The building says “Whalebone” because 161 Duane used to be the site of a “whalebone cutter”: George Messman, who was the last whalebone cutter in the U.S.A., according to a June 6 1920 article (PDF) in the New York Times. Messman worked there for 56 years, with two predecessors (A.J. Vetter and, before him, William Forster) predating him in the same building.
“The quaint brick building at 161 Duane Street, which has housed the whalebone-cutting business with never a break since the year 1860, was originally built as a private house. Then it was used as a schoolhouse, and later descended to a trade level, being used for a coffee mill. [...] In 1860 the building was taken over for the then flourishing whalebone business, which, with successive years, has been pushed up, until recently it has occupied only the two upper stories, reached by almost perpendicular old stairs. Over the street entrance to the building hangs a plain sign with the word ‘Whalebone’ in large white letters on a black ground. This sign is old, but new in comparison with the one that is nailed up over it, which displayed the name of A.J. Vetter until time obliterated it and the old rough board above that which at one time told the world that William Forster was in the whalebone business.”
There’s more in the article about whalebone, which was used in hoop skirts, ladies’ undergarments (hence “boning” in corsets), umbrellas, felt hats (for structure), bullet probes (during wartime), and whips. Metal took its place for many uses; whips became unnecessary in the age of the automobile.
Downtown Express, meanwhile, ran an article in 2007 about architect Joseph Pell Lombardi’s development of 161 Duane, combining it with 159 Duane—the Bouley flagship’s current home—to form the Mohawk Atelier. (The Mohawk Electric Company was at 159 Duane.) “Lombardi was always determined to bring back the Whalebone sign, which had lingered on the building’s brickwork underneath the white paint.” The article also notes that “Under the whalebone shop in the 1890s, the building housed Ye Olde Tavern”—a far cry, no doubt, from Bouley’s gleaming kitchen.
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