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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