings on Columbia Heights. When he died in 1924 at the age of 87 he left $45,000 to two nieces, and, most likely, his album of photographs to Brooklyn Public Library.


Santa's Helpers

Dec 10, 2009 3:39 PM | 0 comments

Sorting Mail, December 1950"One of the nicest things about the Christmas season is that it brings in a flood of mail.  The recipients never utter one word of protest.  Only the overworked and overburdened letter-carriers might be inclined to raise an objection or two..."  -New York Times, December 30, 1944



You can't really blame postal workers for feeling overburdened during the holiday season.  It's no secret that when most of us are wrapping gifts, lighting candles and decorating trees, they are in the middle of their busiest season.  Articles from our collection show how mail was an important ritual for many Brooklynites.  In 1936 when holiday mail increased, it was a sign of hope and prosperity.  Then, during the war, sending letters to family and friends overseas was a major activitiy.   "Ready to Go", December 1950

In 1950, as post-war prosperity continued, the Eagle reported that the Brooklyn post office processed over 13 million letters in one day during the month of December.  Handling that volume of mail required special dedication from Brooklyn's postal staff.  In this image of package sorting, the Eagle warned: "extreme care in handling isn't possibe in holiday crush, so secure wrapping is essential.""Why Package Should Be Well Wrapped", December 1950

"Why Don't You Write?", November 1951Figuring out where each piece of mail was to be sent was only the beginning.  In this 1951 photograph we see the dead letters office.  That year, an estimated 349,000 pieces of mail never arrived at their final destinations between December 1 and January 4.  Brooklyn's Postmaster Edward J. Quigly commented, "Many heartaches could be avoided if persons using the mail would be sure to have the correct address and to put their return address on every letter or card they mail out."

Finding enough people to deliver the mail was the next challenge.  The postal service has had a long-standing tradition of hiring extra help during the season, a practice that is continued today.  In 1953 the men above were sworn in as "Christmas Mailmen" or "temporaries" for the holiday season.  The number of "temporaries" hired each year varied.  During World War II, many of these holiday employees were women, high schoolers or members of the military stationed at a Brooklyn post.  In 1943, Brooklyn hired 7,000 extra postal workers, which was in addition to asking supers in large buildings to oversee sorting to individual apartments. 

The primary concern of all employees was making sure the mail arrived on time.  The slogan on the mailbag, "Please Mail Early," was a common theme.  Articles in the Times and the Eagle were dedicated to encouraging people to mail their holiday wishes as soon as possible.  The Postal Service has already issued its own timetable this year.  (Note to self:  I'd better get my cards out soon!)

 Somehow, despite all of this work, some employees found time to participate in the Brooklyn Post Office glee club, which performed Christmas carols at the Brooklyn General Post Office in 1950. 

Today, the holiday rush is still the highlight of the post office's year.  The same practices seen in these photographs from our collection continue in Brooklyn and throughout the country.  Technological advances have helped with some processes, but we still rely on old-fashioned man- (and woman-) power for the actual delivery.  During this holiday season, the United States Postal Service will process an extra 5 billion pieces of mail.  That's a staggering number of greeting cards, gifts, fruit cakes and (most important) letters to Santa...

After Thanksgiving

Dec 2, 2009 1:31 PM | 0 comments

Thanksgiving is behind us. It is one of my favorite holidays because it is so distinctly American, crossing regional, ethnic and racial boundaries. When discussing the meals we had among ourselves, we learned that our tables groaned with the usual surfeit of meats -- turkey and ham -- but also lasagna, antipasti, a turducken, macaroni and cheese, chittlins, rutabaga mash, Portuguese stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, corn bread, pecan pie, cranberries, roasted red peppers with fresh mozzarella, sliced salami, and for our lone vegetarian, pizza made from scratch and Mutsu apple crisp-- a veritable cornucopia, and an expression of our families' diversity.  And so we leave Thanksgiving for another year with a little regret, and a look at a few of our favorite Eagle Thanksgiving photographs.

Packer Students

This photo from 1953 shows Packer students preparing food donations


Brooklyn Home for the Aged 

Three residents from the Brooklyn Home for the Aged circa 1951



The Thanksgiving dinner for tots in the Salvation Army's Ridgewood Day Nursery, 1950