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When Brooklyn Was Briney

Apr 7, 2015 12:15 PM | 0 comments

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 18 April 1948. 

Remember when you were little and you'd put black olives on your fingers? Were you the type of kid who could only get one or two on before you'd snatch them off like a bird? Or were you like me, a ten-finger-all-or-nothing-go-big-or-go-home olive eater? I was the bane of all family dinners featuring tacos.

Or maybe you hate olives? If that is the case, you can stop reading now.

In 1890, Irving T. Bush built a warehouse on the banks of New York Harbor in today's Sunset Park. Within a decade what had started as a single warehouse was on the cusp of becoming the hub of a transnational shipping empire. In 1902, the Bush Company prepared for a massive expansion with plans to "construct a great terminal property and not a warehouse plant. There is not the same need for warehouses as there was thirty years ago. What are now needed and what we will build are piers large enough for the economical discharge of modern steamships and in immediate connection with a freight railway terminal connecting with all the truck lines entering New York City" (Brooklyn Daily Eagle Feb 14 1902). 

Rutter, E.E. Aerial View of Bush Terminal Piers. 1917. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

Tenants began vying for spots within Bush Terminal, as it was then called. One of those tenants was the Mawer-Gulden-Annis olive packing company (you can read about some of the Terminal's other tenants herehere, and here).

Brooklyn Daily Eagle 25 May 1950.

Established in 1907, Mawer-Gulden-Annis originally specialized in green queen and Manzanilla olives from Seville, Spain. They later expanded, packing olives coming from California, Italy, and Morocco. The olives arrived at the plant, at its peak the largest olive packing plant in the world, in hogsheads (a big barrel, not a pig head) containing 160 to 180 gallons, as well as smaller 50 gallon casks. The brine in which the olives were delivered allegedly had a percentage of salt double that of the ocean. 

"Ready to Roll." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 8 Sept 1954. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

(Side note: When I was little I had dreams of running through olive fields and eating the fruit straight from the vine. Imagine my disappointment when I learned that a) olives don't grow on vines and b) you can't eat raw olives. Raw olives are bitter and essentially inedible, hence the long brine soak which pulls out all the nastiness.)

The company grew steadily throughout the early twentieth century. In February of 1929, it was reported that the company doubled its capital stock from $250,000 to $500,000. By the mid-1940s the factory was a packing powerhouse running on female power.

"Up To Her Elbows in Olives." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 26 Sept 1954. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.

Featured prominently in a New York Times article about women in the wartime workforce, Mawer-Gulden-Annis employed 100 women just for packing olives (they also packed cherries and made olive oil). During WWII Bush Terminal was too busy making supplies for the war effort and serving as a deployment point for soldiers to pause for olive shipments. The olives were instead shipped to Hoboken, Philly, or Baltimore and then made the rest of their way by truck or train. 

The women handpicked the olives and used long tongs to place them into jars, filling two jars every three minutes and totaling sixty dozen a day per worker. 

"Girls at Work." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 18 April 1948. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library.

And don't go thinking just anyone can pack a jar of olives. "Lest you have the idea it's a simple matter of dumping them in, it takes from six months to a year to train each [worker]. They sit at large steel tables, and, using long metal tongs with wooden handles, pick up the olives individually, examining them for perfection of appearance, and putting them in the bottle in symmetrical vertical rows" (New York Times, 5 Feb 1945). 

Stuffed olives were provided the biggest challenge because each olive had to be placed pepper side out. Now that's craftsmanship!

Olives that didn't make the grade were chopped up mixed with spices to form a special byproduct called Grandee olive butter. 

Once packed, the jars would be filled with new brine, sealed, and shipped nationally (in 1948 it was reported that 95% of the green olives eaten in the United States came from this Brooklyn factory) and worldwide. And I'm guessing quite a few of the olives never left the factory at all.

"Unofficial Tester." Brooklyn Daily Eagle 18 April 1948. Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library. 

In the 1960s, Bush Terminal was renamed Industry City and boasted 150 tenants with over 25,000 workers. In the 1970s, however, the active port was deemed unstable due to industrial contamination and tenants began to move out or go out of business entirely. Today, Industry City has had a renaissance and now houses artist studios and small businesses but, sadly, no olives. The Mawer-Gulden-Annis company appears to have left Bush Terminal during the decline. 

...I'm hungry.