A look at Brooklyn, then and now.
They used to make things in Brooklyn. Everything you could possibly imagine was made here, at one time or another, in one place or another. Before we became the catchword for hip and happening, Brooklyn was known throughout most of the 20th century as a blue collar city. Its busy factory districts were humming with activity, and it was possible for a man or a woman to go from high school to a good factory job that enabled them to make a living. Many people grew up, like John Travolta’s character in “Saturday Night Fever” never even going across the bridge to Manhattan. There was no need, everything, including your job, was right here.
In addition to the larger factory districts such as Wallabout, Dumbo, Bush Terminal, the Navy Yard and Gowanus, there were factories all over the place, in just about every neighborhood. Proximity to public transportation was key to any successful industrial venture and downtown and Fort Greene, with great transportation, had a fair amount of factory buildings along major thoroughfares like Atlantic Avenue. Today, many of those buildings are gone, some, like the Ex-Lax building, are now housing, and some still stand making one wonder “What did they used to do here?”
In 1844, August Schrader, a German immigrant, opened a shop on Jane Street in Manhattan. He was a mechanic and an innovative tinkerer and inventor. His machine shop made mostly brass fittings and valves. He went into a partnership with the Goodyear Brothers, and by the 1850s was making valves and fittings for rubber goods such as air pillows and life preservers. He had a keen interest in deep sea diving, and invented several valves that proved invaluable to early diving equipment used for salvage operations. He also invented an air pump for diving suits, and a new kind of copper diving helmet.
By the end of the century, his operations had moved to Brooklyn, and he was in partnership with his son George. Their company was now called A. Schrader’s Son, and they had a factory at 791 Atlantic Avenue. The growing popularity and improved technology of the bicycle had led to pneumatic tires on bikes. A. Schrader’s Son developed and patented the first pneumatic tire valve, the same valve that is used on every bicycle and automobile tire today. It’s still called a Schrader valve.
The early 20th century brought about the automobile, and the tire valve was adapted to automobiles. The company also patented that valve and the valve cap. If you drive or bike, you’ve held a Schrader valve cap in your hand in the last year. Between the tire valves and the diving equipment, A. Schrader’s Son was a major manufacturer here in Brooklyn.
August Schrader must have died near the turn of the 20th century, there is no death date listed for him, but he would have been 80 in 1900, if he lived until that date. His son George incorporated the company in 1904, and left the day to day business to a capable board. In 1912, the company moved down the street, setting up operations in a large new reinforced concrete factory building at 470 Vanderbilt Avenue, on the corner of Atlantic, across the street from the Atlantic Yards. It was designed and built by the Turner Construction Company, the leader in reinforced concrete factory construction.
George devoted the rest of his life to his many charitable pursuits. He was single, and spent his time giving anonymously and quietly to all kinds of charities all over the world. His close friends were the only ones who knew of his generosity, which wasn’t made public until after his death. He died under mysterious circumstances on a trawler bound from Iceland to Norway. He was living in England at the time, but had gone to Iceland to build shelters for the Iceland ponies. World War I was raging, and England’s suspicions of anyone with a German surname made him fear incarceration if he went back there, even though he was an American citizen. He was on his way to Norway when he had a heart attack and died.
Back in Brooklyn, A. Schrader’s Son was in the capable hands of its board. They were doing amazingly well, manufacturing tire valves for every car in the United States, a number that was growing exponentially every year. They also made armor plate for deep sea diving suits, diving helmets, and other diving gear, including knives, boots and, of course, all of the valves necessary. They also manufactured other valves and brass fittings for many different industries.
The help wanted pages of the Eagle are filled with job offerings for everything from machine operators to office and janitorial help. They needed packers, pickers, shippers, factory workers, deliverymen, drivers, tool and die operators, office clerks, secretaries and cafeteria workers. They offered generous wages and the possibility of a career and a job for life.
The company became a part of the Scovill Manufacturing Company sometime before World War II. Scovill was a large brass manufacturing corporation out of Connecticut. A. Schrader’s Son kept their name, and continued to grow. Because they could make things that were vital to the war effort, World War II was a boom time for the company. They were so busy that they were able to open an additional plant at 481 Clermont Avenue. By the end of the war, there were five Schrader buildings.
Both companies were producing valves, as usual, but were also making armor plating for military use, and were churning out thousands of pieces of deep sea diving and underwater equipment for naval use. In 1943, the company won yet another award from the Defense Department for meritorious work in manufacturing goods for the war effort. The article in the Eagle noted that the company sponsored a luncheon for the workers to celebrate the award, but because of government regulations forbidding stopping work for any reason, the workers would have to enjoy the luncheon as they could on their lunch breaks.
After the war, the plant continued on at a lesser pace, but was still quite successful. The Eagle and other Brooklyn papers report that the company had extracurricular activities that added to the idea of family and factory comradery. They had a company baseball team, they went on outings, they had a singing group, yearly company picnics, etc. Management joined in on these activities, and there were many stories in the papers about retirement parties and even death announcements where it was noted that the person had spent 30 or 40 years with the company.
Schrader’s once took up the entire block bordered by Atlantic, Fulton, Clermont and Vanderbilt Avenues. There were five 7 story concrete factory buildings in the complex. The Turner Construction Company built hundreds of factory buildings throughout the city, including all of the industrial parks of Brooklyn. Turner was commissioned to do some rebuilding and reconfiguring in 1945, joining some of the buildings together. Today, only 470 Vanderbilt remains, which is a combination of at least two of the buildings. By the late 1950s, I saw no more stories about A.Schrader’s Son in Brooklyn.
The company, now called Schrader, still is in business. They still make valves and much more, including air compressors, aerospace equipment, sensors, medical equipment, mining equipment, diving equipment and many other products for all kinds of industries. They have plants and representatives on several continents. They left Brooklyn for the global stage, although I can’t seem to find when or why.
The other buildings in the Schrader complex were torn down. The remaining building was used for mixed use for a while, and was empty for a long time. A few years ago, it was repurposed as office space, and now holds the offices of the Human Resource Administration, as well as several other city agencies. There are plans to build in the space once occupied by the other Schrader factories, and construct a large mixed used complex with housing, office space and retail. The days of the drill press and tire valves are long gone. GMAP
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