Old Washington (Industries & Undertakers)

By James Croggon, The Evening Star, September 25, 1910 [p. 18]

A hundred years ago, when barely 8,000 of the 24,000 inhabitants of the ten miles square were within the city limits, the term "city of magnificent distances" was scarcely applicable, as there were but few well built neighborhoods. The communities then of record were on Capitol Hill, east and south of the grounds on the lower end of New Jersey avenue, on "Twenty Building Hill," near the foot of South Capitol street, about the navy yard, along F street east and west of the White House on Pennsylvania avenue near the Center market and on Greenleaf’s point at the foot of 4 ½ street.

By 1820 the population had exceeded by five thousand that of Georgetown in a total of 33,500 in the District, and had over twice the number of buildings, about 2,500. This increase was incidental to the recovery from the effects of the war of 1812 and the restoration of the Capitol and other public buildings. Many mechanics were brought here thereby and there was an influx of English families with not a few deserters from the British army.

Manufactories Established
Early in this century some manufactories had been established here. Michael Shanks had a nail factory on N street near 6th street southwest, where nails were manufactured by hand for years. A glass house near the foot of 21st street was operated until in the thirties, Andrew Way, jr., being the proprietor. A steam planing mill was conducted by Aaron Dyer near the foot of New Jersey avenue. There were grist mills on Rock creek, on the iber and on James creek. There were two or three breweries -- one on the Avenue between 9th and 10th streets, which, being destroyed by fire, was occupied by soap and candle works, and there were a number of smaller industries.

The manufacturing of house furniture gave employment to many cabinet makers and upholsterers, and in the old days, before the middle of the century, it was rare to find any ready-made furniture here. With the exception of the White House, which was refurnished about 1817 by importations from Paris and furniture in the houses of some of the foreign ministers, nothing of foreign manufacture could be found, nor was it necessary for the people to go to other cities for household effects, for as early as 1820 there were a number of cabinet-making shops engaged in both public and private work.

Old-Time Industries
At the northwest corner of 11th and Pennsylvania avenue, the present site of The Star building, William McL. Cripps had a shop and was active in business there and above on 11th street, having his residence opposite. Benjamin M. Belt had been located for many years on the north side of Pennsylvania avenue between 9th and 10th streets, and was there several years following 1820. Henry V. Hill was then on the east side of New Jersey avenue between 3d and 4 ½ street and in the Weightman building at the corner of 6th and Pennsylvania avenue. For many years subsequently he conducted a congressional boarding house in the Old Capitol building, 1st and A streets northeast.

John and James Williams were in the twenties located on the north side of the Avenue between 17th and 18th streets and also on the Avenue near 4 ½ street, and laer Samuel Williams for nearly forty years was at the former place engaged principally as an undertaker, James Williams was on Pennsylvania avenue near 4 ½ street until the middle of the century. David Westerfield was located in the twenties on the east side of 7th street between F and G streets, then opposite Orr’s garden, and later located on D street between 9th and 10th streets southwest. William Parker had a cabinet shop on G street between 19th and 20th streets.

Before 1820 chairmaking was carried on by Pope & Thompson on the present site of the Gibson printing office, southeast corner of Pennsylvania avenue and 13th street. The upholstery and paperhanging business was carried on in connection with cabinet making. Charles Alexander was early in the upholstery business on the north side of the Avenue east of 13th street. After his death the place was continued by his widow and sons, John and E.F. Alexander, covering a period of over fifty years. There was also an upholstery establishment on 26th street near M street, conducted by Edward Rush.

"Walking Funerals" the Rule
As undertakers they were the prototype of the modern "funeral director," and had to do with what is now seldom seen, the walking funeral. The burial places being mostly within the city limits, and but few public carriages available, the relatives and friends, marshaled by the undertaker, walked behind the hearse to the place of interment.

A story is told of a cabinet maker who practiced as an herb doctor, attending his patients, ministering to them on dying beds, taking the measure following death, making the coffin, conducting the funeral procession, reading the burial service and as, sexton of a burial ground, attended to the filling of the grave.

The funerals of that day were not as expensive as they are now, as is shown by bills of less than $20 each on file in the records of the Probate Court, and held against estates of prominent people.

Prior to 1830 John Stillings opened a cabinet making shop at the northeast corner of 7th and L streets southeast, and conducted business there thirty years or more. In the forties, however, with James S. Harvey, he established an undertaking business on 7th streets between G and H streets. Subsequently he drew out and devoted himself to business at his old stand. Mr. Harvey continued on 7th street until his death and was succeeded by his son, R.F. Harvey, who later moved to F street near 10th street, where now is the Speare establishment. A grandson of the elder Harvey is in business on the street near Rhode Island avenue. Samuel Kirby, late in the thirties, went into the undertaking business on the west side of 8th street between C and D streets, where he subsequently erected a large factory, and for many years was engaged in manufacturing, and conducted many funerals.

Contemporaneous with Mr. Kirby was the firm of Lee & Espy.. Henry Lee and James Espy, cabinet makers, on Maryland avenue between 3d and 4 ½ streets. Mr. Espy, in a few years withdrew, and Mr. Lee carried on the business for a number of years being succeeded by his sons, one of whom, J. William now has an establishment on the same site.

In Business in the Forties
In the forties, among other cabinet makers, some of whom carried on undertaking were Peter Callan, on the east side of 7th street between G and H streets, G.W. Wheeler, south side of Pennsylvania avenue between 17th and 18th streets; Varden and Shields, south of the Avenue between 14th and 15th streets; Henry Kaiser, south side of the Avenue between 9th and 10th streets; John Angel, west side of 7th street between E and F streets southwest; William Joy, corner of 4 ½ street and Maryland avenue southwest; J.D. Bradburn, south side of H street between 12th and 13th streets.

Edwin Green had moved up from Alexandria, and had an extensive establishment at the southwest corner of 11th street and Pennsylvania avenue, the old site of The Evening Star office. Leonard O’Cook was engaged in chair making at the southeast corner of 7th and D streets southwest, A. & W. Thompson, cabinet makers, were on the south side of F street between 13th and 14th streets. James E.W. Thompson was engaged in the undertaking business next door.

Manufacture of Blinds
For a long time -- in fact, down to the civil war -- Venetian blinds were in vogue, the principal manufacturers being William Noell, on the south side of the Avenue between 9th and 10th streets. About 1845 he formed a partnership with Joseph K. Boyd, an upholsterer, on the north side of D street between 10th and 11th streets, and the firm of Noell & Boyd engaged for many years in the cabinet, upholstery and the Venetian blind business. At this time such blinds were much used in the government departments as well as in private residences.

In the forties Douglas Moore came over from Baltimore and engaged in the upholstery business on the north side of Pennsylvania avenue between 9th and 10th streets, and for thirty years or more was engaged in that business and in paper hanging. David A. Baird was an upholsterer located on the east side of 6th street between H and I streets, and Andrew Reese was on the south side of the Avenue between 9th and 10th street.