An Evaluation: ‘The Business of Brooklyn’ at The Brooklyn Historical Society
Who knew that Brooklyn was the hub of the New York City’s commercial enterprise? The Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce knew it and supported Brooklyn’s businesses for a hundred years. Now visitors to the Pierrepont building of The Brooklyn Historical Society can learn about “The Business of Brooklyn” in a new exhibit that opened Feb. 23. This compact but excellent presentation will be on display until the end of the year.
Display cases in The Gina Ingoglia Weiner Gallery on the third floor are filled with historic advertisements, mostly from the Society’s collection, that retell the story of the birthplace of Brooklyn’s favorite commercial products. Brooklyn’s love affair with chocolate merges into artifacts from Barton’s, Domino Sugar, Piel’s Brewery and Ebinger’s, as well as pencils from Eberhard, bottles from Virginia Dare, candies from a Chinese business and a Brooklyn-made hat ornament. Photographs of a few of Brooklyn’s countless mom and pop stores line a wall.
The biggest challenge for curator Thomas Mellins was choosing from the plethora of products in order to select approximately 130 items for display. He resorted to dividing the story into six sections, telling big stories in small spaces. In mounting the exhibit, he was continually surprised by the variety of products produced in Brooklyn.
Sections revolve around the role of commerce in Brooklyn and its place in the world. Not only are small businesses itemized, such as shopping at Charlie Sahardi’s food emporium on Atlantic Avenue and dining at Gage & Tollner’s on Fulton Street, but also big and small enterprises unique to the borough. Businesses include the many department stores where shoppers flooded the aisles as well as recreation and eating at the Coney Island shore. Brooklyn Beer reminds us of the continuation of a 19th-century industry as do the longevity of Brillo and the chemical companies Pfizer and Squibb, all founded in Brooklyn.
The business story spans booming factories, iconic invention and labor struggles with images and objects that originated and thrived in Brooklyn. Guiding that growth was the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, which oversaw the consumer culture that fed business here. The themes of global, labor and innovation represented in the exhibit have preserved the economy through the present time frame and will do so into the future.
Diversity is also represented in the exhibit with inputs from varied ethnic and immigrant businesses. Photographs of workers and production processes of businesses drove the exhibit’s sense of industry from machinery to sales. Unfortunately, space limitations forced Mellins to omit architectural photographs of factories that “gave a sense of the borough’s industrial urbanism.”
Sponsors of the exhibit include TD Bank as well as the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce. The day before the opening a luncheon featured the living Brooklyn borough presidents, including Howard Golden, Marty Markowitz and Eric Adams, in a panel discussion on Brooklyn’s economy, past and future. Special programs related to Brooklyn business will be announced.
Mellins, an architectural historian and graduate of Columbia University, has supervised exhibits of “St. Paul’s Chapel at 250 Years,” “Affordable New York: A Housing Legacy” the Museum of the City of New York, and “The New York Public Library: Celebrating 100 Years,” the most heavily attended exhibition in the library’s history.
Born in Brooklyn, he foresees possible exhibits on literary Brooklyn, past and present; political activism in Brooklyn; a history of Brooklyn’s Jewish communities; and contemporary architecture and landscape in Brooklyn.
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