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Handmade in Brooklyn

Nov 26, 2012 1:09 PM | 1 comment

Handwoven rugs in festive stripes, meticulously crafted straw brooms, and faux-rustic woven baskets attractively arranged in a narrow storefront under an ornate tin ceiling... the photo above looks like it could be a modern-day Instagram of any number of home decor boutiques or Brooklyn Flea stalls that have popped up in our borough's recent artisinal renaissance.  And it certainly does fit into that tradition, as the items were all made in Brooklyn by skilled craftsmen and -women.  But this photo, undated but most likely from the 1930s, shows the handiwork not of trendy 21st century urbanites but of the residents and members of Brooklyn's Industrial Home for the Blind.

Above, the Industrial Home for the Blind's original location at 96 Lexington Avenue.

The Industrial Home for the Blind (IHB) was founded in 1893 by the Mizpah Circle, a society of blind men and women who organized with the mission of helping other blind citizens find useful, sustained employment.  Modelled on the Pennsylvania Home for Blind Men, the IHB sought to not only provide lodging for blind and vision-impaired Brooklynites, but also to provide them with practical skills and a steady income.  At its helm was a former coal-dealer, Eben P. Morford, who was blinded at the age of 17 in 1883, when a friend accidentally discharged a pistol at his face, "the ball from which passed through both his eyes from side to side."  Some friend.  Not one to wallow in his misfortune, Morford reasoned, according to a 1941 Brooklyn Daily Eagle profile, that "blindness was physical, but vision mental and spiritual."  It was with this singular vision that he led the organization into the 20th century, expanding its membership and industries along the way.

In its early years, the activities of the IHB were limited by its cramped quarters on Lexington Avenue, which afforded only two working rooms in the basement and one in the back of the house.  In its annual report from 1900, the organization reported 28 working "inmates", who manufactured 39,757 brooms over the previous year and earned wages of $3,975.71.  Fifteen years later the home housed 36 workers, who made just over 50,000 brooms and earned $9,534.  In addition to the brooms, baskets, and rugs pictured above, the workers also manufactured mops, crates and mattresses, fashioned rubber mats from old tires, and re-caned the seats of chairs.  These items could be purchased directly from the home, with the profits going toward maintaining the services offered at the IHB, which included room and board for workers who lived there as well as in-house physician visits and training.

Above, a price list from the 1912 annual report of the IHB.

The IHB opened its larger headquarters at 520 Gates Avenue (above) in 1928, which allowed for more workers in better facilities.  The Gates Avenue building still stands today, and is home to another job-placement organization, the DOE Fund.  Production at the IHB ramped up in the 1940s, when the IHB won contracts with the Army and Navy to provide 100,000 deck mops and 60,000 brooms, their own contribution to the war effort.  In 1941 revenue climbed to $475,000, a full $150,000 increase from the year previous.  Workers, meanwhile, were taking home anywhere from $30 to $50 a week in wages, depending on their skills.

Above and below, workers at the 520 Gates Avenue facility. 

As the IHB expanded it was able to offer a greater range of services to a larger number of people, including instruction in reading Braille and a library of books printed in Braille.  More than just a factory, the IHB became a community hub, a place where people went not only to work but also to socialize.  It had its own theater group which put on shows at the affiliated Light Buoy Club at 43 Greene Avenue. 

Above, a theatrical production staged by blind and sighted employees of the IHB in May of 1950, "Dirty Work at the Crossroads."  Below, a photo of an IHB-sponsored fishing trip to Montauk Point from October of 1954 includes Richard Kinney and Robert J. Smithdas, third and fourth from left, both of whom were deaf and blind.  Smithdas was a member of IHB staff and, along with Kinney and Helen Keller, one of only three blind-deaf people in the U.S. to have earned a college degree at the time.  Smithdas was the very first blind-deaf person to earn a master's degree, from his studies at New York University.


The IHB continued to expand its activities through the years, adding services for children and seniors as well as partnering with other organizations that provided aid to the blind in the region.  In 1953 a new headquarters was established in downtown Brooklyn, at 57 Willoughby Street.  To memorialize its longtime supporter, the organization's name was changed to Helen Keller Services for the Blind in 1985.  HKSB continues to offer a range of services to members of the blind community from of its Willoughby Street address today.

Below, Helen Keller, the very first blind and deaf person to earn a bachelor's degree, renowned author and activist, and subject of the play and film The Miracle Worker (second from right), celebrated her 65th birthday at the IHB.


11/28/2012 11:00:12 AM #

Very interesting, nice to see a picture of Hellen Keller