Conrad Poppenhusen - The Life of a German-American Industrial Pioneer

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Questions and Answers - An Interview with James E. Haas

Q. Conrad Poppenhusen is such an obscure figure in history so why write a book about him?

Well for starters he manufactured combs. Now today that’s not so hot, but in 1854 that was decidedly upper end, dare I say cutting edge technology. Before Poppenhusen and Charles Goodyear got together if you wanted a comb, it had to be made out of whalebone, as were many other products in everyday use.

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Q. Who was Charles Goodyear?

A. Well he didn’t invent the tire and he also did not live in Akron, but he is credited with discovering the process commonly called “Vulcanization” by which the consistency of rubber could be stabilized. Before vulcanization in the early 19th century, rubber was very inconsistent thus not a good substance for use in manufacturing. It melted in the summer heat and was very brittle in the cold of winter. Charles Slack wrote an excellent book titled Noble Obsession describing Goodyear’s life and how the discovery came about. Not everyone agrees that Goodyear actually invented the process, but whoever did, Poppenhusen acquired the rights to manufacture combs from it in the United States and made a fortune doing so. The nation was expanding; combs were “in.”

Q. And?

A. and as a result instead of pocketing the money he made he reinvested it in College Point, the little village in Queens, New York where he built his factory. In actuality, when I was writing the book, the town became almost like a character unto itself. Thanks to Poppenhusen, by the 1880’s it was way ahead of most other villages in terms of having utilities, gas, water, three fire departments, really good schools and best of all lots of work opportunities. If you were German, this was a destination town.

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Q. You’ve written about College Point before in “This Gunner at His Piece” College Point, New York & The Civil War.” Is Poppenhusen in that book?

A. Decidedly so. He was the town’s principal employer and a large percentage of the 226 men who served in the Civil War were numbered among his employees. There is a complete chapter in the biography that expands on Poppenhusen’s activities during these tumultuous times.

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Q. I still can’t reconcile his obscurity today with his accomplishments back then.

A. Well I can go right back to the business of combs and also the fact that he was a manufacturer. Inventors get remembered, but people who take the invention and run with it rarely are, at least that’s my take on the subject A contemporary of Poppenhusen, William Steinway, took part in many of the same philanthropic activities as did Poppenhusen, but he manufactured pianos. The name Steinway is still a force in the music world, but even William Steinway, a very interesting historical figure, is little remembered today. In a discussion of combs versus pianos and which is more fascinating, it’s no contest, but Steinway rose from his occasional failures. Poppenhusen didn’t.

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Q. Failures?

A. On various occasions I have characterized Poppenhusen as being a true survivor and not of the contemporary television variety. Throughout his story there are countless examples of his being faced with almost insurmountable challenges, deaths, fires, evil employers, and almost endless lawsuits. There’s even a shipwreck. Steadfast in the face of tragedy, he bested all of his challengers save one.

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Q. And that would be?

A. His involvement in railroads.

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Q. How so?

A. Too involved and too complicated for this space, but told in the book. His life would have had a different outcome had he stuck to manufacturing combs.

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Q. What kind of research did you do?

A. I relied heavily on contemporary newspaper reports of his comings and goings as he was mentioned often in the New York Times, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle and other papers of the day. He also wrote a short autobiography and I was granted access to a series of letters he wrote at two different periods in his life. The challenge in writing a biography of anyone who lived in the 19th century, especially someone like Poppenhusen, is that he didn’t put a lot of his thoughts on paper. As a result what is known about the man for the most part, is known through the prism of what was written about him. Luckily for me, because of his notoriety, he got fairly good coverage.

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Q. Anything stand out in the reportage as being unusual?

A. Yes, I was surprised at the attention paid to his German heritage especially in light of today’s discussions of profiling. The chapter on the newspaper reports is enlightening, maybe even educative for today’s reader.

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Q. Who will want to read your book?

A. When I began research, Conrad Poppenhusen was to me a bit of a one-dimensional character, a figure modeled in bronze atop a marble pedestal that stood in a local park. In the end, the man I discovered and wrote about, touched and was touched by numerous leaders of his time involved in fascinating movements, social and otherwise. Comb manufacturing was only a small, albeit important part of his story. The Industrial Revolution, the German Revolution of 1848, the Civil War, the Kindergarten Movement, the emergence of railroads and numerous other historical events were all a part of his life as were the men and women who played important roles.

Charles Slack put it quite nicely when he wrote: “The book is well-researched and richly detailed, and will add to the knowledge of anyone interested in the history of New York, the German-American experience, or industrial history.”

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©2006 James E. Haas & All Rights Reserved.
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