New York / Place of Immigration
By James E. Haas
There are streets named in his honor in the city of Hamburg in Germany,
and in the village of College Point in Queens, New York City. That the
small town situated on a peninsula exists
at all is due in large part because of him, and the educational institute
he founded there 135 years ago has been declared both a New York City
and a National Landmark, while in Hamburg, the enterprise that he along
with Johann Heinrich Wilhelm Maurien established in 1871, continues to
operate. As it did in 1871, the New York - Hamburg / Waaren Compagnie
manufactures, among other things, combs. His identity is all but unknown
and his achievements largely unheralded; his name was Conrad Poppenhusen.
Born in Hamburg on April 1, 1818, Conrad was introduced to very basic business principles by his father Heinrich, but that education was interrupted when his father died in 1829. A close family friend and entrepreneur, Heinrich Christian Meyer, took Conrad under his wing, broadened his business knowledge, and in 1838, 20 year-old Poppenhusen signed a five year employment contract with Meyer that took him abroad, especially to Great Britain where he was able to expand his use of the English language, a skill that would ease his entry into the whirl of American business.
He became secretly engaged to Bertha Marie Henrietta Karker in August 1839 and announced his intention to marry 16 months later. The couple wed in May 1841 and one year later Conrad, an officer in the fire brigade, helped fight the great fire of Hamburg that blazed for 100 hours and destroyed much of the city. During the four-day conflagration he neither changed clothes nor did he sleep very much, this according to a very brief autobiography he penned late in his life.
Thirteen months later in June 1843 Conrad sailed alone for New York City to join Meyer’s son Adolph where together they went into the business of manufacturing combs and corset stays from a diminishing supply of whalebone. Their factory was near the Brooklyn waterfront across the East River from lower Manhattan.
A year later Bertha and her young son Adolph reunited with husband and father, and over the next two years two sons were born, Heinrich Conrad, named for his deceased grandfather, in 1846 and Herman Christian, named for his father’s mentor, in 1847. A sister named Marie would be born in 1849, but in 1848 H.C. Meyer dies in Hamburg and the relationship between Adolph and Conrad deteriorates to the point that by 1852 Poppenhusen has a new business partner, a man of some mystery, Frederick Koenig, a Hamburg banker whose job it was to raise fresh capital for continued business expansion.
At some point in this four-year span Conrad got together with Charles Goodyear with Conrad recognizing the twin facts that the world’s supply of whalebone was in jeopardy, and that reliable hard rubber was now available for manufacturing purposes. It is said that he had loaned Goodyear considerable sums of money to finance numerous necessary experiments and that as a result was granted limited sole rights to the vulcanization process. Indeed that did occur in 1852 when as security for the money Poppenhusen not only obtained the rights to manufacture combs, but also for a considerable period of time, was the sole owner of the patents acquired by right of invention by Charles Goodyear.
Two years later in move much celebrated in the local press, Poppenhusen built a large factory in College Point on the shores of Flushing Bay near the East River for the purpose of expanding his business of manufacturing products made from hard rubber. And he was exceedingly successful.
In 1858 Bertha died, Conrad grieved and both the town and the business grew. In 1859 he married a family friend named Caroline Hütterott, and by 1860 the population of the village had grown from under 100 residents in 1852 to an excess of 2,000 in that census year, with the largest majority of that number in his employ. He took it as his charge and mission in life to create a worker’s paradise, and in so doing paved roads, built houses, deepened and widened the channel of the existing waterway, served as Justice of the Peace, and donated a great deal of money to a variety of religious and secular causes. When the American Civil War came in 1861 he paid extra bonuses to, and guaranteed the employment of the soldiers, his workers, who had gone off to fight. He took care of their widows, educated their children and eventually got involved in railroading which was to be his undoing.
While courting Caroline he made mention to her of a project dear to him that he was intent on developing. It became the Poppenhusen Institute, dedicated in 1868 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his birth, with the objective being to provide free education to his workers and their children. Anyone residing in the area having an interest in learning was encouraged to take advantage of this offer. Discrimination of any kind, race or creed, was disallowed and not only did Conrad donate the land on which the edifice would be placed, he also made an initial endowment of $100,000.
The building, with its mansard roof and dormer windows characteristic of the French Second Empire style of architecture, officially opened in May 1870 at a cost of $50,000 equivalent to today’s $630,000. His initial endowment of $100,000 was then followed by another in the same amount to pay teachers’ salaries along with the anticipated long-range cost of operation and upkeep necessary to continue for centuries to come its celebrated mission of free education. Hardly one century had passed when in the early 1970’s the building was in great disrepair and slated for demolition. It was saved only through the concerted efforts of its current Director Ms. Susan Brustmann and other interested parties. This great landmark is now a cultural and education center, five stories tall, and continues its original charter.
So why isn’t this giant of a man more well known, and his significant record of philanthropy and achievement more widely recognized?
Unlike his contemporary and fellow German-New Yorker, William Steinway who also founded a company town in Queens called Astoria; Poppenhusen manufactured combs while Steinway specialized in pianos. Combs are less romantic and offer little in the way of cachet. Additionally when Conrad got involved in operating railroads on Long Island, he was decidedly out of his depth. It is a long and very involved story, but history tells us he had spent the early part of the 1870’s in Europe leaving the running of the railroads to his sons. As a result he was out of touch with what was taking place, and while the sons were being advised by numerous of Conrad’s friends and in touch with their father via telegraph, by November 1877 Conrad was back in New York and having to apply for bankruptcy. The vast fortune he had acquired over the preceding quarter century was, to all intents and purposes, gone.
Conrad Poppenhusen, the Benefactor of College Point, town founder and philanthropist extraordinaire, died there on December 23, 1883. His remains were taken to nearby Flushing Cemetery, put into a vault and stored until the following March 7th when those remains were removed from the cemetery and sent via ship to Germany for burial. Ohlsdorf Cemetery, the largest cemetery park in Hamburg and the world, is their resting place today. Caroline, who did not remarry, died in 1903 and is buried alongside her husband.
In the fall of the year following his death a memorial was erected in a triangular park located near to his mansion. The monument is of granite, 12 feet high, surmounted by a bronze bust of the deceased. The pedestal bears the following inscription.
To the Memory of the Benefactor of College Point,
November 1, 1884
The residents erected the monument at a cost of $2,000. It is there
today for all to see.
(This essay by James E. Haas was published at first in Plasticarian / Journal of the Plastics Historical Society, number 31, United Kingdom winter 2003.)
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