The Domino Sugar Plant

In the Nineteen nineties when I was training for marathons I would often run over the Williamsburg Bridge. Many nights I would be greeted by the wonderful sweet aroma of Williamsburg’s Domino factory boiling sugar. The aroma was so strong that you could sometimes smell it on the Manhattan side of the bridge. THe aroma came from the former Havemeyers & Elder Filter, Pan & Finishing House is located in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, on a block bounded by the East River, Kent Avenue, South 2nd Street and South 3rd Street. Though the plant was very old the aroma would not last that much longer. In 2000 a strike would lat for twenty months and become one of the longest strikes in New York City history. Finally in 2004 the plant closed ending a hundred and seventy five years of Brooklyn industrial history.

The factory complex is now at the center of a development plan and will become luxury housing, but the Filter and Pan finishing House has been designated as a New York City Landmark. In March 2014, plans for the $1.5 billion redevelopment of the old Domino Sugar refinery on the Brooklyn waterfront were approved by the City Planning Commission. It signed off on the proposal after the de Blasio administration struck a deal with Two Trees Management to include more affordable housing units. That deal requires Two Trees to include 700 below-market-rate units — which is 40 more than what was originally offered and 260 more than CPC. In exchange, Two Trees gets to build its towers of up to 55 stories

In colonial New York, the port and its international trade was the heart of New York’s economy. New York shipped raw goods such as Southern cotton and Caribbean sugarcane in variations of the “triangular trade” involving Europe, North America, and the west coast of Africa (where the “goods,” sadly, were human beings). All the raw materials passing through New York dictated that the city enter into the refining or “finishing” of materials prior to export or internal consumption. Thus the cotton trade created the city’ huge garment industry, and the trade in cane sugar led to New York’s role as sugar refiner to the world.

William Bayard opened the city’s first sugar refinery in 1730. Many of the oldest merchant families in New York, The Bayards, Van Cortlandts, Rhinelanders, Roosevelts — made their fortunes in the sugar business. Yet one family above all others came to stand for sugar: the Havemeyers.

The family came from Germany and would become America’s great sugar barons, some would call them robber barons. Born in Germany, cousins William (1770-1851) and Frederick Christian Havemeyer (1774-1841) worked as sugar bakers in London before immigrating to the United States in 1799. After a brief period with Edmund Seaman and Company, the city’s first sugar boiler, they established their own refinery in c. 1807, on Budd (now Van Dam) Street, between Greenwich and Hudson Streets, just south of Greenwich Village. The original building was small compared to later refineries, only 30 by 40 feet, but by the 1840s it stood ten stories tall and filled the entire block. Sugar soon became a vital New York industry and by mid-century there were more than twenty refineries in New York and New Jersey.

Sugar cane came at first from America’s deep south, mainly Louisiana, and the Caribbean, harvested by enslaved Africans under brutal and dangerous conditions. Though slavery ended in the United States in 1865, it continued in Cuba, a leading exporter of raw sugar, until 1886, and in Brazil until 1888. Sugar mills were among the earliest factories in North America. Initially operated close to plantations, by the early nineteenth century most were located in major commercial centers, which were close to consumers

William F. Havemeyer, Jr. (1804-1874), who headed the Van Dam Street refinery from 1828 to 1842, was elected mayor of New York City three times, in 1845, 1848 and 1872. Though he publicly criticized slavery and strongly opposed its expansion,like many New Yorkers he maintained that “no forcible interference” should occur “in states which it already existed.”5 The family began refining sugar in Manhattan in 1805, but like many other industries moved across the river when there was far cheaper space. Businesses began to relocate to the booming new town of Williamsburg during the 1850s. Land costs were relatively low, the population was increasing, and the East River was well-served by passenger ferries and commercial fleets. Founded as part of the town of Bushwick in the mid-1600s, Williamsburg was incorporated as a village in 1827. A gridiron plan was soon adopted, with named and numbered streets running perpendicular from the river. Most industrial and commercial activity was concentrated here, with residential blocks to the east. Williamsburg grew rapidly; by 1851 it was the twentieth largest city in the nation and in 1854, along with neighboring Bushwick, it became part of greater Brooklyn.

Frederick Havemeyer and his brother William, the once and future mayor of New York City, moved the family business to Williamsburg in 1857. They built Several other factories, which soon created the greatest center of sugar refining in the world . The firm became Havemeyer & Elder in 1863, when Frederick’s son-in-law, Joseph Elder, joined. The firm eventually passed to Frederick’s son, Henry Osborne Havemeyer, who became the sultan of American sugar, forming the Sugar Trust and becoming the most powerful person in the global sugar trade. The Sugar Refineries Company, also known as the Sugar Trust, was established in October 1887. Most members of the board of directors were drawn from the Havemeyer family or long-time business associates. It was renamed the American Sugar Refining Company in 1891 and King’s Handbook of New York called it “without doubt . . . the greatest and most important manufacturing industry in the United States.” Originally consisting of as many as twenty firms, it was a monopoly – similar to that of the Standard Oil Company or the American Tobacco Company – that sought to control labor costs and sugar prices, as well as to influence government policy. Efficiency was critical to the new organization and following a six-month assessment only the five most productive refineries, including the recently-constructed Williamsburg plant, were allowed to operate.55 This strategy proved to be a great success, and within two decades the company controlled 98 per cent of the refined sugar produced in the United States. Though claims were made that such techniques substantially lowered consumer prices, the trust immediately began to attract the attention of state and federal investigators. Antitrust legislation, followed by litigation and related scandals, would damage American Sugar’s reputation, and ultimately, its market share. Havermayer’s domination of the industry was so great that he set the price of sugar At the start of the twentieth century, the Havemeyer family was said to control ninety-eight per cent of sugar production in the United States.

The Williamsburg plant was the nerve-center of this empire. Before the federal government broke up the Sugar Trust in 1922, New York City had refined as much as 70% of the raw sugar in America. With the trust’s breakup, the Havemeyer & Elder name also vanished. The company became American Sugar Refining in 1891, and registered Domino as a trade name in 1902. In 1970, American Sugar became Amstar, then Domino Sugar Corp.

he Havemeyers & Elder refinery was an immense operation. It covered approximately eleven
acres and required thousands of workers. All types of sugar were produced “from the dominoes and cubes of cut loaf, through the various grades of hard sugars, down to the cheaper grades of yellow, or straw-colored sugars.”47 It was a major Brooklyn employer, hiring primarily untrained labor. The great majority were men and recent immigrants. They worked around the clock, in ten-hour shifts, at minimum. The New York Tribune strongly criticized conditions in the plant, writing in 1894:

. . . the severity of their labors is shown by the fact that they are nearly all thin and stooped and rarely above middle age, it being a well-known fact that men employed in the refineries rarely live to old age. They are nearly all new immigrants when first employed, and before work is given them, they must be found perfectly docile and obedient . . . Then begins a life of perpetual torture as long as he remains in the refinery, and not infrequently death comes quickly to his relief.

The earliest group, like the owners, came from Germany and “notices from management were printed in both English and German.”49 Toward the end of the nineteenth century, the workforce became increasingly diverse, with recent arrivals from Ireland, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, Greece, and later, the West Indies. The Brooklyn Eagle observed in 1900:

There is little about the manufacture of sugar that calls for skilled labor, and the work has been lightened and conditions modified within fifteen or twenty years by improved machinery . . . the Pole has, therefore, arrived in time to benefit by these changes, though he would have taken the work just the same had it been twice as hot or hard.

Many workers lived in the vicinity of Kent Avenue, or along trolley lines that led to the waterfront, occupying former single-family residences that had been converted to boarding houses and tenements. Despite low wages, approximately $13 per week, the average length of service in 1900 was more than eight years. Such wages, one writer observed, would insure “a good living” elsewhere, but not in Brooklyn.

Refinery workers also had hardly any job security. Thousands were temporarily laid off due to the 1882 fire (and during subsequent conflagrations), as well as during periods when raw materials were in short supply. Increasing labor unrest, especially in the mid-1880s and after 1900, eventually led to wage increases and the creation of a pension plan in 1912 for disabled and retired workers. By 1920, approximately ten percent of the workforce was female, with many involved in clerical positions or packaging. Compared to their male colleagues, their working conditions were portrayed as comfortable:

In the final packing for grocery orders a number of girls find employment. They attend the machines that automatically pour, weigh, and seal small packages of sugar, enabling two girls to do the work recently done by eight, and do it more accurately. Some of the sugar is put up by them in bags and some in paper boxes. These girls have most of a room to themselves, with good dressing rooms, and free from heat.

The American Sugar Refinery Company was one of Brooklyn’s largest employers. With 4,500 workers on the payroll in 1919, threats to move to New Jersey in the late 1910s and early 1920s were taken seriously and the government permitted the closing of two streets, between Kent Avenue and the river, as part of a major expansion. The number employed, however, fell steadily after the Second World War. By 1959 there were 1,500 workers, 450 in 1996, and less than 300 in 2001. Not only was the demand for sugar hurt by the increasing popularity of corn syrup and other sweeteners, but to increase efficiency, only liquid sugar – first processed in Baltimore – was refined in the Williamsburg plant during the 1990s.

Henry Osborne Havermayer left a great legacy to New York. His art collection became the basis of the Metropolitan Museum. H.O. Havemeyer’s first art purchases were made during his visit in 1876 to the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia with Samuel Colman. He bought carved ivory figures, Japanese lacquered boxes, silk, brocades, and sword guards. Typically his purchases were impulsive, numerous, and deeply personal. Both H.O. and Louisine had distinct tastes for art collecting that largely complemented each other. Both H.O. and Louisine had to be in agreement as to an object’s worth for it to enter their now legendary collection. Louisine focused on collecting modern works by European painters, including the then-unappreciated Impressionists. She was most influenced by her close friend Mary Cassatt, who encouraged her to buy works by Edgar Degas and Claude Monet. Louisine would make 33 transatlantic crossings, returning from each major trip with a bounty of great western art.

In her will, Louisine identified some 142 works as a bequest to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and empowered her children to give the museum’s curators free rein. By the time they had finished an inventory of the Havemeyer’s three-story Fifth Avenue home 1,967 works would be assimilated into the Met’s holdings, identified as the H.O. Havemeyer Collection. The Havemeyer collection is represented throughout the galleries, but notably by the sheer volume of works present in the Impressionist collection. Some choice works from the Havemeyer collection are on view at the Shelburne Museum and the University of Michigan Museum of Art.

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