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Brooklyn's Paper Trail

May 4, 2016 5:17 PM | 0 comments

We are pleased to announce that we have completed a finding aid for our collection of Brooklyn letterhead stationery. The Brooklyn Letterhead Collection spans 200 years of business in our borough, from 1802 to 2002, with the bulk of the collection representing the 1850s to the 1960s. Several thousand different businesses, institutions, and organizations are represented in the collection, including carpenters, plumbers, painters, city agencies, religious institutions, and more. The finding aid includes a complete listing of the names, addresses, and dates from the letterhead collection, which should prove useful to genealogical researchers, those interested in the history of various industries in Brooklyn, neighborhood historians and many others. Explore the finding aid here.

Using just the finding aid, it is possible to tease out interesting stories. For example, we can see that Robert Clarke was a plumber in the 1860s:

But by 1875, he was a manufacturer of his own patented pipe type, indicating that Clarke was able to transition from plumbing work to full-time manufacture of his apparently useful and popular invention:

There are many instances of businesses being passed down through generations, as indicated by name changes such as "William M. Shipman" to "William M. Shipman's Sons." There are also times when cooperatively owned businesses change their partners, making one wonder about what potential drama might lie behind the name changes over the years. For example, the Ray Brothers, who sold stoves and ovens, combined forces with at least three other partners during their more than 25 years in business. The finding aid also indicates when businesses moved, either from one part of Brooklyn to another or simply down the street.

Sometimes, the letterhead includes imagery related to the profession of its owner, as in these examples on our Tumblr, and sometimes the typography and design is just beautiful and interesting in and of itself, as in these examples.

Some Brooklyn businesses lasted for many years, decades even, such as Longman & Martinez, which existed at least from 1852 to 1940 based on the evidence in this collection. Some are even still around today, like James Weir Florists, which used to be housed in the now-landmarked greenhouse across from Green-Wood Cemetery and is now located on Montague Street in Brooklyn Heights. We even have early letterhead from the now-national brand of paint, Benjamin Moore. The company was founded in Brooklyn in 1883; this collection has examples of their letterhead from 1887, 1892, and 1903.

Beyond information about the businesses themselves, these documents also provide other historical insights, such as evidence that immigrants retained the use of their native languages. This letterhead from Ogni Bros has "Gennaio" in the date field instead of January:

This 1889 letterhead from Kenny & Murphy, bill posters, states the population of Brooklyn (still an independent city at that time) as 300,000. Compare that to today's population of over 2 million!

This letterhead from Sprague National Bank shows us the interior of the bank building--quite different from banks today!

As a fun side note, the bank's vice president is BPL's own David A. Boody (former president of our Board of Trustees).

There are also street addresses that no longer exist, from several downtown Brooklyn locations that were eliminated in the creation of Cadman Plaza, to streets that simply changed names. These include Gwinnett Street (now part of Lorimer Street), Oakland Street (became McGuinness Boulevard), and Magenta Street (now McKinley Avenue).

Sometimes there are funny instances of the use of language. I know this letterhead from Coalankok Retail Corp. is referring to fuel, not drugs, but the phrase "Coke bulk bagged" is a bit funny to modern eyes:

Or how about Alfred E. Horn, bungmaker?

Who knew there was enough need for "bungs" (stoppers/corks) to devote a whole business to them? Plus, the word "bung" has another, quite rude, meaning.

In addition, there are some fun surprises, such as these thread samples from Commonwealth Color:

There is also one receipt, from H. & G.W. Rich, that measures a staggering 42 inches long, demonstrating that today's extra-long drugstore receipts are nothing new.

In short, our Letterhead Collection is full of fascinating insights and is awaiting your discoveries! Explore the finding aid here.

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