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E.W. Bliss Co: Torpedoes and Telegraph Codes

Jan 6, 2011 2:04 PM | 13 comments

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. 


Hit Parade, January 4, 1947

Jan 4, 2011 11:12 AM | 1 comment

It's been a while since we dipped into the Diary of Arthur Lonto. Mr Lonto wasn't one for expressing on paper his innermost thoughts. His entries are all comings and goings, working and mending and studying and paying bills and going to mass and taking the subway for the fun of it.  And then, now and again, he gives us the hit parade. In case it's hard to read his handwriting, here is what we might have been listening to at this time back in 1947.

1-Buttermilk Sky 2-Old Lamplighter 3- For Sentimental Reasons 4-Gal in Calico 5 Zippity Doo da 6- Whole World's Singing My Songs 7-Things We Did Last Summer 8-White Christmas 9-Rumors R Flying 10-Christmas Song

Here's a test--which of these do you recognize? Zippity Doo Da, made famous by Walt Disney movie Song of the South? and the Bing Crisby classic White Christmas? Any others? Just to jog your memory, here's Hoagy Carmichael's top hit song Buttermilk Sky  


Big Appetites, Little Pizzas

Jan 3, 2011 1:18 PM | 0 comments

Brooklyn is justifiably world famous as a hot spot for delicious pizza, so much so that we even have our own style of pizza--thin-crusted slices cut so big you can fold them in half while you eat them.  The borough is peppered, or, perhaps, "pepperonied", with beloved neighborhood pizza joints serving quality slices to loyal fans, who debate endlessly over which excellent pizza place is the best pizza place.  And if you haven't yet known the pleasures of a coal-fired Totonno's slice, a fresh-from-the-oven DiFara's pie, or a delightfully doughy L & B Spumoni Gardens Sicilian slice, there exists, fortunately, a bus company that takes tourists on a whirlwind tour of the borough's most popular pizza purveyors.

 This Irving I. Herzberg photograph documents a kosher pizza spot in Williamsburg.

Considering the borough's close ties with pizza pies, it may seem blasphemous to note that Brooklyn is also home to one of the earliest manifestations of the less celebrated branch of the pizza family tree: the frozen pizza.

As reported in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle on November 8, 1954, Brooklyn was home to one of the first frozen pizza manufacturers, the Petite Foods Corporation at 260 N. 7th Street.  Their specialty was miniature frozen pizzas, an idea that owners Le Roi and Louisiau ("Lozo") Nottoli struck upon one fateful evening three years before, when unexpected guests dropped by and the Nottoli's refrigerator was woefully empty.  In a pinch, Lozo threw together a bit of frozen dough, some tomato sauce, and a hunk of cheese, inventing what would eventually be called the "Bo Pizza".

Lozo tests the tomato sauce for a batch of Bo Pizzas.

The Bo Pizza was a far cry from your present-day, cardboard-flavored frozen pizza.  The dough for the mini-pies was mixed fresh every day by the Petite Foods staff, and topped with a carefully crafted sauce--one that had beat out 35 other recipes after arduous taste-testing.  The list of toppings mostly reflected authentic Italian cuisine, including fresh tomatoes, aged cheese, and imported olive oil, with a dose of monosodium glutamate (MSG) thrown into the mix for flavor.  The Eagle captured the entire Bo Pizza process in a series of photographs:

"Pizza dough is placed in plastic forms for shaping by Sophia Vallone."

"Dough is rolled to proper thickness with a special roller dipped in cooking oil."

"Marie Columbo moves tray of miniature pizzas while Mary Amendola, forelady, fills pizzas with sauce from pastry bag."

Once the toppings were applied, the pies were quick-frozen to 20 degrees below zero and packaged.  According to an extensive article in Invention & Technology Magazine, this flash-freezing method was crucial--it kept ice crystals from forming in the crust, which made a much less soggy pizza than normal freezing techniques.  After five minutes in a 350-degree oven, the mini-pizzas were ready to eat.  Bo Pizzas could be purchased at local grocery stores in packs of eight or twelve, and were served at "bars and many of the better hotels".

Lozo and Le Roi were not the only entrepreneurs staking a claim in the burgeoning frozen pizza market.  An article on new inventions in the February 6, 1954 issue of the New York Times mentions a patent issued to Joseph Bucci of Philadelphia for "a method of making in frozen form that popular delicacy, pizza, sometimes called tomato pie."  Mr. Bucci's patented process was described in thoroughly unappetizing detail for curious readers:

"After he shapes the pizza shell out of dough, Mr. Bucci spreads on a 'sealing agent' such as tomate puree, and bakes it.  The sauce is cooked separately, cooled, and placed in the shell.  Optional items such as cheese strips are added, and the whole is then frozen." 

Sounds tasty, no?