Mystery Monday: The Butt-Factory Update

My butt-factory mystery is solved. (“Yay!” cry the readers. “We can all relax now!”)

After posting a cri de coeur about my ancestors in the 1870 census for West Troy, N.Y., I thought some more about their mysterious occupation: “butt factory.”

This called for serious scholarship. Somebody with a solid handle on 19th-century industry in the Albany area. Somebody (hopefully) snicker-proof.

Luckily, there is a terrific organization to contact: The Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway. Since 1972, the Gateway has been dedicated to preserving and teaching about the Capital District’s industrial legacy. Anybody with working-class ancestry in the Albany-Troy area probably knows what a powerhouse it was back in the day. The first iron mill started cranking in 1807; the United States Arsenal in Watervliet was built in 1812. The Erie and Champlain canals added fuel to the engine.  The textile mills, the early ironworks like Burden, the pioneering union activists like Kate Mullany – it’s all pivotal (if underappreciated) history.

Still — what might it have to do with a butt factory? There was only one way to find out. This was not how I pictured introducing myself to the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway, but what can you do. I sent the email.

In short order came a response from the Gateway’s executive director, P. Thomas Carroll, PhD: “Sure, I think we can help you.”  Just like that. Professionalism personified.

Tom explained that the term “butt” has two potential meanings in this context:

(1) a cask, i.e., barrel, with a capacity of about 120 U.S. gallons.

(2) the sort of hinge that looks like this:

Image from "The Encyclopedia of Hardware"; Hardwaresource.com

Image from “The Encyclopedia of Hardware”; Hardwaresource.com

Tom wrote: “It’s called [a butt hinge] because, when you mortise the two plates of the hinge into recesses in the door edge and in the door jamb, the door and the jamb can then butt right up against each other when the door is closed, which is of course what you want to properly seal up the door opening.” It’s a basic, basic hinge. You might be looking at one in your house right now.

[The blog will pause for five minutes while everyone goes to inspect the nearest butt-hinge. Reports are due next Wednesday.]

Tom believed my ancestors were working in a place that made hinges, not casks. Why? He enclosed this page from the 1863 city directory for Troy and West Troy. It includes two butt-hinge factories. One was across the river in Troy, but the other, Roy & Co., was right in West Troy:

Photo courtesy of Tom Carroll, Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway

Photo courtesy of Tom Carroll, Hudson-Mohawk Industrial Gateway

It was quite likely that my ancestors, 16-year-old James and 10-year-old Timothy Connors, worked at Roy & Co. in 1870.

In a subsequent email, Tom sent an image from the 1899 city directory that included a Watervliet entry for “Connors, James, buttmaker, house 437 Broadway.” Guess what? 437 Broadway is where my James lived at the time of the 1900 census. Apparently the hinge business agreed with him.

Sometimes we have to move beyond the usual genealogical sources to color in the outlines of our ancestors’ lives. Fortunately, there are dedicated and knowledgeable individuals who can give us that lost background. Like Mr. Carroll, who saved my poor eyeballs another Googling for “butt factory.” You have no idea how grateful I am for that.

Note: In addition to operating the Burden Ironworks Museum, the Hudson Mohawk Industrial Gateway hosts terrific activities. Some past examples: tours of historic factory buildings, architectural walking tours and the “Troy’s Tiffany Treasures” tour celebrating the city’s extensive legacy of Tiffany artistry. The 2013 brochure is due next month. Watch this link for more information.

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3 Comments on “Mystery Monday: The Butt-Factory Update”

  1. I didn’t think a button factory was the right answer. :) I am glad that you found someone who could answer your question.

  2. Helen says:

    cool – mystery solved. (and I resisted for just a few seconds the urge to say “coolie,” which is italian slang for butt…)


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