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:
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:
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.
… Does anyone know what a butt factory might be? I am sure there is a very straightforward explanation. I would also be thrilled to learn about any alternative interpretations of the handwriting.
Just please don’t advise me to Google this.
I am still bleaching my eyeballs from the last attempt.
It turned up last week on a census hunt related to my frustrating, elusive Connors line in Watervliet (maybe) N.Y. I kept squinting at the handwriting, but really all that a reasonable person could make out would be “corn labor”, with “coven labor” a distant second and honestly, I don’t really want to pursue a relationship with someone who does coven labor. Then I got distracted by some other Irish-in-New York stuff (the subject of another post in the works).
Well! In one of those cosmic convergences, a fellow member of the Troy (N.Y.) Irish Genealogy Society mailing list also had a corn laborer in his files, and being more sensible than me, posted a question about it. As is often the case on this great list, there were informative replies. It is possible, write listers Rebecca and Kathleen, that this labor was related to broom corn crops, which were harvested to provide materials for brush factories, some of which existed in the Capital District area.
To get an idea of broom corn and what’s involved (translation: very hard work), check out this broom corn blog post, complete with pictures. It is by Marieanne Coursen, intrepid staffer at The Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. She tells us that broom corn was an important mid-19th-century crop in New York State.
They raise their own crop of broom corn at the museum, and Ms. Coursen takes you through the whole process of growing, harvesting and processing it in an authentically 19th-century way. She even cut the brushes with a knife, as would have been done back then, keeping herself “very aware of the location of my body parts in relation to the swing of the knife.” (This is the sort of thing that dampens my enthusiasm for being a living history docent.)
Apparently there is a broom shop in the museum where you can see the product of these labors. Another fine reason to visit Cooperstown, even if you are not a baseball fan.
Ninety-nine years ago today, 146 young garment workers died when their New York City workplace went up in flames.
I was sixteen when I read labor historian Leon Stein’s account of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire — first published in 1962 but still essential today. Stein was writing at a time when many fire survivors were still alive, and he made excellent use of his interviews with them. To a kid who had picked up the book from idle curiosity, the survivors’ anguished memories were like a punch in the stomach — so many were my own age at the time. I suppose I led a charmed life; it took Stein’s book to shock me into realizing that being a teenager doesn’t confer immortality.
This wrenching video combines period images with audiotape of survivor interviews:
My mother’s cousin Alma, a thirteen-year-old Brooklyn girl when the fire occurred, recalled the horrifying newspaper accounts: “The doors opened in, not out. They pushed and pushed, but they couldn’t get out.” Not only that, the owners had a habit of locking the factory’s doors for fear of theft; the one fire escape was pitifully inadequate and quickly buckled under the strain of escaping workers; the firefighters’ ladders were too short to reach the windows where workers desperately pleaded for help.
Despite the fact that the factory’s owners never faced serious consequences for the appalling state of their building, the fire proved to be a turning point in awareness of substandard conditions for factory workers. Small comfort to the families of the dead, but important nonetheless.
The Kheel Center at Cornell University maintains a breathtakingly detailed multimedia site about the Triangle fire, including a page with a list of victims and survivors. If you think you might be descended from a Triangle worker, this is definitely a place to investigate.
Today the building which housed the factory is known as the Brown Building of Science, owned by New York University. Two plaques commemorate the terrible tragedy that happened there. A federation of New York City preservationists, artists and labor activists called Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition is preparing to mark next year’s centenary. In addition to spearheading educational events about the fire, they hope to establish a permanent memorial to the victims.
I am lucky: My ancestors haven’t held any jobs with mysterious names, unless you count the maddeningly imprecise term “laborer.”
One of my great-grandfathers may have been a “puddler,” which is someone who worked at an iron furnace with a long-handled rake, opening the furnace and forming molten iron into a ball that could be rolled out into bars or sheets. Then again, he might just have been a peddler. It’s spelled both ways in a couple of places, and there is no hard evidence yet as to which spelling is the typo.
This same great-grandfather was later a steward on a tugboat in Brooklyn, which is a little mysterious, since I associate boat stewards with the care of passengers, who would seem to be in short supply on a tugboat. Finding a detailed job description for a tugboat steward in 1910 is another item on the to-do list.
In the first 20 years of the 20th century, there are a lot of waterfront-related jobs in my family tree: tugboat steward, tugboat fireman, dry dock worker, patternmaker in a shipyard. They were South Brooklyn people, and South Brooklyn was all about shipping in those days.
Still, I am jealous of people who have quirky job titles in their genealogy, and I like reading about them in case one ever crops up in mine. Here are some cool links about strange job titles:
• Old Occupation Names at the Hall family genealogy site: Really extensive, with detailed definitions.
• Ancestral occupations at Rootsweb: Another encyclopedic list, clickable from A to Z.
• The Strangest Names for Occupations: For the greatest hits, try this list. There are real gems here. (Being a “honey dipper” isn’t nearly as pleasant as it sounds.)