|Beckers Aniline & Chemical Works
East 83rd Street and Ditmas Avenue, Brooklyn New York. Source: The Washington Post, July 5, 1916
The Beckers Aniline & Chemical Works was established in 1912 by Dr. William Gerard Beckers. He was a German chemist who had emigrated to the U.S. to work for Bayer as a
color technician. The original dye plant was located at 107-113 Underhill Avenue, Brooklyn, in the densely populated Flatbush neighborhood. The site consisted of a two-story stone
building for the office and laboratory and several small wooden frame buildings making the precious dyes needed by the textile industry. Production began with only five to six men,
but the plant eventually employed twenty-six.
At the onset of World War I, the company had 15 dyes in the line, made from imported intermediates. The annual output was only about 180 tons. As this inventory dwindled,
production declined until domestic intermediates came on the market. The company's early production consisted of simple azo dyes and alizarin substitutes such as gallocyanine,
a mordant blue dye known as alizarin navy blue:
Beckers Aniline was an early producer of dimethylaniline and its derivative dyes methylene blue and methyl violet. The company had achieved a 5 percent share of the U.S. dyes
market by 1914. The major products in the line at this time were:
On November 13, 1914, the plant was conducting the last of a series of trial batches for a new dye. A tremendous explosion occurred in the dimethylaniline autoclave which was
located in the second floor laboratory. The explosion and subsequent fire wrecked the plant and killed two employees: Walter Haaren, assistant chemist and Adolph Wolters,
chemist. Dr. Beckers himself was badly injured along with many other employees. Neighborhood buildings were rocked on their foundations and their windows were shattered. A
horse and wagon passing on Underhill Avenue were toppled over, falling on an automobile.
Dr. Beckers had been working around the clock on dye experiments, guided by data he obtained on a recent trip to Germany. The site had already experienced two explosions and
small fires. This explosion occurred just minutes after Dr. Beckers left the laboratory. He was in the conference room meeting with salesmen. With his left ear severely lacerated,
he staggered across the street to the office of Dr. J.B. Neary, who treated the wounds.
A strong-willed man, Dr. Beckers reincorporated the company a few months later, increasing the capitalization to $1.0 million. Financial backers were Eugene Meyer, Jr. and Co. and
Renskorf, Lyon and Co. He purchased a large 15 acre site in the less populated Canarsie meadows section of Brooklyn, at the intersection of East 83rd Street and Ditmas Avenue.
The property was bordered by the Manhattan Beach Division tracks of the Long Island Railroad. This land was part of the town of Flatlands and was known as the Rugby section in
the early 1900's.
The architect Benjamin Forrester designed the new plant. In 1915, twelve large corrugated iron buildings were erected, along with a brick powerhouse where coal was burned in
boilers to make steam, a two-story red brick building for the main office, two concrete manufacturing buildings, and a three-story concrete warehouse, 60 feet by 90 feet.
Construction continued in 1916 with six one-story brick manufacturing buildings, with ceilings 30-50 feet high, a three-story brick building, 40 feet by 175 feet, for the chemical and
dye testing laboratories, and a manufacturing building 80 feet by 165 feet, which had a ceiling height of 65 feet. A four-story brick warehouse, 80 feet by 190 feet, was added in
The business grew rapidly due to the shortage of dyes during World War I. The site was continuously expanded and eventually had 40 buildings, employing up to 1,200. The wage
payroll was over $1.0 million in 1917. The company had its own construction crew for erecting buildings and installing production equipment and machinery. A cafeteria, hospital
and fire department were located on the site. There was an industrial insurance organization, with 250 men enrolled, and a profit sharing plan.
Sales revenue was several million dollars in 1917. The product range consisted of about 50 dyes, including the alizarin substitute colors, acid and chrome azo dyes, 14
intermediates such as ethylaniline, ethylbenzylaniline, ethylbenzylanilinesulfonic acid and several acid triphenylmethane dyes derived from it.
The company was the sole supplier in the U.S. of the Chrome Blue B dye, used for sailors' uniforms. The demand exceeded manufacturing capacity, even at the new, larger plant.
Sidney R. David, who at the time was sales manager of the New England branch office, said later in his career:
"To step up production we filled the barrels immediately the color was made-sometimes the paste had not sufficiently cooled and later blew the top off the barrel, but the mills
wanted the color so urgently that shipment was made and the product tested later in order to advise the mill what strength they were receiving"
The new plant came under scrutiny in August 1916 by the Fire Department Bureau of Combustibles. Some Brooklyn citizens wanted to know if the plant was making and storing
explosives. They engaged a lawyer, Franklin Taylor, to make the inquiry but nothing unusual was found.
A loaded shrapnel shell, weighing thirty pounds, was found buried in the plant's coal bunker in September 1916. The shell was primed with a fulminate of mercury percussion cap
and it could have exploded if struck by a shovel. There was no evidence of malicious intent since the police did not receive any complaint or threat to the company. Fire Chief
Joseph Hammitt said the unexploded shell likely landed on a coal barge as a result of the Black Tom munitions depot explosion in Jersey City on July 30, 1916 (see photo below).
Beckers Aniline entered sulfur dye production in early 1917 with the purchase of Standard Aniline Products in Wappingers Falls, New York, an important producer of sulfur black.
The purchase price was $2.5 million. The company became the second largest dye producer in the U.S. after the Schoellkopf Aniline and Chemical Works in Buffalo.
In May 1917, Beckers Aniline & Chemical Works, capitalized at $5,000,000, was consolidated with Schoellkopf Aniline & Chemical Works of Buffalo and Benzol Products Co. of
Marcus Hook, Pennsylvania to form the National Aniline & Chemical Company, Inc. The total capital invested was $18.9 million. Dr. Beckers was named vice president and director.
An explosion of dye dust in the laboratories in July 1917 severely burned four employees. Grisante (James) Barotti, a dyer, died the next day in Kings County Hospital from his
injuries. Barotti was 35 years old and had come to the U.S. from Italy sixteen years earlier. The company did not believe the explosion was the result of sabotage.
National Aniline & Chemical Company continued to operate the Brooklyn plant. Anthraquinone type dyes were introduced in early 1918. The plant was the first in the U.S. to
manufacture synthetic alizarin, from anthracene made in America. Also introduced were the acid alizarin blues, known as alizarin sapphires, which were fast blue shades for
After the war, the alizarin sapphire dyes were in high demand due to their resistance to fading. By 1919, National Aniline and Chemical Company had spent $845,000 in R & D and
manufacturing capacity to produce alizarin sapphire and carbanthrene blue, a vat dye, in its plants. An exhibit of these dyes, highlighting their fastness properties on fabrics, was
made at various department stores throughout the country (see ad below). The high quality helped convince textile mills that American made dyes were equal to the best dyes from
Plans were made in August 1918 to add a two-story, 40 by 85 foot addition. The plant experienced an explosion in November 1918 which injured two men and burned eight others
severely. A leak in a distillation unit which contained raw material for aniline dyes caused the blast and subsequent fire. Another fire in July 1919 resulted in $50,000 damage to the
plant. In October 1920, John Tollard, the night watchman, survived a volley of bullets from three armed robbers intent on stealing the $10,000 cash payroll. He returned fire, killing
one of the bandits and foiling the robbery.
Production was gradually transferred to the National Aniline & Chemical Company plant in Buffalo. In January 1920, in one of the largest real estate transactions recorded in
Brooklyn, the plant was sold for $700,000 to Hilwalkal Corporation. This was a real estate holding company whose name was derived from the syllables of the names of the
directors: Jacob Hilder; Leo and Max Wallerstein, and Edwin L. Kalish. National Aniline & Chemical leased the plant back to continue production operations until a decision was
made about closure.
By the end of 1920, employment had been reduced to several hundred men. In 1921 the National Aniline & Chemical Company was combined with four other companies to form the
Allied Chemical & Dye Corporation, with capitalization of $175,000,000. Dr. Beckers was a director until his death in 1948.
The Brooklyn plant was closed in March 1922 and the property remained idle for a few years. The Brooklyn Union Gas Company then purchased the site and remodeled several
buildings for their business. The former main office building of Beckers Aniline is still used today by KeySpan, the energy company that acquired Brooklyn Union Gas several years
Canarsie area historians report the Beckers plant provided many important jobs for residents but also presented safety and environmental issues. The workers would come home
at night with their hands, faces and clothing stained the colors of the rainbow. Neighbors recalled explosions in the small buildings that were heard all over Canarsie. The dye
effluent was carried by a sewer line which periodically overflowed onto the area now occupied by the South Shore High School. This line emptied into the Paerdegat Basin,
contributing pollution that eventually caused Jamaica Bay to be closed for swimming and oyster gathering after January 1, 1920. This eliminated the oyster business which had
supplied 300,000 bushels of oysters yearly. The company argued in court that 38 city sewers also contributed to the pollution of the bay. Several oystermen won lawsuits filed
against the company for damages totalling $25,000.
These problems were not unique to Beckers Aniline and reflected the rudimentary safety and environmental controls of the emerging chemical industry in the U.S. As smaller
companies were consolidated into large corporations, investments were made in air pollution control systems and wastewater treatment plants. The establishment of the
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the 1970's would lead to further improvements. The dye industry however would always be haunted by its impact on the environment,
eroding trust from the public.
1) Williams Haynes, American Chemical Industry, Vol. III, pp. 234-235 (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1945)
2) Williams Haynes, American Chemical Industry, Vol. VI, pp. 292-293 (New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1949)
3) “1 Killed, 26 Hurt in Chemist’s Test of Aniline Secret”, The New York Times, November 14, 1914
4) "Explosion Kills 1, Hurts 27", The Washington Post, November 14, 1914
5) "Shell Found Buried In Dye Works Coal", The New York Times, September 30, 1916
6) "The United States Dye Trade", The Gleaner (Kingston, Jamaica), April 20, 1917
7) "New Companies", Metallurgical and Chemical Engineering, Vol. 17, No. 12, December 15, 1917, p. 722
8) Louis J. Matos, "Dyes From the Manufacturers' Standpoint", Chemical and Metallurgical Engineering, Vol. 19, No. 65, September 25, 1919, p. 410
9) Thomas H. Norton, "A Census Of the Artificial Dyestuffs Used In the United States", Journal of Industrial and Engineering Chemistry, Vol. 8, No. 11, November 1916, p. 1046
10) "Brooklyn Dye Men In Whirlwind Work Build Great Trade", The Brooklyn Eagle, February 13, 1918
11) "11 Hurt By Explosion", The New York Times, November 9, 1918
12) "Notes of the Trade", American Dyestuff Reporter, Vol. 3, No. 22, November 25, 1918, p. 18
13) "Notes of the Trade", American Dyestuff Reporter, Vol. 5, No. 5, August 4, 1919, p. 18
14) Elene Foster, "The Color Situation" (New York: National Aniline & Chemical Company), 1919
15) "Beckers To Appeal Big Oyster Verdic", The Brooklyn Eagle, October 24, 1919
16) "National Aniline Co. Plant Is Taken Over By New Corporation", The Brooklyn Eagle, January 11, 1920
17) "Oystermen Recover $3,500", The Brooklyn Eagle, March 11, 1920
18) "Five Chemical Firms Plan Big Merger", The New York Times, September 4, 1920
19) "Bandit Shot, $10,000 Payroll Is Saved", The New York Times, October 5, 1920
20) John Denton, “Little Old Canarsie”, Canarsie Courier, August 14, 2003
21) John Denton, “Little Old Canarsie-Tool & Dye Factory Became "Crutch" Here After WW I", Canarsie Courier, October 23, 2003
22) Yolanda Pittman, "Tour-takers Get A Glimpse of Our Past", Canarsie Courier, September 18, 2003
23) S.R. David, "Thoughts: Idle and Otherwise", American Dyestuff Reporter, Vol. 35, No. 24, December 2, 1946, pp. 627-628
24) "Four Burned in Dye Works", New York Times, July 2, 1917
Black Tom Munitions Depot Explosion in Jersey City-July 30, 1916. Unexploded Shell Later Found at
Beckers Aniline & Chemical Works in Brooklyn. Photo: Liberty State Park. Click to Enlarge
|Ad in The Washington Post, September 23, 1918
Click to Enlarge
|Beckers Aniline & Chemical Works
Brooklyn, New York
|Dr. William G. Beckers
|Gallocyanine (C.I. Mordant Blue 10)
Alizarin Sapphire (C.I. Acid Blue 41)
|Alizarine Yellow FF
||Chrome Blue R Powder
||Chrome Blue B Powder
||Chrome Blue R Paste
||Chrome Blue B Paste
|Azo Rubine WB
|Fast Red A
|Acid Fast Blue SR
|Acid Fast Blue SB
|Acid Black 10B
|Diazo Black BHN
|Direct Blue WBB
|Direct Yellow WH
|Direct Sky Blue B
|These photos of former buildings of the Beckers Aniline & Chemical Works were taken on January 27, 2008. The left photo depicts a former dye manufacturing building
erected in 1916. The building was later remodelled. The top right photo shows the 4-story red brick building erected in 1917 as the dye firm’s warehouse. The architectural
details in the facade, the archway keystones, and elaborate brickwork make this an impressive building to this day. These buildings are currently being used by KeySpan
Energy. Click on photos to enlarge. Photos Courtesy of Frank H. Jump , copyright and used here with permission.
Copyright © 2005 by ColorantsHistory.Org. All Rights Reserved.
Employee ID Badge No. 109 ca. 1917
Left: Original building of Beckers Aniline & Chemical Works at 107 Underhill Ave., Brooklyn, NY. Right: Building as it appears today.