Monday, April 6, 2015

Hagelstein Bros., Photographers

One of the “missions’ when I started this eclectic blog many years ago was to capture some family history.  Much of that history involves a photography business that had been in our family for three generations, one I walked away from in favor of striking out on my own, becoming a publisher instead.  I essentially wrote the early history of the firm in this entry, so no sense repeating it here.  

However, a reader recently brought my attention to a Hagelstein Bros. catalog that I never knew existed which was being sold by an antiquarian firm.  It was issued around 1931, a catalog consisting of about 40 inset photographs, screw bound in leather, “Hagelstein Bros” die stamped on the front cover.  This was around the time that the firm had completed its metamorphosis from a portrait studio to a commercial one.  I surmise this catalog of sample photographs was put together by my grandfather, Harry P. Hagelstein, to show the firm’s capabilities.

Grandfather, Father, Me
I’ve said little about my paternal grandfather simply because I hardly knew him. He died when I had just turned eleven.  Not surprisingly, what I vividly remember was his funeral, an open casket in the living room of his home which later became my Uncle Phil’s home.  I remember the surreal experience seeing him in that particular place. I would have been better off viewing him in a funeral home as nightmares followed for weeks.  This is his brief obituary from the New York Times’ archives:

Harry P. Hagelstein on Jan. 3, 1953 beloved husband of the late Mathilda Hagelstein, father of Marion Hoffman, Ruth Baumann, Lillian Schaefer, Philip and Robert Hagelstein, brother of Kate McClelland; also survived by eight grandchildren.  Services Monday, Jan 5 at 8.15 PM at his residence, 86-47 109th St. Richmond Hill.  Interment Tuesday 10 AM, The Evergreen Cemetery

He successfully steered the firm into its next phase, taking it over from my great grandfather and then my father and his brother continued to run the business after my grandfather’s death.

I occasionally receive requests for more information regarding Hagelstein Brothers, which was established right after the Civil War and lasted until the 1980’s, a remarkable feat for a photography business.  I have no regrets walking away from the firm.  My father, who was an excellent photographer, and my Uncle Phil, who dealt with the customers and the business end, failed to reinvent the firm.  When more and more advertising was migrating to magazines and television, they kept to their mission of producing duplicate prints for salesmen’s samples, beautiful color ones – they had extensive printing facilities in their studio at 100 5th Avenue, working closely with Kodak in perfecting color work.  They would have been better off dropping the printing part of the business and expanding their photographic work, but they did not and so their business slowly migrated elsewhere.  Nonetheless, during its heyday, the business flourished, even surviving the Great Depression relatively.

Naturally, I bought that unique catalog. I’ve tried to reproduce the photographs here, although it’s difficult to do justice to them in this particular space.  As period pieces they are fascinating.  Many of the photos are of furniture, which was their area of specialization.  However, in the 1920’s and 1930’s they obviously covered much more, such as photographs for the Siegel mannequin catalogs – exhibited at Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, and Best & Co.  There are scenes from apartments and a number of department stores – a restaurant, rug displays, and jewelry displays.  There are park views and street scenes, including two time-exposures of Times Square.  One shot depicts office workers in a record keeping department.  Lobbies of a hotel and a bank are pictured along with an A. Schulte tobacco store, as well as documentation for insurance after a fire.  The firm was obviously trying to showcase its versatility. 

I conclude the photographs with a brochure my father created right after he returned from WW II, taking the firm to its next step and finally into color photography.  When I worked for him during the summers of my high school and college years, I started off as a delivery boy, usually running back and forth between his studio and the furniture exchange. Earning my wings in that area, I became a photographer’s assistant for the next few summers which meant working under hot lights getting the scene perfectly set up, tipping lampshades so they were perfectly straight while the photographer watched behind the lens.  Finally I “graduated” to processing color negatives, working in a lab, half the time in the dark, photographic chemicals filling the air (and my lungs). 

My father was probably disappointed I did not carry the business forward, but never in his wildest imagination (or my grandfather’s) would he think this old, 1931 catalog would be “published” in a media such as this. 


This is a post script, an email I received from a reader that sheds more light on the history of the company and the demeanor of my father and uncle.  Joan worked for the company towards its twilight years and I am grateful for her insight.  I also append my response.

Hi Bob,
I have been reading with great interest your blog about your dad and uncle.  You see, my father, Howard Math and grandfather, Jesse Math, had a business Tri State Industries that used the services of Hagelstein Brothers.  In fact, in the late 60's and early 70's I worked in the office of the photography studio.   I vividly remember your handsome dad, Bob and the bachelor, Phil.  Both such lovely, lovely men.  I answered phones and typed captions for the photographs.  I specifically remember a rather grouchy gentleman that worked there, I think as a guy who set up the displays to be photographed.   I remember I spelled Caribbean incorrectly, and he was quite angry with me.

At lunchtime, I remember crossing busy 5th Ave and eating at that terrific, busy coffee shop across the street.  The Squire?  Not sure of the name...

I was a teenager at the time I worked for your family.  They invited me back to work every summer during school break and even the first summer I was married.  Soon after, I lost contact.

I remember you lived in Richmond Hill, Queens.  Your dad described it as the area at the end of Queens Blvd.  Is that right?  And, I do remember wishing your dad would stop smoking.

Anyway, I have very fond memories of those days.  Your dad and uncle always treated me with great respect and warmth.

I wish you continued special memories of two very special men!

Best regards,
Joan Math Wexelbaum

Dear Joan,

How thoughtful of you to take the time to write to me with your memories of working for Hagelstein Brothers.  You are not the first reader of my blog to do so – my Dad and my Uncle obviously touched many lives.  But yours is the first from a former employee.  As you know from my blog, I worked there myself during the summers in high school and college.  By the time you were there during the summers I was gone, but occasionally I would drop by my Dad’s office – a few steps up from reception -- for lunch with him and my Uncle as I worked at a publishing firm ironically only a few blocks up 5th Avenue so it is possible we met.  And indeed I believe the coffee shop was The Squire.  You have a very good memory.  Very juicy hamburgers as I recall.

You obviously took the place of the very loyal “Miss Marks” who had been with the firm for decades.  After she left, they were hiring fill-ins.  It was about that time that the business was beginning to go downhill and I don’t think they wanted any permanent help in the office, my Uncle filling in when there was no one to replace Miss Marks on a temporary basis.  I think I remember the curmudgeon you are thinking about and I seem to remember he had an unusual first name, Grosvenor?  He was abrupt with everyone, including me.  Strange about the things we remember – yours mostly of a positive working experience, disrupted by an incident which you keenly remember, not spelling “Caribbean” correctly.  Don’t worry, I failed the “spelling test” given by Arco Press when I was seeking a publishing job out of college.  I was (and still am) slightly dyslexic.  Their loss, I figure, as I had a very successful career in publishing and never regretted not joining my father’s firm other than I felt for my Dad and Uncle as the business began to fail and they became too old to work through the challenges.

Yes, my father’s smoking bothered me too.  He was hell bent on self destruction though as he had a troubled marriage.  I write about some of it in my blog but not the deep sordid details.  He died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 68 and his militant smoking was probably at least partly the cause.  My poor Uncle died of Alzheimer’s in his 80’s, a particularly unfitting end to a life of a man who was so well read and educated, who gave up other opportunities to remain true to the family, even sacrificing some of his salary for my father to “keep the peace” (unsuccessfully) between my father and my mother.

And, yes, Richmond Hill, was my “home town” and that of my father and grandfather, south of Queens Blvd.  I’ve been meaning to write more about my Uncle, who was indeed a bachelor, and he was gay, but those things were never discussed in those days.  I sort of knew, but did not change my affection for him.  In many ways I considered him my “intellectual father,” but because of conflicts with my mother could never really get close to him.  My one regret was not interviewing him in depth as he was the family historian.  I carry the torch in darkness.

If Tri State was in the furniture business, no doubt I processed prints and negatives of their finished goods during my summers there.

I’m so glad that you wrote.

Many thanks, Bob Hagelstein