Rewind: April 1, 2023
We Once Shaded the World: The short-lived era of Glens Falls Umbrellas
by David Waite
In 1895 the veranda of the American Hotel at the corner of South and Glen Streets in downtown Glens Falls was a perfect place to watch people in the city going about their business. Some of those sitting there may have even noted numerous working-class men and women in and out of the seemingly vacant Robinson Building right next door. This activity was nothing unseemly or illegal, rather it was the normal daily routine of the recently established factory and salesroom for the Gripsack Umbrella Company that occupied the building’s third floor.
This business had been established in Norwich, Connecticut by Reverend Clarence C. Frost a few years earlier and had then been moved to Glens Falls. By 1894 it was incorporated and began operation in the city. The shareholders in this enterprise were well-known businessmen in Glens Falls, including Merrit Ames, a partner in Ames & Baldwin drugstore; Benjamin S. Cowles, Jr., of Crittenden & Cowles bookstore, as well as Lawyer Eugene L. Ashley and his wife Elizabeth. Others who purchased shares in the business were Reverend Frost, and William Buckingham, a traveling salesman who was living in Glens Falls at that time. Frost also served as general manager of the business for a brief time, but soon sold his stock in the company and returned to his calling as a pastor in Norwich.
The name of these umbrellas – Gripsack, would have been a familiar word in those days, being a term for a traveling bag or what was at that time called a grip. In 1895 the United States Patent Office issued a trademark for “Gripsack” to the Gripsack Umbrella Company in Glens Falls for their exclusive use as the name for “folding umbrellas and umbrellas with detachable handles.” The unique feature of this 30-inch umbrella was that it folded to half its length, making it small enough to be carried in the owner’s pocket or bag. These umbrellas were marketed across America as well as in Europe and South America. As the popularity of these umbrellas grew the business soon doubled its original workforce ultimately employing over forty workers. With the business growing the need for salesmen also increased, with the company placing this advertisement in the August 15, 1895, New York Sun:
Umbrella salesmen wanted to handle our line of common umbrellas, also our patent folding and trunk umbrellas: only first-class experienced men having an established trade need apply. Address, with references and full particulars, the GRIPSACK UMBRELLA CO., Glens Falls, N. Y.
As with any factory, there was always the potential for accidents, the Gripsack company being no acceptation. In March of 1895, Oliff Stevens was on the third floor adjusting the tackle that hoisted goods from the ground twenty-seven feet below. As he leaned on a security bar that was placed across the opening it gave way and he fell headfirst to the ground. James Winton, the owner of a nearby bakery shop who witnessed the accident recalled the incident for a reporter at the Glens Falls Times: “The boy stood at the door but a minute or two then pitched forward. He turned completely over in the air and struck the ground on his side.” Winton then rushed forward and with the assistance of others moved him indoors. Amazingly he survived with no broken bones, his only injuries were bruises on his hands and knees.
In 1897 the Glens Falls Umbrella Company took over the Gripsack company. This new corporation was established by former directors Eugene L. Ashley, Merrit Ames, William Buckingham, and Glens Falls businessman James A. Holden. One other new director, William H. Gardinor, an experienced umbrella manufacturer from New Jersey also took on the job of managing the business. With a reported capitalization of $100,000, the future seemed bright for the new organization.
This change was quickly followed by another in 1898 when the business was consolidated with New York City umbrella manufacturer Clogg, Wright & Company. According to the Glens Falls Morning Star of September 5, 1898, this combined business would continue to be based in Glens Falls and would likely build a new factory employing two hundred workers in the manufacture of umbrellas and parasols. This new entity continued with the name Glens Falls Umbrella Company and the name Gripsack for its signature products.
While the plans for a new plant never materialized, during the next two years the business continued to seek new employees. One example, from the September 23, 1899, Glens Falls Morning Star, gave this call for workers: Girls are wanted by the Glens Falls Umbrella company to operate Singer sewing machines and sew on umbrella covers. Operators are also wanted to learn and take work home.
The New York State factory inspector reported that in 1899 there were seven males and sixteen females working at Gripsack, with two of these employees being minors. While the total number of hours worked by the adults was not reported, the minors were working 59 hours a week with nine of the hours worked being a Saturday or Sunday.
In November of 1899, William Gardinor announced his intention of leaving the firm and taking on the management of a new business: the Automatic Folding Umbrella Company. This new establishment had set up shop on the eastern side of the city on the third floor of the Morris Shirt Factory building at the corner of Culver and Maple Streets. Incorporated in July of 1899, the directors were all city residents from the Glens Falls business community. The most prominent of these were attorneys Heston Prior King, Edmund M. Angell, and Beecher S. Clother. Other directors were Stephen B. Bartlett, the manager of the Singer Manufacturing Company, and Stephen H. Gardiner, who also held the position of manager in the firm.
Gripsack Umbrella, having started in 1893 as a prosperous enterprise that at its height employed nearly fifty, financially failed as the Glens Falls Umbrella Company only 7 years later. In February of 1900, the business was declared bankrupt, and only three months later the 20,000 umbrellas still in stock were sold at auction to a consignment merchant in New York City. Their rival, the Automatic Folding Umbrella Company lasted only a few years longer than Gripsack, and by 1905 it too had closed its doors, ending the short-lived era of umbrella manufacturing in Glens Falls.
Sources for this article were the newspaper archives at nyhistoricnewpapers.org and fultonhistory.com, as well as ancestry.com and the Library of Congress website: loc.gov.
David Waite prepared this article for the Warren County Historical Society.