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The Business of Brooklyn: an Amazing History in 20 Artifacts

Thomas Mellins, an architectural historian and independent curator, had a tough assignment. The goal: to tell the sweeping history of more than a century of business in Brooklyn through about 130 items. “The topic of business in Brooklyn is vast–in fact, it was a little intimidatingly broad–so I selected images and objects that encapsulated large themes, such as the processes of industrialization and de-industrialization; the simultaneous presence of big business and mom-and-pop shops; and the ‘Did-you-know-that-was-made-in Brooklyn?’ phenomenon,” he told The Bridge.

The result, The Business of Brooklyn exhibition at the Brooklyn Historical Society, is indeed full of surprises, probably even to longtime Brooklynites. Examples: One of the first modern oil refineries was in Greenpoint. North Brooklyn was a regional brewing capital. Two major pharmaceutical companies, Pfizer and Squibb, got their start here (not to mention Ex-lax). Brooklyn sold the world pencils (Eberhard Faber), bubble gum (Bazooka) and artificial sweetener (Sweet’N Low). Indeed, Brooklyn’s current reputation for inventiveness has deep roots.

The show at the Brooklyn Historical Society will be on exhibit till year’s end (Photo by Denise Bosco)

The show, marking the 100th anniversary of the Brooklyn Chamber of Commerce, is a celebration of business innovation, but it also tells the story of struggle. “I thought it was important to acknowledge the historic existence of barriers to success and struggles to achieve economic justice,” said Mellins.

The exhibit will be on display till the end of the year. We offer a compact version, with commentary from the curator: