Trigger warning: Some may find reading about Albany’s complicity in the destruction of extremely cute animals to be disturbing. Read at your own risk.
The early history of Albany was defined to a great extent by the fur trade, specifically beaver fur. For the first hundred years of its existence, Albany served as a trading post, where Indian trappers would exchange their beaver pelts for European trade goods, which pelts would then be trans-shipped to Holland and England, where they would be manufactured into clothing (mainly hats, in the case of beaver fur). But after the Revolution, with the end of British trade policies which restricted manufacturing in the colonies, a fur manufacturing and dyeing industry began to develop in America, particularly in Albany. In the 1780’s and 1790’s, a number of furriers began to operate in Albany, including John W. Wendell, Elisha Dorr, and William Mayell. But by the beginning of the 19th century, with beavers nearly extinct in New York State and with beaver fur being replaced by silk for fashionable men’s hats, Albany furriers and dyers were looking for new raw materials with which to ply their skills. One that was growing in popularity in the London market was the fur seal.
Dennison Williams of Albany began manufacturing men’s caps in 1822. In 1824, Williams began making caps from the skins of fur seals, imported from the South Shetlands in Antarctica, using an improved method he had developed for removing the outer hairs from the fur seal skins. In 1825, he became the first furrier in America to dye fur seal skins. Williams established agencies in Boston, New Orleans, and Nova Scotia, and soon made a small fortune, before retiring from the manufacturing side of the business in 1827. He continued as a fur wholesaler into the 1850’s.
Williams’ fur seal cap business was continued by his partners, William Packer, and Ezra and James Prentice, who formed Packer, Prentice & Co. They were soon doing $500,000 in annual sales. By 1844, the 700 to 800 workers in their factory at 105 Water St. were producing 2,000 fur seal caps a day, which were shipped to New York City, whence they were exported throughout the world. There were at least four other fur seal cap manufacturers in Albany in the 1830’s and 1840’s, processing more than 20,000 fur seal skins a year. But a slowing demand for fur seal hats and reductions in the fur seal population led to a contraction of the industry, so that by 1850, there was only one manufacturer in Albany still processing fur seal skins, George C. Treadwell & Company.
George C. Treadwell was born in Farmington, Connecticut in 1812 and came to Albany by himself when he was fourteen years old. He hired himself out to Chandler, Star & Co., a dry goods firm until 1829, when he was employed by Packer, Prentice & Co. Just three years later, Treadwell went into the business of dressing fur seals for himself. A few years later, Treadwell began experimenting with the dyeing of fur seal skins and eventually developed a dye called ‘London Brown’ for which he became famous in the industry. Treadwell’s furs were said to be of “exquisitely soft and downy texture and rich dark-brown color.” One of Treadwell’s employees, James Chase, travelled extensively in search of new sources of fur seals, including the American Far West, Alaska, the Pribiloff Islands, and Siberia.
After weathering the decline of the fur seal trade in the 1840’s, George C. Treadwell & Co. was well positioned to take advantage of a sudden resurgence of the trade in the late 1850’s as fur seal hats became all the rage in London. While in earlier times, fur seal caps had been produced mainly for “cabmen and street peddlers,” with the improved methods of dressing and dyeing Treadwell and others had introduced, fur seal was now suitable for high fashion. As the demand for fur seal hats waned again, Treadwell expanded into the manufacture of gloves, sacques (a kind of short jacket), stoles, and muffs. Until 1878, Treadwell’s company would be the only fur seal manufacturer in the United States. In that year, John Williams, the son of the above-mentioned Dennison Williams, established himself in the trade in Brooklyn.
Treadwell’s company had several locations in its long history, but 482 Broadway, across from Stanwix Hall, would be its principal manufacturing and retail location after the Civil War. Like so many other businesses of the day, George C. Treadwell & Co. was a family business, employing George’s brother, son and son-in-law.
George Treadwell died at his home at 735 Broadway (across from today’s O’Brien Federal Building) in 1885, but the business continued to flourish, its dyes winning a prize at the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. But by then, the Albany fur seal industry’s days were numbered, as family members lost interest in the business, sources of supply shifted, fashions changed, and better heating reduced the need for warm fur clothing. By 1896, George C. Treadwell & Co. no longer appears in Albany city directories. Instead an American Fur Company advertised itself as a “dresser and dyer of fur seals of the celebrated Treadwell Dyes.” But by 1900, this last vestige of a major Albany industry was also gone.
With raw materials coming from Canada, Russia, the Arctic Circle and Antarctica and with exports going to England and Continental Europe, the fur seal industry drew the farthest parts of the world together in a web of commerce, with Albany at its hub. Changes in Siberian seal populations and changes in London fashions all had a direct impact on the lives of Albanians. We often think of globalism as a 21st century phenomenon, but the Albany fur seal industry is an example of how closely the world was tied together even in an earlier and supposedly simpler age.