Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Copper and Brass: Buffalo’s other Metallurgical Industries

Matthew Shoen

Buffalo is one of many Rust Belt cities that lived and died by the steel industry. Companies like Lackawanna Steel employed thousands of Buffalonians, driving the city’s success throughout the twentieth century. However, in the shadows of giants like Lackawanna Steel that employed tens of thousands, Buffalo also had a vibrant copper and brass industry, which, in 1910, employed over 1,800 people. The nature of copper and brass manufacturing is the focus of this latest post.

A chunk of copper ore. Image taken from Wikipedia.

Copper and brass are two metals that have been with human beings since our emergence from the Stone Age. In fact, the widespread understanding of how to smelt copper is one of the key points of delineation between the Stone Age and Bronze Age. 

Copper is a naturally occurring metal, distinctive in appearance for its red color and distinctive in use for its malleability. Copper can be pounded flat, shaped, and sharpened, allowing for the creation of edged tools with greater durability than flint and the early stone hand axes humans had been utilizing. Around 4,200 B.C.E. Middle Eastern peoples discovered that by placing copper ore in clay kilns they could heat the metal until it liquefied, removing impurities from the copper and leaving behind a stronger, more easily shaped product.

Brass, an alloy of copper and zinc was a discover of the smelting process as both copper and zinc are frequently discovered in a natural bond with each other. Starting with this discover, copper and brass would remain critical metals in the evolution of human existence. Both metals would become important in ancient decorative arts and early coinage. Starting in the sixteenth century, brass would become the premiere metal for cannon and rifle barrels, while copper would be used for plating on the bottom of ocean vessels to keep their hulls from rotting and to prevent barnacles from forming colonies. Both metals became important for practical household use, with much of the world's copper going to kettles, pots, and eating utensils.

The Industrial Revolution created a new demand for copper and brass. The malleability of both metals made them perfect for creating pipes, valves, joints, and other pieces of equipment necessary to new industrial processes.[1] In Buffalo, the copper and brass industry contributed to the city’s industrial growth in two separate facilities, the Buffalo Smelting Works, and the Aldrich and Ray Manufacturing Company Building.

Located on Austin Street in Black Rock, the Buffalo Smelting Works was a large copper ore foundry operated by the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company from 1891 to 1914. The smelting works was used by the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company to convert its raw ore, mined from copper mines in Michigan, into pure copper. The smelting works also extracted silver from the ore, returning even more mineral value to its parent company following each successful smelting. Copper extracted from the ore shipped to Buffalo was returned by steamer to Michigan where it was likely rolled and shipped out for sale across the country to copper manufacturers.  

One copper manufacturer that likely bought rolled copper from Calumet & Hecla was the Aldrich and Ray Manufacturing Company whose manufacturing space was located on Niagara Street. Founded in 1879 by Schuyler Aldrich, the company was the largest brass and copper manufacturer in New York State by 1898, consuming over 800 tons of copper each year to produce goods ranging from copper kettles and pots, to soda fountains, and fixtures for hotels and restaurants. The company's factory stands to this day and is a four story brick building with numerous windows along the front facade and sides that allowed light to enter the workspaces. 

The Aldrich and Ray Manufacturing Company Building.

It is interesting to contrast the size and scope of operations in the Aldrich and Ray Manufacturing Company to the city’s steel giants. Despite the high volume of copper consumed by Aldrich and Ray, the company had only forty employees.[2] Further, Aldrich and Ray operated entirely out of their one building on Niagara Street. Compare that to Buffalo’s steel companies whose plants covered hundreds of acres and featured multiple buildings working together to refine and shape steel. Thousands of men were employed at each facility, allowing steel to dominate Buffalo's marketplace.

The size discrepancy shows interesting differences in the business model of big steel vs. copper and brass manufacturers. Steel was utilized for construction projects and infrastructure building, meaning its was produced in massive quantities. Further, steel is much more difficult to create when compared to copper and brass. The refining process for steel wasn't made economical until the late nineteenth century. Compare that to copper, which people had been refining since 4,200 B.C.E.

While steel was used for large scale building projects, copper and brass have always been marked by their flexibility and adaptable uses. The metals are easily molded and altered and this ability partially explains why so many copper and brass manufacturers existed in Buffalo and the rest of the country, rather than large conglomerates that marked the steel industry. Each manufacturer was capable of shifting production to create a wide range of goods, molded to the specifications of the individual client. This flexibility allowed many small copper and brass manufacturers to flourish, but never to the level of the nineteenth century steel magnates who monopolized steel production in the late nineteenth century. 

Copper and brass have been with us since the Bronze Age, shaping our world as we shape these metals into the tools we needed. In Buffalo, copper and brass became major products for the city, though they were effectively overshadowed by steel production. Nonetheless, copper and brass played an important role in the development of Buffalo and the growth of its metallurgical industry.

Example of a julep strainer made by the Aldrich and Ray Manufacturing Company.
Image taken from Etsy.com.

[1] Brass gained additional significance for its inability to create sparks.
[2] “Good Times,” The Buffalo Courier, November 4, 1894, 5.

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