B.T. Babbitt’s Soap Factory and a New Shoreline for Lower Manhattan

The B.T. Babbitt company’s soap and saleratus (baking soda) factory in Lower Manhattan, 1876 (note Trinity Church in the background)

My previous post about B.T. Babbitt and his soap company provides a brief sketch of his life and soap company. As I looked closer at his company it turned out that the location of his factory is also an interesting story (to me anyway).

Babbitt’s New York City soap and saleratus (baking soda) factory was near the southern tip of Manhattan, occupying about 20,000 sq. ft. (1,848 sq. m) of land on 1/2 of the block bordered by West St, Rector St, Washington St, and Morris St (41-44 & 46-51 West St, and 64-82A Washington St). The first map below shows that it was just a few blocks from Battery Park (“The Bronx is up, and the Battery’s down”, as the “New York, New York” song in “On The Town” goes). The second and third maps show other views of the area.

Its riverfront location was probably not by accident, as the facility produced more than 100,000 pounds (~45,000 kg) of soap, and a large amount of baking soda each day. This required a lot of raw materials from outside of New York City, and therefore, having the docks close by was an advantage.

Today the Babbitt factory site is covered by residential buildings and a large parking garage.

Detail of map of Lower Manhattan in 1913 from NYPL, with Babbitt Soap Works highlighted
Detail of map of Lower Manhattan from 1913, with Babbitt Soap Works between West and Washington highlighted
1897 map of Lower Manhattan with Babbitt Soap Works marked
Map of the west side of Lower Manhattan in 1897, with the location of the Babbitt Soap Works indicated
Babbitt's soap works on modified map of Manhattan bounded by Rector, Broadway, Battery, West, in Insurance Maps of NY, Sanborn Map Co, from NYPL
The location of Babbitt’s soap works between West St and Washington St, 1905

Lower Manhattan’s Changing Shoreline

Some readers might notice something weird about the first (1913) and second (1897) maps above: West Street isn’t on the river at the lower tip of Manhattan!

West Street was a riverfront street near Battery Park until the 1970s, when New York City extended a portion of Manhattan into the Hudson River to create Battery Park City and more1, as seen in the next map. The soap works location is now a few blocks from the river.

Several shifts in the economic landscape (or, perhaps the seascape) made the replacement of docks with residences and offices a logical choice: the container revolution in international shipping replaced New Yorks many small docks with mega-ports (i.e., the Port of New York & New Jersey); new train lines replaced ferries; the growth of the financial industry in lower Manhattan pushed out manufacturing.

Babbitt's factory on Lower Manhattan map by PerryPlanet. Original from Wikimedia Commons
Location of Babbitt’s soap works on a relatively recent map of lower Manhattan

The Sale of the Babbitt Factory Site

Naturally, I wondered when the Babbitt Soap Factory was demolished. A bit of searching at the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America site led me to an article about the purchase of the building in 1911 that notes it “will probably be demolished soon.” The 20,000 sq. ft. (1,848 sq. m) parcel (and decrepit building) was sold for about $38 million in today’s dollars, or about $2,000 per square foot. What would a 20,000 sq. ft. lot in lower Manhattan go for these days?

Babbitt’s Old Soap Factory Sold
The old Babbitt soap factory, in lower Washington street, the tall square chimney of which has served as a landmark for river men for some years, will probably be demolished soon and an office structure erected on the site as the result of a transaction yesterday disposing of the property , which involves about $1,500,000 (ed. note: this would be about $38 million in 2017 dollars2).

The property…is at No. 76 to 80 Washington street, extending through the block to West street, where it takes in Nos. 46, 47, 48, 49, and 50.

…a parcel with an area of 20,023 square feet

New York Tribune, Feb 4, 1911

Unfortunately, I was unable to find an article about the actual demolition of the site. Perhaps it was not newsworthy — Manhattan is always changing, and demolitions happened regularly.

Image Credits

Notes

  1. Part of the fill used to create new land was from the construction of the World Trade Center complex.
  2. Inflation calculations performed in this post use Robert Sahr’s inflation data (Oregon State University). To adjust dollars from 1911 to 2017 values, divide the 1911 amount by by 0.039.

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