Over the past 30 years, the Hoboken Historical Museum has collected a dizzying array of donated, acquired, and salvaged artifacts, from documents, books, and photographs to storefront signs and costumes. Some of the items are as small as cocktail picks from the great transatlantic ocean liners; others are as huge as the 14-foot neon “Last Drop” from the Maxwell House sign.
Each object hints at a different facet of Hoboken’s colorful history. Since its founding in 1986, the museum has collected more than 100,000 items, all carefully catalogued and neatly stowed in the museum’s tiny collections storage space in the Shipyard complex.
The space is maxed out, so the museum recently launched a campaign to raise more than $100,000 in donations from the community to create a new Hoboken Museum Archives and Research Center. The goal is not only to accommodate the museum’s next 30 years of collecting, but to provide space for researchers and visitors to use these resources with the assistance of the Collections Manager.
In the meantime, you can browse the vast majority of the museum’s collections online, at hobokenmuseum.org/research/collections. Here is a sneak peek at some of the fun, functional, and funky items that help tell today’s generations about Hoboken’s storied past.
Evidence that Hoboken had a thriving party scene over a century ago is seen in this framed collection of 70 tickets from various dances, costume balls, and social events from Hoboken and Hudson County between 1914 and 1920. Collected by Joseph Bucino and donated to the museum by Anthony Bucino, these tickets document the range of entertainments for the price of a quarter, including live music – Hawaiian and Dixieland were popular – free or reduced admission for ladies, and prizes for the largest groups to appear at the door. Displayed in the museum’s 2012 exhibition, “I Belong: A History of Civic and Social Clubs in Hoboken.”
Standing out on Hoboken’s bustling First Street wasn’t easy, so Joseph Apicella’s & Sons Fish Market, 309 First St., hung a huge 6-by-6-foot, double-sided sign in the shape of a leaping swordfish, suspended above the wave-edged, store-wide business sign with the slogan, “Enjoy that fresh fish flavor.” Established in 1906, the business endured for nearly 100 years, supplying family kitchens as well as the cafeterias and dining halls of St. Mary’s hospital, local factories Maxwell House and Lipton Tea, and the Holland America steamship line. It was dismounted from the building in 2007, after the business closed in 2005.
Hooked on Hoboken
A longshoreman’s hook was more than a prop for the 1954 movie On the Waterfront. For tens of thousands of Hoboken men, it meant access to paying jobs during the first half of the 20th century. Donald “Red” Barrett, interviewed for the museum’s oral history chapbook, “The Hook,” worked on the Hoboken docks in the 1960s. “We had to buy our own hooks. Well, the big hook that I had—if you were on the waterfront with the guys [you needed it to move cargo]—I always kept it on my belt, [even] when I’d be driving the car.”
Good to the Last Drop
A surprising amount of the museum’s collection was salvaged just before it was hauled off to the rubbish heap. One of the largest items in the collections is the 14-by-5.5-foot neon Maxwell House Coffee Drop sign that once faced New York City from the General Foods factory at 11th and Hudson Street. A dismantling company worker saved it when the factory was demolished in 1993-94, and later donated it to the museum. All other parts of the sign were scrapped. The original sign, 182 feet long by 75 feet high, was designed by Arthur R. Blair, and erected in 1938 by the Claude Neon Lights Company. “Good to the Last Drop” was ranked sixth among the top 10 advertising slogans of the 20th century by Advertising Age.
Revenge on the Turtles
One of Hoboken’s earliest recorded social groups dates to 1796, when Hoboken founder Col. John Stevens and his buddy Alexander Hamilton cooked up an idea to exact revenge on the giant river turtles who had been stealing Stevens’s prize chickens. Turtle soup and “great tubs of punch” became the centerpieces of an annual gourmand feast for hundreds of Turtle Club members drawn from all over the region. The club lasted for well over a century, with medallions and medals identifying members, whose motto was the light-hearted “As we journey through life, let us live by the way.” This enameled pin, circa 1880-1900, is owned by former Museum Trustee Paul Neshamkin.
A Passport to Hoboken Free State
In 1928, a bon vivant from New York, Christopher Morley, was charmed by Hoboken’s theater scene and dubbed it the “Seacoast of Bohemia,” in a book and in several light-hearted articles in the New Yorker and other popular magazines. He and three partners took over the Empire Theater and renamed it the Rialto, putting on stage productions, light opera, stock theater, and more until about 1959. They created an elaborate pseudo-passport to the “Hoboken Free State” for New York Times critic Brooks Atkinson, with a cartoon-style map of Hoboken’s many theaters and other attractions.
Taking Stock of Public Transit
Stock certificates tell the story of Hoboken’s earliest public transit companies, the Hoboken Ferry Company and the Hudson & Manhattan Railroad Company, which eventually became the PATH system. Each is valued at $100 per share, and both are beautifully illustrated. The Ferry certificate sports a vignette of the ferryboat Bergen, while the “Hudson Tubes” are illustrated in cross-section.
Hoboken Ferry Company (1890-1900)
Hudson & Manhattan Railroad (1910, 1923)
In 1867, Hoboken residents Wilhelm Johann Diedrich Keuffel and Herman Esser founded the Keuffel & Esser Company to import and sell precision instruments, like this “Improved Transit” (1924) for the architectural, engineering, and drafting professions. Its first office was in Manhattan at 79 Nassau St. As demand grew, it began manufacturing its own products in Hoboken in 1875, opening a complex of factory and office buildings on either side of Adams Street at Third Street. K&E instruments helped build the Brooklyn Bridge and Panama Canal, as well as its bread-and-butter item, the slide rule.
“Heaven, Hell or Hoboken”
General John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, rallied the troops in France on the eve of the Meuse-Argonne Offensive by telling them that they would be in “Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken” by Christmas. Hoboken was the port that nearly all soldiers would pass through on their way home. The first convoy carrying U.S. troops to war left Hoboken on June 14, 1917. Approximately two million servicemen passed through Hoboken between the spring of 1917 and the fall of 1918.—07030