Among the much-appreciated gifts that have found their way to my desk in recent weeks, is one from Michael D. Barber of Leeds, U.K. Mr Barber's parcel contained a 1901 catalogue of the products made by Brooklyn's E.W. Bliss Co, bearing a bookplate from the "Projectile Co. (1902) Ltd, of New Road, Wandsworth, S.W., sole agents for E.W. Bliss Co, , Brooklyn, NY, Presses, Dies and Special Machinery." There must have been a ready market for Bliss products in industrial West Yorkshire, and so it is in no way strange that the 534 page catalogue of heavy machinery should have found its way there. A "Bliss" Automatic Muck Bar Shear sounds as if it ought to have come from Yorkshire, in fact; but it didn't. It and its confreres, such as the Brass-founders' Sprue Cutter, or the Horizontal Boring Mill, were made right here in Brooklyn from 1857 for about a hundred years. These powerful twisters and pressers of metal with names that evoke the torture chamber, inspire awe. The "Bliss Gang-Slitting machine" could have been used by Mafiosi for quick dispatch of multiple rivals; the "Double Crank Press" and the "Double Eccentric Press, Geared" could be intended for the suppression of crackpots; while the "Bliss" Reducing Press could have found a hot market among slimmers in search of an alternative to dieting. I have a special soft spot for the Power Press No 18 on Short Legs and the Double Seamer for Flat Bottoms with collapsible chuck. It sounds so human, and so like myself.
E.W. Bliss counted its first year in business as 1857. It was incorporated in 1885 by Eliphalet W. Bliss, Anna M. Bliss of New Utrecht, and William A. Porter, Frank M. Leavitt and Charles L. Hart of Brooklyn. The capital was fixed at $100,000 divided into 4,000 shares of $25 each. Originally located at the foot of Adams Street, the Bliss company bought property in Bay Ridge in 1890, until eventually their plant occupied two entire long blocks between Second Ave and the shoreline and 53rd and 54th Streets.
As well as making metal pressing machines, Bliss produced pressed metal products. During the Spanish-American War and World Wars I and II the company obtained important defense contracts for the manufacture of torpedoes. As early as 1892 the E.W. Bliss Company was testing torpedoes in Peconic Bay, once accidentally ripping through the hull of a nearby small boat when a shell veered off course. (Luckily neither of the boat's occupants was directly in its path, and both could swim.) In 1898 the company took special precautions against Spanish spies who, it was feared, would penetrate the secrets of torpedo production, and "cranks" who might wish to obtain dynamite.
Bliss company workers belonged to the American Federation of Labor in the 1890s, and in 1891 they went on strike, demanding a reduction in work hours from fifty-nine to fifty-three at wages of $2.50 to $4.50 a day. After seven weeks labor and management reached a compromise: the men would work fifty-five hours and be paid for fifty-six and a half.
The impressive images of heavy machinery in the Bliss catalogue are keyed to an intriguing dictionary of telegraphic code words listed at the end. Every machine and many actions and functions on which the Bliss business depended, as well as ports and shipping lines, had their own code words. Frequently asked questions such as "How do you propose to pay, and what are your references?" or "By what line or road did you ship, and when?" had their own codes: Pleadings and Plumule, respectively. Some of the nicest words, such as "plumpest," had rather unpleasant meanings; in this case "We cannot ship until funds are received." One could imagine wanting to order a "Steam Power outfit for making tops and bottoms for 5-gallon cans," just for the pleasure of using the code word Queentruss. "Plaster Platonacid Polecat Rotgut Pockish" translates as "Ship at once to Hull 25 x No 253 "Stiles" Tackmaking Shears. Shall we attend to insurance?" The dictionary of code words goes on for 80 pages of small print. Syntactic rules governed the ordering of square as opposed to round holes (add an "s" to the end of keywords.) So complex are some of the rules that orders must surely have been misinterpreted from time to time. For example, "If oblong holes (are wanted) take the two keywords corresponding to the two dimensions and let the one for front to back precede the other." Right.
Like so many Brooklyn businesses, E.W. Bliss quit operations in the borough in the 1940s. Three reasons were given for the move to Englewood, N.J. and Toledo, Cleveland and Salem, Ohio. Two cents a pound were added to freight costs for machines shipped to the midwestern automotive, electrical and domestic applicance market; there was duplication of facilities after mergers with former competitors; and the multi-storey buildings in Brooklyn were found to be "unsuited for the most efficient manufacturing." It was in fact on Christmas Eve of 1947, after 90 years in Brooklyn, that the plant closed its doors and the 500 remaining workers out of 1800 at the company's high point, packed up their tools and went home to contemplate what must have looked like a bleak future.