This post is part of a monthly series that explores the historical applications of building materials and systems through resources from the Building Technology Heritage Library (BTHL), an online collection of AEC catalogs, brochures, trade publications, and more. The BTHL is a project of the Association for Preservation Technology, an international building preservation organization. Read more about the archive here.
Brooklyn might be known for its “hipsters” and as a New York borough undergoing a cultural renaissance with its abundance of museums, athletic facilities, and urban street life. A review of trade catalogs in the BTHL, however, shows another side of Brooklyn, when it was a major manufacturing center for the greater New York region. The BTHL has publications from more than 100 Brooklyn-based companies that produced building materials, including woodwork, metal work, and paints.
The oldest Brooklyn documents date from the mid-19th century. A pre-Civil War woodwork catalog illustrates the Victorian era moldings that grace many brownstones and urban dwellings in Brooklyn and its neighboring borough, Manhattan. A complementary catalog is an iron foundry booklet focused on decorative cast iron newel posts and fencing that border the small front yards of the brownstone housing that lines these blocks.
A turn-of-the-century catalog from the Brooklyn Metal Ceiling Co. features ornamental metal panel ceilings, which are known today as tin ceilings, even though they contained no tin. These were available pre-finished to imitate marbles, such as onyx. This catalog also reveals the ethnic diversity of Brooklyn, with the introduction written in English, French, German, Spanish, and Italian. Another sheet metal catalog from Brooklyn comes from the Miller and Doing Co., which originated in Brooklyn but had its ornamental sheet metal business taken over by a company in Connecticut. Now, the original stamping patterns are used by a company in Missouri.
The population of Brooklyn would put the borough as one of the top five cities in the U.S., so it’s not surprising that a city this large would have a large manufacturing base as part of its economy. The documents in the BTHL show a century of products that could bear the stamp “Made in Brooklyn.”
Brooklyn Moulding and Planing Mill, Brooklyn Moulding and Planing Mill, New York, 1850
This pre-Civil War catalog is the oldest from Brooklyn in the BTHL. With their thick and bulbous profiles, the millwork patterns in this volume would have been used in many of the brownstones that line the streets of Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Illustrated catalogue of all the latest designs of stoop rails, ballusters, newels ... dies, etc., North Brooklyn iron Foundry and Railing works, New York, 1886
The decorative cast iron newel posts and railings found in this catalog still grace the front yards of many brownstone townhouses in Brooklyn and Manhattan.
Cooper & McKee's refrigerators and ice chests for families, hotels and restaurants ... etc., Cooper & McKee Manufacturers, New York, 1895
The “hardwood refrigerator” seems like an oxymoron today, but this catalog describes the wooden case that holds ice and the metal lined “refrigerator.” There are dozens of designs for residential units and a smaller section of commercial units for stores and restaurants.
Brooklyn Metal Ceiling Co. Catalog, Brooklyn Metal Ceiling Co., New York, 1900
The popularity of the tin ceiling lasted for 50 years, from 1880 to 1930. The catalog has patterns that are typical of the era, including a line of “metal panels finished in imitation of various Marble.” The introduction to the catalog is also noteworthy for the text in French, German, Spanish, and Italian—evidence of the borough's diversity.
Jones Decorative Glass Catalog, Thomas Jones Decorative Glass Co., New York, 1905
The title pages of this catalog list the range of available decorative glass types: “chipped, sandblast, mitered, bevelled, silvered, ground, cut embossed, and leaded art glass.” The catalog also contains hundreds of different patterns and features photographs showing the various production processes for decorative glass.
Miller and Doing Architectural Sheet Metal, Miller and Doing, New York, 1908
Stamped sheet metal was often used for the ornamental cornices and window hoods on the façades of masonry buildings, as evidenced by the Miller and Doing catalogs. The patterns from Miller and Doing were used by the Kenneth Lynch Co. in Connecticut in the latter 20th century. Today, the patterns are still used to produce period ornamental sheet metal by W. F. Norman Co., in Nevada, Mo.
Bommer Spring Hinges Are the Best: Catalog No. 47, Bommer Spring Hinge Co., New York, 1922
The BTHL holdings include three annual catalogs from the Bommer Spring Hinge Co.: 1922, 1937, and 1955. The title page of this 1922 version highlights the various awards the company won for its products.
Majestic Distinctive Lighting Fixtures, Majestic Metal Spinning and Stamping Co., New York, circa 1930
This catalog tells us that the company was founded in 1920 and had an extensive line of residential lighting fixtures by the time this catalog was published around 1930. The catalog is undated, but a few Art Deco designs are an indication that the new design trend was at its beginnings.
Keystone Paints: Cavalcade of Colors, Keystone Varnish Co., New York, 1940s
This paint catalog “indicates authoritatively THE COLORS THAT WOMEN WANT TODAY.” Based upon more than 115,000 interviews with women across the U.S., the catalog points to 35 colors as "the most wanted by the women of America for interior home decoration.”
Colorful floors for homes! For business!, Kentile Inc., New York, 1952
Kentile resilient floor tiles were available in more than 25 patterns and colors with additional border strips, feature strips, and edging. The company also offered a wide selection of “theme” tile for business and home decoration. A separate design book shows suggestions for “thousands of ways you can fit these colorful tiles together in interesting, unusual designs.”
Williamsburg Hollow Metal Doors, Frames, Specialties, Williamsburg Steel Products, Co., New York, 1960
The metal door is a common element in post-World War II commercial and institutional architecture. This catalog featured a complete line of metal doors and frames produced in a 450,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in Brooklyn. The last page of the catalog listed the names of “leading architects” whose projects used Williamsburg doors.