The Van Benthuysens
Obadiah Van Benthuysen descended from a Dutch family that settled in Albany about 1666. He created a printing legacy lasting nearly 180 years, the importance of which has never been properly addressed. Facts about Van Benthuysen and his business are spotty, but what is now known is an interesting story.
Obadiah was born in Albany to Obadiah and Joannah (Romney) Van Benthuysen on 13 July 1787 and christened at the Dutch Reformed Church the following August.(1) Details available on Van Benthuysen's adult life begin on 26 October 1801, when a contract for an apprenticeship with printer Daniel Steele was drawn-up.(2) From Steele, Van Benthuysen was to learn “the Art, Trade and Mystery of Bookbinding.” In return for his work he would have “sufficient Meat, Drink, Physic, Lodging and Washing fit for an apprentice, during the ...term of five years, 9 months and 12 day, and his...master shall give him two-quarters night schooling and at the expiration of the said term to have two suits of clothes, one for every day and one for Holliday.” His career as a printer was launched when he took over the business after Steele's death.
engraving taken from the Van Benthuysen's centennial publication
Van Benthuysen produced The Guardian at 19 Court Street just south of the Staffords' stores in Hardware Row. In 1808, he moved to Liberty Street near Hudson Street (now Avenue) to conduct his own business, then partnered five years later with Robert Packard. Packard & Van Benthuysen eventually located at the northwest corner of Beaver and Green Streets. Here, so it is said, was the first successful application of steam power to printing presses in the United States. In Albany & Its Business Houses the circumstances are described:
About a year previous [to 1832] the Tract House in New York
attempted the use of steam, but it was not a success, and they
returned to horse power. Mr. OBADIAH VAN BENTHUYSEN
set up an engine for the experiment; the fire under the boiler
was lighted by the present senior member of the house of VAN
BENTHUYSEN [Charles Van Benthuysen]; steam was soon ‘up,’
the belts thrown on and the presses started successfully.”(3)
Van Benthuysen also ran the Albany Type Foundry, first on Liberty Street and later on Bleecker Street behind the John Stafford House. This business is claimed to have been the first in the United States to use steam power for casting printing type. The date given for this advancement is 1828.
Van Benthuysen also started several branches of a paper-making firm. There were factories in Cohoes, Castleton and Bath, the latter now a part of the city of Rensselaer. The Cohoes concern, which evolved into a knitting mill, was absorbed by the Harmony Mills and that in Castleton by the Fort Orange Press. Edwin Croswell, editor of the Albany Argus newspaper, took on Van Benthuysen as a partner in 1823, which added to his growing concerns in the printing field. From these offices the printing and binding of New York State Legislative material was conducted for many years. As was typical of the time, the Argus was a supporting voice for their political party of choice. They chose the Albany Regency, the party of the Stafford family and Gov. Yates.
The other leading newspaper in Albany, the Evening Journal, supported the Whig party. Thurlow Weed was the editor. We have seen how Weed played the political agitator at a dinner given by Gov. Yates in the former Stafford House. In Weed's memoirs he recounts an event that illustrates another extreme he would take:
There used to be a sharp rivalry between the ‘Argus’ and ‘Evening Journal’ to obtain the earliest news. The earliest copy of the President's annual message to Congress was the occasion of much solicitude. Such messages were usually received about the close of the season of navigation. On one of these occasions I went to New York to obtain the earliest possible copy of President Jackson's message. Mr. Obadiah Van Benthuysen, one of the proprietors of the Argus, went to New York on the same boat and on the same errand. Colonel J. Watson Webb, one of the editors of the Courier and Enquirer [in New York], had been favored with a copy of the message in advance of its delivery to Congress. No other New York paper had it. Colonel Webb, then in political accord with the Argus, promised Mr. Van Benthuysen the first copy printed of the Courier, while I was to receive the second. The steamboat DeWitt Clinton ... by an arrangement which Mr. Van Benthuysen had made with the agent, was to delay her departure from five o'clock P.M. until Mr. Van Benthuysen came on board, should he be able to do so by 11:00. My friend Mr. Sherman [who was captain of the boat] advised me of this arrangement, adding that his orders were to have everything in readiness and cast off his lines the moment Mr. Van Benthuysen could get on board, expressing the hope that I might also get there before the boat was out of dock. We both passed the evening at the office of the Courier and Enquirer with hacks waiting at the door. Towards ten o'clock the first proof impression of the message was taken and handed to Mr. Van Benthuysen, who instantly made his exit. There was a delay of nearly two minutes before I obtained my copy. In descending the three flights of stairs I found the lights extinguished and was compelled to grope my way down. In this way I lost another minute, in consequence of which I reached the wharf to find the steamer under way about twenty feet from the dock. I learned from an acquaintence who was standing on the dock that a freight steamer would leave early the next morning. Proceeding to the dock of that steamer, I induced the agent to fire up and get under way at as early an hour as practicable. We were off in two hours after the departure of the De Witt Clinton, and reached Poughkeepsie, where both boats were detained by the ice an hour or two, after Mr. Van Benthuysen had departed in the mailstage for Albany. I found ‘Bally’, a well-known and active livery stable man, who assured me that he could overtake the stage before it reached Albany. In a very few minutes...I was seated in a cutter...and off, express to Albany. ‘Bally’ was as good as his word, for in approaching Greenbush [now Rensselaer] the stage was in sight, scarcely a quarter of a mile ahead of us. Mr. Van Benthuysen and myself ran a foot race across the river on the ice and the ‘Journal’ and the ‘Argus’ issued the message in an extra simultaneously.(4)
In 1831, Van Benthuysen had a comfortable house built on Madison Avenue across the from the Stafford House while James King was in occupancy.(5) He knew the former Executive Mansion well by the time it went up for sale in 1836.
The availability of the Stafford House clearly inspired Van Benthuysen not only to buy it but to surround himself with things that would befit a life in the grand house. While on a trip through Europe in the same year he purchased curtains, carpets and chandeliers. He purchased a new sleigh, ordered furniture in the latest Empire fashion, and portraits of each in the family were commissioned from painter Frederick Fink.(6)
Perhaps some of this exuberant activity was in reaction to the death of his first wife in 1837. She was Sarah Wood, whose great-grandmother was Benjamin Franklin's sister.(7) Van Benthuysen honored the relation by having a likeness of Franklin on the sign over the door of Packard & Van Benthuysen. Sarah had given Obadiah five children, some of whom were not yet adults, and Obadiah provided them with a new mother when he married Elizabeth Seymour in 1838.(8) While he was still buying items for the new home intended for his family with Sarah, he was also paying for ironwork around her grave site.
In 1838, Obadiah's sons Charles and Packard became silent partners in the Packard & Van Benthuysen Printing Company. The brothers succeeded to the business after their father died on 15 August 1845. With a new partner named Cornelius Wendell, this company won the bid to print material issued by the United States Senate and House of Representatives, extending their prominence throughout the East Coast. Packard Van Benthuysen soon left the firm. Charles remained in Albany and Cornelius Wendell attended the branch in Washington.
With a young family of his own, Charles inherited the Madison Avenue property - the former Stafford house - in 1845 and lived there for fourteen years. The Pastures Neighborhood was inhabited by an increasing number of immigrants in the mid 19th century, and for those who wanted to live in what was then the most elite part of the city settled on Capitol Hill. Elk Street had been the site of official governors’ residences and homes of the wealthy since the 1830s, and it was a natural choice for the Van Benthuysen family to move there in 1858.
Charles Van Benthuysen proved to be a talented industrialist. The family businesses were thriving, and the printing house was credited with several pioneering endeavors such as the desk calendar, in addition to their previous successes in applying steam power to their machinery. Van Benthuysen was a trustee and director of numerous local organizations such as the Albany Insurance Company and the Albany Inebriate Asylum. One of the most far-reaching concerns was the Albany, Bennington & Rutland Railroad, of which he was a co-founder. Van Benthuysen was one of several merchants to experiment in laying “Buffalo” pavement on Broadway in the vicinity of his company-buildings to replace cobblestones that heavy traffic left in need of constant repair. The Buffalo type of pavement was a long, thin rectangular block with one of the narrow sides exposed and laid horizontally across the street.
When Charles' sons Charles Henry, Arthur and Franklin Van Benthuysen - all presumably born in the former Stafford house - reached adulthood, the company reformed as Charles Van Benthuysen & Sons. The paper mills were taken over by Charles Henry and the printing company by Franklin. The printing company was sold to employees in 1923. Including the business of Daniel Steel to which Obadiah succeeded, this firm ran continuously for about 175 years. In later years it was located on Norton Street in the same neighborhood in which it started. The doors closed in 1983.
1. "Records of the Dutch Reformed Church of Albany, New York," excerpted from Year Books of the Holland Society of New York (1924-1925), p. 64.
2. Unless otherwise noted, biographical information is taken from a privately printed publication for the centennial of the Van Benthuysen printing company, Albany Public Library.
3. Albany & its Business Houses, Albany Public Library.
4. Thurlow Weed (Harriet Weed, ed.) Autobiography of Thurlow Weed, (Boston:1883), pp. 369-370.
5.Albany city directories and Albany tax assessments.
6. check stubs, Van Benthuysen Papers, New York State Archives.
7. married 26 November 1808, "Records of the Dutch Reformed Church of Albany, New York," excerpted from Year Books of the Holland Society of New York (1926-1927), p. 5.