Sunday, April 2, 2017

Origins of Blair & Baldwin

Blair & Baldwin was founded in 1892 in the Brighton District's Abattoir Grounds, several miles west of Boston proper. It was a malodorous locale to open up shop, but low rent and easy access to animal hides for drum heads would have made this a serviceable location in the beginning.

In 1894 the young company relocated to 379 Albany Street and claimed to be the largest drum manufacturer in New England. Their boast may or may not have been merely advertising bluster, but it is true that there were very few other musical instrument makers specializing only in drums at that time.

By 1897 Blair & Baldwin had relocated to 169 Dudley Street where it would remain until 1902, the last year the company appears in directory listings. Around 1903, William J. Blair sold the business to Frank Edward Dodge who was starting his own drum manufacturing operation which would soon become known as the F. E. Dodge Company.

Blair & Baldwin Drums

William J. Blair appears to have been the driving force behind Blair & Baldwin from the very beginning. In an 1894 write up about the company, Baldwin is not even mentioned. In addition to the picture seen above, the following information comes from Boston & Bostonians (New York: American Publishing and Engraving Company, 1894):

"This is one of the most responsible firms in the country in this line and well and favorably known. Mr. W. J. Blair is a native of New York State and a practical drum maker of thorough experience, and an expert in his line. He turns out a very superior class of work, and sustains the reputation he enjoys. His productions are noted for excellence, being no surpassed in a single feature of merit by any instrument of the kind on the market, and are in growing demand throughout the United States and Canada. He manufactures drums of every description, in all sizes and style for military bands, orchestras, etc., and his is the largest house in the business in New England. He has been established since 1892, and was formerly located in Brighton District, removing to the present address [379 Albany Street] in 1894. His factory here is spacious and commodious and is fully equipped with steam power and machinery. His facilities are first-class, and a number of skilled hands are employed by him. A large and varied assortment is always carried in stock and every article offered for sale by this reliable house is warranted as to make and material. Drums are made to order also, on short notice, and satisfaction is assured. Repairing is promptly and neatly done, at very reasonable rates, and all work is guaranteed to be strictly first-class. This house can supply the trade on the most advantageous terms. Bottom Prices are quoted and all orders receive prompt and personal attention."

William J. Blair was born on April 19, 1845 in upstate New York. The 1850, 1855, and 1860 Censuses place the Blair family in Syracuse where William's father Brown W. Blair was a shoemaker. Brown's wife Catherine, sometimes listed as Kate or Katie, was from Ireland and the couple had four children together of which William was the eldest.

A teenage William J. Blair was working in Syracuse as a blacksmith when in January of 1864 he joined Company H of New York's 16th Heavy Artillery Regiment as a musician. His military service was brief as the Company was discharged at Washington, DC in August of 1865.

Not long after the Civil War, Blair returned to Syracuse and in 1870 was living with his mother and two younger brothers, his father now deceased. According to the census from that year, William Blair is a 25 year old musician, though the 1870 and 1872 Syracuse City Directories list him as an 'agent' or 'clerk' respectively.

By 1878 William J. Blair had found his way to St. Louis where he worked as a musician at the Theatre Comique. A fellow musician there was a New Hampshire native named James G. Baldwin. The 1880 census lists the two men at the same address placing William J. Blair and James G. Baldwin together more than a thousand miles away from Boston and more than ten years before they would found a drum making business in their names. The Theatre Comique was destroyed by fire in December 9th of 1880, an event which likely put both men out of work and may well have spurred their respective moves to Boston.

Musician William J. Blair first appears in the Boston Directory in 1881 at 6 Staniford Street, the same year that musician James G. Baldwin is listed at 177 Shawmut Avenue. The two men would reside at several different home addresses over the next ten years before going into business together in 1892. Both men are listed at Blair & Baldwin, Abbatoir Grounds in 1892 and 1893 and again with Blair & Baldwin in 1894 at 379 Albany Street.

The company may have sputtered briefly in 1895 as there is no mention of Blair & Baldwin in the Boston Directory from that year though Blair is still listed and resides at the same home address. Curiously, Baldwin's occupation is now "druggist" and he has a new work address. Blair appears again in 1896 with Blair & Baldwin but James G. Baldwin's shift away from the company was a permanent one. In fact, Baldwin seems to have left behind his musical career entirely with directories showing him as a druggist again in 1896 and then as an "apothecary" from 1897 through 1903. Late in his life Baldwin would return to his native New Hampshire where he passed away in 1912 at the age of 59.

After Baldwin's exit from the company around 1894, Blair carried on until at least 1902. Around this time a young Frank E. Dodge was making entries into the drum making business. The F. E. Dodge Company was legally incorporated in December of 1903 and had likely struck a deal with Blair by this time. In his later years, Blair continued to work for Dodge who handed off his company to Nokes & Nicolai in 1912. Blair reportedly stayed on board with Nokes & Nicolai until his death in 1916.

W. Lee Vinson is a classical percussionist, music educator, and snare drum historian. He is the author of, a website devoted to the late 19th and early 20th century drum makers of Boston, Massachusetts.