Quirky Tales Of Brooklyn’s Business History

Interesting Histories Found in Archives of B’klyn Historical Society

The Brooklyn Historical Society’s Julie Golia (left), public historian, and Elizabeth Call, special collections librarian, gave a presentation on the history of business in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Public Library on Thursday night. Eagle photo by Phoebe Neidl.

By Phoebe Neidl
BROOKLYN — Maybe you knew that the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer started here in Brooklyn in 1849. And that it went on to become the primary producer of penicillin during WWII (thanks for that). But did you ever think about how bad their factory may have smelled?

Well, it smelled like “old garbage” — and the level of pungency depended on the weather, at least according to one woman who worked at their Flushing Avenue plant in Williamsburg.

She is one of dozens of Pfizer employees who were interviewed by the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS) for their oral history archives. And while the nugget of posterity she left us doesn’t offer too much insight into Pfizer’s growth from a rinky-dink operation into international behemoth, it does stir the imagination. It helps to make Pfizer’s history a bit more tangible, and a lot more human.

“You never know what you’re going to find in a collection. A lot of research is serendipity,” says Julie Golia, a public historian at BHS, who, along with BHS Special Collections Librarian Elizabeth Call, made a presentation on Thursday night at the Brooklyn Public Library titled “From Earplugs to Warships: Exploring the History of Business in Brooklyn.”

Up until the 19th century, Brooklyn was primarily agricultural. But in 1814, Robert Fulton’s steam ferry commenced between Brooklyn and Manhattan, which made the commute reliable and practical for the first time. Thus Brooklyn Heights became “America’s first suburb,” and the County of Kings started on its staggering path of 19th-century growth — acquiring hundreds of thousands of new residents, undergoing a boom in real estate and construction, and developing huge waterfront enterprises in sugar refining, oil refining, beer brewing and the like.

Beginning in the 1940s, the painful process of deindustrialization set in, depressing the economy for decades until recently, when a new thrust of the “creative class” moved into the borough, bringing new businesses and investment and the mixed blessing of gentrification.

But Thursday’s presentation didn’t spend too much time delving into this timeline. Rather, Golia and Call opened up some of the Historical Society’s collections to show the employee newsletters, financial ledgers, insurance maps, scrapbooks, posters, advertisements, catalogues and recorded interviews, that give a fuller and more nuanced picture of the businesses and people that have made Brooklyn tick.

You probably didn’t know about J.A.R. Elliot Co., manufacturer of earplugs. Elliott patented a protective earplug at the end of his very successful career as a champion shooter of live birds. He was the “Tiger Woods of sharp-shooting” said Golia, and a spokesman for Winchester rifles. But he developed hearing problems (go figure), so he went into the earplug business here in Brooklyn at the turn of the 20th century. (His earplugs were actually made out of wood, and then he wisely moved on to more malleable materials.)

Another small-scale manufacturer was Well Made Gloves, which had a small factory in south Park Slope during the mid-20th century. It was a family business owned by Louis Lebman, who had apprenticed with a glove maker in upstate New York (who knew people were still apprenticing in the 20th century?)

And then there was the Brooklyn Brush Manufacture, incorporated in 1848, which was extraordinary because it was an African American-owned business. “This reflects a time when African-Americans were becoming interested in creating their own institutions,” said Golia.

Racism, it seems, is a theme that runs throughout Brooklyn’s business history. A 1940s employee newsletter in BHS’ collection from the Fulton Street department store Abraham & Strauss showed employees in “black face” for a minstrel show at the company Christmas party.

Documents from the Brooklyn Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a lead organization of the Civil Rights movement, show that CORE organized a protest against Ebinger Baking Company, beloved for its Blackout Cake, because they used discriminatory hiring practices. (In 1962, Ebinger signed an agreement with CORE promising to be more equitable.)

Also in BHS’s collection are the scrapbooks and autobiography of Henry A. Meyer, “who had a huge impact on Brooklyn, but nobody knows his name,” says Golia. He was a German immigrant who ran for mayor of Brooklyn in 1882, but lost. Through his Germania Real Estate Company, he developed large parts of Flatbush, including Vanderveer Park and south Midwood, turning the farms of such old Dutch families as the Lotts, Cortelyous and Van Wycks into the urban streets we know today. He was also president of the Jamaica Bay Improvement Association, and thought that Jamaica Bay was going to be the next big shipping port of the world. (That didn’t pan out, but it is home to a pretty big airport.)

There are a million more stories to be found in the collections of the Brooklyn Historical Society. You can find them at its library, located at 129 Pierrepont St. in Brooklyn Heights. Visit www.brooklynhistory.org and click on “Library and Collections” to get a better idea of what’s in the archives and the best ways to access them.

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