Brooklyn has recently become renowned as a maker haven, a new identity the borough has taken on as it grows from a Manhattan suburb into a megacity. Yet, a look at history shows that Kings County was teeming with creators in the 19th century that sustained the country’s industrial sector — but instead of MakerBot’s 3D printing or FreshDirect’s grocery delivery, it was pianos, wallpaper and numbering machines.
Here’s a dive into five defunct Brooklyn businesses that made a name for themselves as creators in a far different, long-gone era in the borough’s existence.
The Robert Graves Company, a Wallpaper Manufacturer
Decorating New York walls from 1843 to 1929, the Robert Graves Company was known for its handmade, one-of-a-kind, special-edition and commissioned wallpaper. Beginning in Manhattan, the company expanded to a Brooklyn factory in the early 1860s and continued growing from there. With high demand for the artisan maker’s coordinated drapes and stylish wall decals, they soon became one of Fort Greene’s largest manufacturers. Following Graves’s death his son Robert Graves, Jr. inherited the business, running it until he committed suicide in 1929.
The American Numbering Machine Company
Begun on East New York’s Essex Street in 1908, the American Numbering Machine Company grew rapidly, expanding to a two-story brick factory building on 224 Shepherd Avenue in 1912. For those who don’t know (or remember), numbering machines are the handheld stamping gadgets used to date mark library books or savings ledgers. Business peaked during World War II, when the company produced military tools in addition to the time-stampers, but then dwindled, with the full operation ending in 1971 as the use of personal computers and printers grew.
The Grand Union Tea Company
Pennsylvania born but Brooklyn bred, the Grand Union Tea Company was begun in Scranton, Pennsylvania, by two brothers in 1872. After moving to Brooklyn in 1893, they bought Dumbo’s now-landmarked 68 Jay Street, building it into the sprawling, block-long complex that it still is today. According to some accounts, their warehouse was America’s largest in 1904. The brothers produced coffees, spices, flavoring extracts, baking powders, soaps and their namesake, tea. The Grand Union Tea Company enjoyed success through the 1980s, after which it experienced multiple sales, resales and bankruptcy, finally going defunct in 2013.
The Chandler Piano Company
Begun by musically inclined, Vermont-born Frank H. Chandler, the Chandler Piano Company started as a piano warehouse and repair center at 120 Montague Street in 1869. By the 1890s Chandler had moved his business to Fulton Street, the company now selling other instruments and sheet music. The piano company lived on after Chandler’s death, running ads in the Brooklyn Eagle until the newspaper’s closure. The year the business closed down is unknown, but it certainly no longer exists today.
The William Ulmer Brewery
In a time when Bushwick was Brooklyn’s Little Deutschland, German immigrant William Ulmer made partner in the Vigelius & Ulmer Continental Lagerbier Brewery. By 1879 he was sole proprietor, and renamed the business the William Ulmer Brewery. Ulmer ran operated the brewery until he retired in 1900 and his wife and daughters took over. Prohibition did the business in come 1920, and the family sold the plant. Today, the landmarked complex is one of few original brewery buildings still standing.
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